From rotaries to SUVs: here's the five best Mazdas ever made
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Last week, Mazda celebrated the production of their 50-millionth car; a milestone well worth kicking up a fuss over.
The Japanese marque was founded in 1920, and since then has been at the forefront of some of the world's biggest motoring revolutions. Though they've perhaps never quite knocked on the door of the Toyotas of the world in terms of sales figures, Mazda's a company that's always been giving enthusiast drivers a side-wink via a continual focus on driving satisfaction and fun behind the wheel.
It's something that we've always appreciated, and an element that ensures picking five 'best cars ever' from the manufacturer is sure to be a challenge. But, to celebrate a production milestone, it's the least we could do.
5. 1992 Autozam AZ-1
We've talked at length about Kei cars, but here's a brief refresher.
The kei concept was prompted by mood on the ground in post-war Japan. The idea was that a new set of regulations for cars produced to minuscule dimensions could help spur industry growth. And as Japan's industry boomed and places like Tokyo became incredibly dense and crowded, the kei car's purpose changed to encompass a need for families to occupy as little space as possible (in certain areas you can only buy a car if you've got room to store it, making the humble kei car quite handy).
For a long time, the motoring genre was seen as being lowest-common-denominator transport. But that changed through the '70s and '80s when hot hatches and small sports cars started to emerge as Japan's 'bubble era' started to show through in what was rolling onto showroom floors.
Arriving in 1992, the Autozam AZ-1 (Autozam being one of Mazda's spin-off brands) arguably represents the absolute peak of the genre. Coming up against the likes of the Suzuki Cappuccino and Honda Beat, the 'zam was a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive dream.
It came with the same engine as the Cappuccino; a sophisticated turbocharged 660cc three-cylinder engine with four valves per cylinder. Each corner of the pocket rocket had MacPherson struts and disc brakes ensuring pointed and proper go-kart handling. And these elements were complimented by gull-wing doors (a big ol' deal, even today) and mini-me-supercar styling cues galore.
The only catch? It wasn't really a Mazda ... most of the development was done by Suzuki, who released their own version of the AZ-1; the Cara. Mazda did release a MazdaSpeed version later on [pictured above] which had a limited-slip differential among its options list.
4. 1967 Mazda Cosmo
The beginning of the rotary legend; a car that simply couldn't not be on this list.
Produced across five years, the Cosmo was a beautiful, svelte two-door GT from a company known better at the time for their economy vehicles. The Cosmo wasn't the first rotary-powered car to be sold on this great planet (that crown goes to NSU's Spider), but it was the first rotary Mazda, and that's significant given that they were the only manufacturer to persevere and develop the technology to the heights we know today.
The first production Cosmos were powered by a 982cc, 110hp (82kW) 0810 two-rotor unit that featured plenty of interesting mechanical quirks (on top of .. .you know ... being a rotary engine).
And it sounded like nothing else on the road.
While the Cosmo's design spoke to affluence and the jet set, the rotary engine actually made the car great value in terms of costs on the run, given that the sub-one-litre engine meant it was in a lower tax bracket to plenty of other cars. But small capacity didn't come at the expense of pace; the Cosmo bending the 'there's no replacement for displacement' logic with its 185km/h top speed and confident handling chops.
It truly set the tone for Mazda's future rotary-powered vehicles.
3. 1989 Mazda MX-5 (NA)
Speaking of the 'there's no replacement for displacement' crowd, arguably no car angers them more than the Mazda MX-5.
Yes, you could argue that the MX-5 came off the back of Mazda simply observing the traditional British sports car, and copying the concept. But while the 'British sports car' is long dead, the MX-5 soldiers on as the best selling two-seat sports car of all-time.
And while the MX-5 continues to be one of the most well-rounded and chuckle-conjuring cars money can buy today, plenty of motoring purists will say that the best of the bunch was the very first one. The 'NA'.
It debuted at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, and by the end of the year they were selling like hot cakes across North America, Japan, and Europe.
Many of the ingredients could be considered humdrum in isolation. An inline 1.6-litre four-banger with 86kW to its name and a five-speed manual as standard. The standard Roadster didn't come with a fancy roof, just a typical folding canvas job. The interior was spartan, and the top speed was just over the 200km/h mark.
But, this is the crux that's always enveloped the MX-5 — it is not about numbers or statistics. It's about gooey stuff like feel and how all of the little convertible's ensemble interact with one another.
Many of the MX-5's moving parts were lightened specifically for the model, including the camshaft and flywheel, and they were mated to a tiny wheelbase with four wheels with independent suspension, placed close to the corners.
Mazda's engineers were even given specific order from upstairs to make the throws between each manual gearshift as close as possible. All of these things and more ensured that the MX-5 (badged a Miata in the US and an Eunos Roadster in Japan) would be one of the most unanimously loved cars ever made.
2. 1992 Mazda RX-7 (FD)
This, arguably, is the car that gave rotary power its greatest market penetration outside of Japan.
It came in a decade where seemingly every Japanese manufacturer had a buck in the performance-car ring. The RX-7 though had its own unique characteristic; the twin-turbo 13B rotary under the bonnet.
Many make the most noise about the FD's insane red-line and distinct sound, but consider too how rapid it could meet that red-line thanks to the sequential twin turbos — one that worked low in the rev range and another that chimed in higher in the rev range. It made for a perfect canvas for the aftermarket tuning scene; a flame fanned by the likes of The Fast and the Furious.
The 13B itself is a bit of a legend in its own right, having powered wankel Mazdas for more than three decades. The FD RX-7 was the 13B's victorious swansong performance; a victorious end for an engine that cultivated avid fans across multiple generations.
As well as a few haters, of course.
Sadly the RX-7, like many of those other greats from Japans sports-car peak, would only be with us temporarily from 1992 to 2002. It retired with the Spirit R [pictured above] — a tightened and refined motoring unicorn.
2006 Mazda 6 MPS
A sensible family sedan with true performance capabilities and all-wheel drive. Well sorted, and a heck of a bargain in today's second-hand market.
1971 Mazda RX-2
A dash of Americanesque styling, shrunken and then mixed with an ever improving rotary engine platform (though it was also offered with an inline four) made for a spectacular little car. Plenty of motorsport history to boast about, too.
1992 Mazda Familia GT-R
Speaking of motorsport, the Familia/323 GT-X and GT-R were a superb group of rally cars for the road built through the '80s and '90s alongside a global rallying campaign. The GT-R will hit a chord with the Gran Turismo generation.
Yes, a plain Jane SUV makes the list. But for good reason; the second-generation CX-5 represents one of the sharpest design and interior packages outright that you can buy today. And that's against the best from Europe.
It was more practical than its predecessor, but the RX-8 was always destined to live in the shadow of its RX-7 father. But it was still a stellar car. "This car is sensational," said Jeremy Clarkson in 2003. "Of all the cars that I've driven this year, I'm pretty sure this one is the best."
Pretty much every Mazda MX-5
It sort of goes without saying, doesn't it. Unlike most other performance-car lineages, the MX-5 line has no real weak phase. All are great, from the NB to the current ND.
1. 1991 Mazda 787B
Yes, a race car. Sorry.
But, what an incredible race car. It weighed 150kg less than the first-generation Mazda MX-5. The chassis was a combined kevlar and carbon composite monocoque. And under the rear hatch was a custom-built 'R26B' naturally aspirated four-rotor engine capable of generating 670kW of power and revving out to 9,000rpm.
And in full flight, it sounded like a Formula 1 car on some kind of class A drug.
Fronting up at Le Mans in the mid-'80s, Mazda was well and truly the David to the Goliaths at Sauber Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and Porsche.
And though that showed in the early years, Mazda's 767 and 767B often made it to the finish line reliably. It was only in 1991, the 787's second year, that success would come when Johnny Herbert made a historic pass for the race lead with three hours left to go in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For all the calls about the rotary engine's lack of reliability, it's deeply ironic that the engineers from Mazda's racing programme thought that the race-winning 787B was healthy enough to do a second 24-hour race straight away. No sweat.
Throughout Mazda's history, they've waded into motorsport. But often it's been under the pretense of being an underdog or a minnow. Winning at Le Mans with a unique package ended those feelings. Even if it was Mazda's (and Japan's) only ever Le Mans win.