“Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us,” Carl Sagan once said. If there ever was a car as awe-inspiring as the stars, it is the Eunos Cosmo. A forbidden fruit of formidable engineering to those outside of Japan, it’s now closer within reach as the ultimate Mazda grand tourer officially crosses the 25-year milestone into the realm of bona fide nostalgics this year.
The Cosmo nameplate has been Mazda royalty since the beginning. As a halo car, the Cosmo Sport proudly showcased both Mazda’s first production rotary vehicle as well as the first two-rotor rotary engine in the world — all at a price quadruple that of the populist Carol.
The second generation CD Cosmo was a luxurious and stylish GT, sold in the US as the RX-5. The next iteration, the HB, continued the prestigious GT theme with trademark 80s high-tech slick, sporting an angular wedge design and pop-up headlights. When equipped with the 12A turbo rotary engine, the HB Cosmo held the title as the fastest production vehicle in Japan for a time. At Yatabe Test Track in 1982, it surpassed the high speed endurance record previously set by the Toyota 2000GT.
By 1986, the HC platform had debuted to underpin Cosmo’s less sporting sister car, the Luce, with the new rotary 13B turbo on option. The Cosmo soldiered on, however, on the HB platform. Around this time, Acura was being launched in the US, and development of the Lexus and Infiniti brands were underway. Mazda was cooking up their own diversification scheme in the form of Eunos, ɛ̃fini, Amati (for the US), and Autozam, with the first three being specialty marques to be populated by the next generation of Mazda’s sports and premium cars.
Debuting at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, the fourth generation Cosmo continued the prestigious GT theme but went further upmarket with a modern design encompassing what is now a very 90s Japanese look. The hood was long, deck short, with low stance and a simple overall design theme.
To untrained eyes, it was a somewhat unremarkable car, but heritage details lay in plain view. The most obvious was the C-pillar and sloping backlight that paid homage to the original Cosmo Sport. The Eunos emblem was also a reimagining of the classic rotor-shaped badge. Such details aside, the new car’s design blended conservative elegance — consistent with JDM personal coupes of the period — and a dash of futuristic feel through subtle curves and smooth lines.
Step inside the JC Cosmo and the futuristic theme was much less subtle. Instead of traditional separate modules of dash, door panels, and backseat, its interior featured a lounge-like continuous ring surrounding the cabin. The backlit electroluminescent instrument panel stretched across the front, beneath which lay a thin strip of Italian-crafted wood trim curving into the door panels.
However, the pièce de résistance was housed in the center “T” console — the world’s first GPS navigation system integrated into a production car. What’s more, it came with a touchscreen display dubbed the “Car Communication System,” serving as the main control for not only the navi, but also the radio, climate control, optional cellular phone, and even a built-in television receiver — all back in 1990. These features might seem common, even passé today, but such opulent tech interior was the stuff of sci-fi a quarter century ago.
On models not equipped with CCS, the standard DIN-sized control panels lay under a flip-up cover that concealed all but the most essential radio controls. The steering wheel housed many buttons at fingertip, flanking a prominent rotor-shaped horn button.
A charming design relic of the period is the size of the stereo and climate controls in the center stack. Compared to those on new cars, the buttons are tiny and labeled with such helpful captions as “Face,” “Diversity System,” and “Full Logical Control.” Thoughtfully, Mazda included a small awning over the top of the pod to reduce glare. On Type-E models not equipped with the CCS, there’s even a padded flip cover for the panels, imparting a coach-built feel.
Now we get to the heart of the Eunos Cosmo, its engine. Unlike the previous two iterations, the JC was exclusively rotary-powered. The base unit was the two-rotor 13B-REW, subsequently fitted to the FD3S RX-7. The crowning piece was, of course, the three-rotor 20B-REW, the first and only production triple-rotor engine in automotive history.
The “W” in the -REW suffix signified sequential twin-turbochargers. Here marks another first for the Cosmo, a mass-production sequential turbo. Unlike parallel bi-turbo setups that boost, for instance, each bank of a V6, the sequential system spools up a small turbocharger at lower engine speed, with a second larger turbo joining in at higher rpm, ameliorating turbo lag and providing a smooth torque curve that propels the car forward like a rocket.
Per Japan’s infamous gentleman’s agreement among carmakers, however, the 20B-REW was rated at 280PS. In reality, it put out somewhere near or above 300PS. Power was routed to the rear wheels via a 4-speed automatic only, befitting the Cosmo’s GT nature.
At launch in April 1990, the Eunos Cosmo was offered in two trims. Type-E was the executive model featuring full leather interior, 15-inch mesh wheels, and the optional CCS. Type-S was the sports model with cloth seats, sportier 16-inch wheels, a limited-slip differential, and firmer suspension tuning. In fall 1991, the Type-SX was added as one of the limited edition models commemorating Mazda’s Le Mans victory. Painted in Black Forest Mica and wearing BBS wheels, it was a more luxurious 13B Type-S. Type-SX joined the regular lineup with both engine options in 1994, at which time CCS became available on the Type-S as well.
All cars rode on front double-wishbone, rear multi-link suspensions. At around 3500 lbs, the Cosmo was actually relatively light for a big luxury GT. When powered by the 20B and the speed limiter removed, it could comfortably cruise at above 150 mph.
With such performance, luxury, and cutting-edge technology, the JC Cosmo rose above its predecessor’s class and faced rivals such as the BMW 8-Series head on with a price tag to match. When it went on sale in March 1990, the Cosmo started at ¥3.3 million for the 13B Type-S, while the top-of-the-line 20B Type-E with CCS was listed at ¥5.3 million. Adjusted for inflation, this was over $60,000 at the upper end in today’s dollars, making Eunos Cosmo Mazda’s most expensive production passenger car yet. Incidentally, M2 —Mazda’s experimental research and customization arm — proposed a more upscale variant dubbed the 1011, but it was never produced.
As a high-end flagship, the Cosmo was not a volume seller. Between 1990 and 1995, just under 9,000 found homes, with close to half of them sold in the first year. Around 60 percent were the twin-rotor JC3S, making the triple-rotor JCES a bit less common. Sales were limited to the home market only, where its most direct competitor was the third-gen Toyota Soarer (Lexus SC), launched in 1991. Not coincidentally, the Soarer range was priced from just under ¥3.3 million to around ¥5.5 million (although a low-volume 4WS V8 model with an advanced active suspension listed at ¥7.45 million).
One of the only stateside examples of this technological marvel is located in Irvine, California, in the basement of Mazda North America’s R&D center. Finished in Passion Rose Mica, it is a Series 1 Type-S once used by Mazda in Japan as a development car. As such, it is in immaculate condition with less than 4,000 miles accumulated and factory plastic still covering the door sill.
Curiously, while the exterior is standard Series 1 Type-S, it has a Series 2 Type-SX interior. Specifically, the seats are clad in leather instead of cloth, with the front ones having grippy suede center sections. Other Series 2 details include three-point seat belts in the back and a center high-mounted brake light.
Approaching the car, one is struck by how low and sleek it is, especially compared to new cars today. Exterior cues to the three-rotor engine consist of a discreet fender badge on the passenger side only that reads “3 ROTOR RE” and quad exhaust tips (two-rotor models have dual exhaust).
Parked next to the 1967 Cosmo Sport also from Mazda’s collection, one beholds the results of over two decades of automotive evolution. Both are halo cars, built for the indulgence of those with a penchant for bold and advanced technology. The Cosmo Sport represents the heroic beginning of an era, the Eunos Cosmo, the ultimate development of the concept. Side-by-side, the spaceship-like Cosmo Sport is dwarfed by the modern marvel of 1990.
With a wheelbase of over 108 inches and a length of almost 190, Eunos Cosmo is a long car. Wide, too, nearly identical in dimension to the BMW 8-Series.
Turn the key, and the 20B whirls effortlessly to life. Its sound is more muted than most rotary Mazdas, with only the slightest hint of that iconic gravely idle, subdued to match the Cosmo’s luxury GT character.
One sits higher in this car than typical Mazda sports cars, but the front seats are well bolstered and extremely comfortable. Despite the car’s size, the stylish rear seats are really +2s. That said, the dimples you recline in are shallower than other +2 seats, making them eminently habitable (though Mazda’s PR rep who rode in the back may disagree, especially with tall passengers occupying the front).
The driving position is proper, with expansive visibility save for the thick C-pillar. The seat position places the driver far to the right. Coupled with the sweeping dash, it makes the car feel far wider than it is. The instrument panel strip looks surprisingly modern thanks to simple and elegant electroluminescent scripts.
Trademark Japanese attention to detail abounds throughout the car, with cleverly hidden storage bins, retractable rear headrests, subtle chrome rings surrounding the outside mirrors, and Eunos logos molded into the strut tower caps.
The retro “Cosmo” script emblem on the trunk lid even has a color-keyed backing matching the exterior paint. All of this endows the car with a feel of understated opulence. Far from crass or shouty, this is a sophisticated luxury GT.
On the road, the drivetrain hums with utmost smoothness. Power is easy to modulate in traffic, and the automatic climate control works amazingly well for being old enough to rent a car.
We took the Cosmo to Santiago Canyon outside of Irvine. Once the traffic cleared, we were able to open her up and let’s not mince words: the power of the 20B is absolutely spectacular. Acceleration is quick and effortless, enough to jam one into the seat in wide-eyed wonder, yet all done in a gentlemanly manner.
The high-pitched whine characteristic of rotary engines is notably absent, in its place just a confident hum surging around the well-insulated cabin. Open the throttle enough and the kick from the secondary turbo is certainly perceptible but by no means jolting. There is simply tremendous power in reserve at any engine speed your heart desires.
The ride and handling are in keeping with the Cosmo’s GT nature. Road bumps are soaked up and the steering is light but not completely isolating. There is feedback there, but it doesn’t pretend to be a hard-core sports car. However, the handling does feel tighter than that of the Lexus SC. Coupled with its creature comforts, the 20B’s prodigious power, and the civility of its rotary engine’s power delivery makes the Eunos Cosmo a wonderful long-distance GT and is easily the most refined rotary Mazda to date.
After carving the golden hills of SoCal, we cruised through the cosmopolitan streets of South Coast Metro, an area of high-rises near Irvine. The sophisticated Eunos Cosmo fit right in among such environs and proved pleasurable and relaxing to navigate through metropolitan traffic. At the end of the drive, we watched the car being put back home under Mazda’s R&D center with longing. What a graceful creature. As she turned past us, we caught a glimpse of the sloping backlight and was reminded of the rear canopy of the first generation RX-7. Family resemblance to a long line of distinctive machines.
The overall impression that emerges from our drive: not only is the Eunos Cosmo Mazda’s magnum opus of the early 1990s, but simply one of the most technologically advanced cars of the era. The 20B engine is a technical masterpiece, what with turbine-like power from three rotors displacing under 2000 cc and turbos that dance in succession. Besides the CCS, other novel features abound in this car, such as butterfly valves in the exhaust to vary exhaust note, and a transmission-hold mechanism contemporary with Porsche’s Tiptronic system.
The Eunos Cosmo was the embodiment of Japanese automotive engineering ethos. Loaded to the brim with cutting-edge technology, there is an underlying, no-holds-barred attitude to make the ultimate of its kind. Even among halo cars, it has few equals to this day. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The high-tech wonder that is the Eunos Cosmo was certainly magical to experience.
By 1995, Japan’s bubble economy had burst. The SUV was well on its way to entice buyers from all segments, especially sports cars and coupes. That year, the number of Cosmos sold was in the triple digits. There were those within Mazda that wanted to see the Cosmo come to the US under the Lexus-rivaling Amati marque, but the brand never came to be.
In the years since, however, the 3-rotor 20B has become legendary among rotary enthusiasts. It’s one of the most unique engines in the world and a high-performance fantasy come true. Besides being swapped into various RXes, the 20B also powered SpeedSource’s Grand Am-winning RX-8, albeit with racing modifications.
The Eunos Cosmo itself has also become a cult favorite. While the understated design once rendered it anonymous to philistines, those in the know recognize the Eunos Cosmo as an engineering masterpiece from one of Mazda’s most prolific and ambitious eras. A high-tech rotary-powered luxury GT with genuine speed and an array of firsts, it truly was like nothing else on the market then or now.
In a way, the Cosmo foretold the way in which modern cars would fill themselves with baubles of tech. Even the most basic of modern transportation options nowadays have gadgets JC engineers could only have dreamed of, but the difference is that the Cosmo had a drivetrain every bit as advanced to match the electronics. Many of us can’t help but feel that many manufacturers appear to be converging onto identical car-making formulas. Herein lies the joys of JNCs: our historical favorites are chock full of unique character.
When it comes to luxurious grand tourers, few are as unique as the Eunos Cosmo. Its three-rotor engine alone ensures an exclusive place in automotive history. With a relatively low production number, the JC is worth preserving and bound to increase in desirability. Let’s welcome the Eunos Cosmo to the JNC ranks, and may all the examples left live long and prosper.