BACK ROADS: The HD Mazda 929

Mazda is on a roll these days, their current products heralded as best-in-segment in every class they compete in. Their designs have been stunning, especially in contrast to the current trend of excessively decorative styling, and their driving dynamics are top shelf. As a marque, the Hiroshima company is climbing the premium ladder, says the conventional wisdom. Yet, premium cars have been in Mazda’s portfolio from the beginning, typified by none better than the Luce. In this installment of Back Roads, we look at the long lineage of posh Mazda sedans, and specifically one of its ultimate descendants, the HD 929. 

The Luce was one of the first Mazda production passenger cars, having appeared in 1966 as a rear-wheel-drive premium sedan. During this time, to give their pricier models an exotic flair (and to test the waters for export) many Japanese carmakers turned to Italian stylists for design, an example being the Michelotti-designed Prince Skyline Sport. The Luce was similarly influenced, by Bertone in this case, although the design was heavily refined in-house prior to production. The result was an elegant sedan that has aged into an outright classic beauty.

A wagon version was also produced, and both body styles were exported to the US. In fact, the Luce (called the Mazda 1500 initially), along with the R100, were the first US-spec Mazdas. Build quality was deemed high by the American press, although power and speed were not its strong suits. Nevertheless, it positioned Mazda as a higher end Japanese marque than the typical Datsuns, Toyotas and Hondas that were making waves in the US.

The cream of the original Luce crop, however, was the 1969-72 R130 Luce Rotary Coupé. Lower and more rakish in profile than the sedan and wagon, the R130 was an altogether different animal. For one, it was rotary- rather than piston-powered, but even then its rotary, the 13A, was unique, boasting a 30 percent larger displacement than its companion at the time, the L10A powering the Cosmo Sport. Furthermore, the R130 stakes a claim as the only front-wheel-drive production rotary Mazda.

Keeping in mind that front-wheel-drive was still relatively novel and seen as technically advanced at this time, this drivetrain, along with the four wheel independent suspension and luxurious appointments, conspired to make the Luce Rotary Coupé a state-of-the-art, sophisticated tourer. Not convinced? The Super Deluxe model of the Rotary Coupé actually cost more than the Cosmo Sport in period.

The Luce would go on many subsequent generations as Mazda’s full-size premium car. The second generation was sold abroad with the rotary engine as the RX-4 and with pistons as the original 929. The fourth generation was remarkable in that the platform, HB, was powered by the world’s first production turbo rotary engine. The Luce Rotary’s platform twin, the Cosmo Rotary Turbo, was for a time the fastest production car in Japan (though both rode on the HB chassis, the Cosmo had better aerodynamics aided by pop-up headlights).

The rotary turbo would live on in the subsequent HC-chassis Luce Rotary, making it one of the most unique full-size luxury sedans in history. The HC also enjoyed Mazda’s first production V6, the J-series engine, and exported to the US as the 929. Sadly, the rotary version never made it here, which brings us to the HD, a car deeply rooted in the Bubble Era.

When the new flagship sedan debuted in 1991, Mazda was in the midst of its massive diversification shakeup that saw the creation of the Eunos and ɛ̃fini marques. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the HD adopted the new name of Sentia, while the historic Luce name carried on as a commercial vehicle on the HC platform in Japan. ɛ̃fini also received its version of the HD called the MS-9, a counterpart to Eunos’ new JC Cosmo. Abroad, the new car continued to be known as the 929.

The new car bore a revolutionary design much like the rest of Mazda’s contemporary lineup. The boxy HC shape gave way to a slippery, sensuous sedan that was wider, lower, and longer in wheelbase. The squat but handsome front end, whose design was reportedly inspired by Noh masks, flowed into a sleek pillared hardtop cabin and tapered dramatically towards the rear. The wraparound backlight was fast, the trunk lid long and low-slung, and the slender two-color taillights simple and elegant. With clean lines, smooth surfaces, and an expansive glass area, the car appeared quite futuristic. Overall, the HD was a fine example of dynamic yet classic design by Mazda of the era.

Underneath the skin, the HD was equipped with coil-sprung multilink suspension both front and rear, while Japanese models had the option of Mazda’s electronically-controlled speed-sensitive four-wheel-steering system. The engine was the J-series carried over from the HC, though now equipped with DOHC on both the 2.5 and 3.0L units. Power was routed to the rear wheels via a 4-speed automatic transmission. Output was 160 PS from the 2.5-liter, 200 PS from the 3.0, with the latter being the only choice in the US.

Beyond these mechanical specifications, the HD was unique in that it offered a number of forward-thinking options at the time. The most famous was perhaps the solar cells embedded in the glass moonroof, which powered fans to cool the interior on sunny days; a similar set up would later be seen on the third-generation Toyota Prius.

There were also fog lights that articulated with the steering angle, like modern cornering headlights. The cruise control was programmed with fuzzy logic to better adapt to the driver’s driving style. The exhaust even had speed-sensitive sound management courtesy of a butterfly valve on the tailpipes. There was certainly no lack of attention to technical detail to make it a sophisticated flagship sedan for Mazda. Inflation-adjusted, the new Mazda luxury sedan cost over $50,000 in today’s dollars.

As a longtime Mazdafarian, the HD has always fascinated me. Imagine our delight then when we spotted a pristine, albeit dusty, specimen hidden in that magical basement at Mazda’s R&D center in Irvine, California. Since that encounter, Mazda has restored the 929 and given us the opportunity to drive it on the model’s 25th anniversary. We jumped on the keys and took the Ivory 1992 929 out for a spin.

All 929s (and Sentias and MS-9s) were painted in subtle two-tone exterior color combinations. The Ivory wore a white upper body and a slightly off-white lower bumper and rocker panel. Our test car had the taupe leather interior in a similarly subtle two-tone color scheme. Being a 1992 model, it was (refreshingly) devoid of wood trim on the dash. The cabin subtly mirrored the wrap-around theme of the Eunos Cosmo.

The instrument panel was particularly distinctive, with a strip of matte black panel curved around the driver. Within this strip housed three classically circular inset gauges above the steering wheel, to the right of which was a climate control panel with compound curvature.

Another curious artifact of this ’92 model test car is the diamond-shaped “Eternal Flame” Mazda emblem that debuted the previous year. According to Mazda, the emblem design incorporates a pair of wings, the sun, and a circle of light in flame, a tribute to one of the company’s namesakes, Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god of light.

After 1992, the emblem design was updated to a more rounded shape that better resembles flame (as well as a rotor, at least to this JNCer). The change was allegedly due to complaint from Renault, whose longstanding logo is an elongated diamond. The test car, however, sported the later emblem on the wheel center caps, perhaps a sign of its development duties.

Opening the door to the 929, and the first thing you notice is the frameless door window in the best Japanese hardtop sedan tradition. Settling into the plush seats — whose ergonomic development took four painstaking years — and you notice the distinctive style of the cabin. Part of that comes from the 929’s low belt line and expansive side windows, which, combined with the relatively low-back front seat, makes you very much feel that you ride on it rather than in it, in sharp contrast to modern bathtub seating.

On the road, the HD 929’s long wheelbase endows it with a stable and serene ride, while the damping setup lets it glide comfortably from bump to bump. This is a graceful touring car, not a spritely Miata. One almost feels that a chauffeur would not be terribly out of order. In fact, in Japan, the Luce has over the years joined the ranks of full-size Japanese premium sedans such as the Nissan Cedric and Toyota Crown.

Perfectly in line with this mannerism is the speed-sensitive exhaust silencer, which, unlike the gauche luxury sleds of today, or even the similar-era Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, it actually reduces noise output. Incidentally, the 929 name was suffix’d in Canada as the Serenia.

Driving the 929 was a rare treat. In terms of design, it truly is a gorgeous object inside and out. The details, especially those associated with traditional Japanese hardtop sedans, are charming, nostalgic, and rarely accessible on this side of the Pacific. It is a calming beauty, a graceful and elegant luxury sedan, the likes of which have all but disappeared from today’s market. On top of all that, there is the understated reminder that the HD platform shares some components with the haloed JC Eunos Cosmo — for one, both cars use the same exterior mirror.

Like many remarkable cars of the Bubble Era, the HD 929’s timing was a big part of its downfall as it came to market. Production lasted only until 1995, after which it was pulled from US shores. With that, the 929 marked the end of an era, as it was the final rear-wheel-drive Japanese sedan imported into the US that didn’t wear a luxury badge á la Lexus or Infiniti.

With no direct replacement, its de facto successor in the US was the Millenia, while in the home market it was followed by the HE generation. By the mid-2000s, a flagship sedan would be absent from Mazda’s lineup altogether.

More recently, however, the Atenza/6 has taken up the mantel of Mazda’s flagship sedan, with class-leading design and superior driving dynamics. As Mazda continues in its current trajectory, its successor is likely to be an even more impressive flagship sedan, perhaps even a return to the 929 or Luce motif. For those seeking a nostalgic Mazda and a traditional Nihon luxury sedan, however, the HD 929 is a much overlooked classic.

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