Among automotive journalists, including many of us here at JNC, Mazda has long occupied a special place in our hearts. To this day, their cars just tick for us. Why? As we near the end of the year that marks Mazda’s 100th anniversary, let us embark on the final leg of our journey through the company’s history, in search of what makes this small carmaker from Hiroshima so unique. When we last left off, we had surveyed some iconic sporting rotaries, including the beginnings of Mazda’s Le Mans efforts, as well as the innovative FWD era. We continue with what is one of the greatest product developments in automotive history.
Eunos Roadster/MX-5 Miata
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Japanese automakers’ engineering and product development prowess came to a head with cars that shattered the automotive world. The Honda NSX and Lexus LS gave the exotic and luxury car establishment nightmares and wake-up calls, while the JZA80 Supra and R32 Skyline GT-R set new bars for high-performance cars. Mazda contributed its fair share to this class of overachievers, bestowing upon the world what is quite possibly the platonic ideal of a sports car, the NA Roadster/MX-5 Miata.
Needing no introduction, the original Eunos Roadster was a masterpiece on multiple fronts. As a concept, it was a car enthusiast’s fantasy come true. As a piece of industrial design, it was one of the most elegant and well-executed “retrofuturistic” themes. Its engineering can also be best described as elegant, having all the right stuff, including minimalism. The result was one of the greatest sports cars ever created. An instant classic, it’s a true sports car legend.
The original Roadster is one of the best illustrations of Mazda’s ethos as a carmaker. It combined out-of-the-box thinking and sophisticated engineering with a deep understanding and love of sports car roots. It was and still is today going against contemporary conventions, evidenced by fleeting copycats from other carmakers that never fully grasped what made the Mazda Roadster great. Thirty-plus years on, the Roadster remains true to its concept like few other cars on the market.
Two years after Mazda launched the quintessential neo-vintage sports car that took the world by storm, it then took the racing sports car world by storm. It became the first to clinch an outright win at the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans using a rotary engine, and the first Japanese carmaker win overall. The champion Renown argyle-liveried No.55 787B is now one of the most recognized Group C race cars on Earth.
This feat was, of course, far from accidental. Le Mans prestige stems from its being one of the toughest races in motorsport, and Mazda had mounted a steady challenge since 1970. In fact, Mazda long saw endurance racing as a way to test and prove their products, going all the way back to the Cosmo Sport. Nevertheless, few companies have been as passionate about and committed to conquering Le Mans as Mazda. On the road to victory, it produced a plethora of iconic race cars and rotary engines, not to mention honing a number of influential talents who then went on to develop incredible road cars.
To many, Mazda might as well be called the RX-7 company. We examined the first generation Savanna RX-7 in the previous installment, but the rotary sports car’s legend only grew with subsequent generations.
Little needs to be said of the FC3S and FD3S RX-7s. They have always been as iconic as the Fairlady Z or Supra, with, of course, the 1.3-liter twist that no other sports car in the world can claim. Long before carmakers (often falsely) advertised “front-midship” layout, Mazda was quietly exploiting its merits in the RX-7 thanks to the compact 13B. Instead of making a sledgehammer, engineers added lightness by shaving imperceptible grams from every corner. And while the Porsche 959 can lay claim as the first “production” car with sequential twin-turbocharger, the FD was the first production car to offer it to the masses.
Whereas the Roadster was centered around the pure and minimalist sports car experience, the FD was all of that plus high performance through the rotary. It was a Bubble Era super sports car with a thoughtful and appropriate use of advanced technology to achieve high performance, wrapped around a pure sporting soul.
It possessed an unrivaled driving experience, and you always looked back at it after you got out. It is the mascot for the Hiroshima company, and rightfully so.
The RX-7 may be the quintessential Mazda to its fans around the world, but the Cosmo nameplate is perhaps more storied. It was the name that launched Mazda’s rotary engine in what was arguably the most futuristic sports car ever built. It remained Mazda’s flagship through the 80s, the rotary turbo version even becoming the fastest production car in Japan for a time.
Entering the 90s, the latest Cosmo joined the ranks of groundbreaking Bubble Era classics as a luxurious grand tourer. It was powered by the only engine of its type that the world would ever see in a production car: the triple-rotor 20B rotary (with sequential twin-turbos). While the world marveled at the elegance and refinement of the original Lexus SC/Toyota Soarer, the well-heeled in Japan also had the choice of Mazda’s technological and luxury flagship. The Eunos Cosmo was an opulent, advanced, and understated illustration of Mazda’s vision of the ultimate road car. As often is the case, there was and is nothing quite like it.
On the other end of the market spectrum from the Eunos Cosmo, Mazda seemed just as keen to flex its creative muscles to give us the Autozam AZ-1. It wasn’t the first kei sports car, but it was certainly the most exotic. Granted, the AZ-1’s origin lies in part with Suzuki, but Mazda was responsible for significant amounts of its concept and execution.
With this gull-wing mid-engined runabout, Mazda was able to place a truly unique and unequaled sports car in each of its Japanese sales channels of the 90s, not to mention giving us the most unique and adventurous of the “ABC” kei sports cars as well.
In the post-Bubble Era lull, Mazda hung on to its passions with the NB Roadster/Miata and continued to developed FD (only in Japan, tragically). Lest you forget, hidden inside the near-luxury Millenia sedan was an engine of remarkable innovation: the KJ-ZEM Miller-cycle V6.
With the aid of a supercharger, the engine effectively added an additional cycle to the traditional four strokes to deliver increased performance and efficiency. It was one of the most technically advanced engines of its time, ushering in advancements that are now used by many automakers. The Miller cycle Millenia illustrates Mazda’s obsession to innovate the underlying technology of automobiles, the same drive that led them to the rotary engine in the 60s all the way to the Skyactiv-X of today.
With the FD RX-7 out of the market around the world, the rotary seemed a dream of the past. Yet as far back as the early 90s, engineers at Mazda were working on a new naturally aspirated 13B with cleaner emissions profile. But, this was only a small part of the RX-8’s story.
The RX-8 came into existence thanks to passions deep within Mazda. Specifically, a passion for both the sports car and the rotary engine. There was no sanctioned program early on, at a time when Ford management pushed Mazda to sunset the rotary. Instead, Mazda loyalists established a skunkworks team to develop the new rotary engine — with side exhaust ports to satisfy stricter emissions regulations — and the RX-8 on employees’ own time.
It eventually paid off, and Mazda was able to bring the rotary back to global markets and be part of the early 2000s renaissance of Japanese sports cars alongside the 350Z and S2000. The result, a naturally aspirated rotary with an 8500rpm redline, sublime handling, affordable entry price, and even a return to the 24 Hours of Daytona’s top podium spot in the Grand Am GT racing series.
The car itself was also a true 4-seater. A sports car like no other, the RX-8 embodied the best of Mazda’s unique carmaking traits and spirit. It was a true passion project, all to keep the dream and tradition of the Mazda rotary sports car alive.
At the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, Mazda shocked the world by pulling the covers off an achingly beautiful sports car concept, the RX-Vision. Glazed with the company’s signature Soul Red, the stunning concept was clearly foreshadowing a future rotary sports car. The design also sported many themes and cues of the current Kodo design language as well as details evoking Mazda’s RX heritage.
It promptly won the Most Beautiful Concept Car award at the Festival Automobile International in Paris three months later. The RX-Vision showcases Mazda’s current design prowess as well as rich sports car heritage, and it remains the single car we most desperately want to materialize into reality.
ND Roadster, SkyActiv-X, and the Future
Mazda’s modern lineup is marked by cars acclaimed by automotive press as best in their respective classes. Whether it’s the Mazda 3 or the CX-5, current Mazdas all offer superior driving dynamics combined with arguably the best designs both inside and out, the likes of which feel like endangered species these days. Each of these cars seem to take genuine inspiration from the fourth generation Roadster/Miata, the ND.
The ND is a remarkable engineering and design achievement. It’s a pure realization of the sports car ideal, and stays remarkably true to the spirit and concept of the original. Mechanically, it is sophisticated and elegantly minimalistic, resulting in weight and dimensions close to that of the NA and a driving experience that still only Mazda can deliver. Its design simultaneously springs from the Kodo theme, pays tribute to its own heritage, while also paving its own path. The result is a beautiful and original sports car design uniquely Japanese and Mazda. That it exists in today’s automotive market is both miraculous and refreshing.
And if one accuses Mazda of simply remaking the same with the ND, remember that Mazda continues to push the envelop with innovations from G-Vectoring Control to the sparkless compression-ignition SkyActiv-X engine, the holy grail of internal combustion engine technology. Incorporating the Miller cycle, supercharger, as well as mild electric hybrid components, the first iteration of SkyActiv-X is one of the most technologically advanced engines ever made, and delivers spirited performance on top of excellent efficiency.
This technology will also find a home in the upcoming FR platform‘s straight-six, perhaps a last hurrah for the internal combustion engine, while a rotary engine range extender will come to market as Mazda begins to electrify.
Mazda has been and remains a relatively small company, one with a unique identity and strong spirit as illustrated by the products and achievements we surveyed through these three episodes. Too many examples and tidbits exist in the nooks and crannies of its past hundred years to recount here, but suffice it to say, as automotive enthusiasts, we are admirers of the company.
We admire their origin story, their revival after enduring a nuclear blast in their hometown, their ingenuity in developing novel engines that no other company could bring to market, their perseverance in conquering the toughest races in the world. But perhaps what hooks us the most about Mazda is how they’ve held steadfast to their beliefs about what makes a car good.
There was a time, not too long ago, when carmakers, especially Japanese ones, set out to make the best car that they could, in their own visions. They believed this was how they would attract customers, and the resulting cars became unique. It’s what made so many of our favorite JNCs so special. It’s why we’re all here.
Along the way, something changed. Nowadays, most carmakers set out to make what they know they will sell the most, regardless of whether it’s the best they can make. They’ve forsaken what makes them unique, which is why we live in a sea of uninspiring machines manufactured to satisfy the average consumer.
Mazda refuses to sell out. Even in a market heavily advantageous to formulaic crossovers and numb horsepower barges, Mazda sticks to its principles. Lightness, steering, beauty, handling. Technology means advancements in engines and chassis, not touchscreens. Their goal is, still, to make the best car in their vision, and as a result their cars emerge as extraordinary. To us, Mazda is the keeper of the flame for those who love driving. Here’s to the next 100 years.
Some images courtesy of Mazda.
Amen. Really hoping their new straight six engine and new large car platform hit it out of the ballpark.
All hail the Mazda. Nice write-up, Dave.
I love their cars, having an ND, and FD and SE3P at the moment. I want an AZ-1 and set of Cosmos (both the old and the new) too, please!!
“Mazda refuses to sell out” says it all !
There is something that appeals to me about Mazda cars.
I have had a 1978 323 (GLC in the US?) a great first car with rear wheel drive and a lot of rust.
A 1998 323f with the 2 litre quad cam V6, not a lot of power but loved to be spun to the red line in every gear and went around corners on rails.
A first and second generation Mazda3 1.6 litre hatchbacks. Both nice driving momentum cars that were able to carry speed along winding roads better than their acceleration figures would suggest.
A 2001 RX7 that was fantastic to drive every time that I got behind the wheel and still one of the best looking cars to have come from Japan.
Last year when we wanted a new family car a CX5 2 litre petrol came out on top of Hyundai, Nissan and SEAT equivalents as the best handling and nicest to be in.
I hope that with the major changes coming to the car industry particularly in the UK and Europe (no new petrol or diesel cars after 2030) that Mazda’s innovative spirit and tenacity means that they will survive and flourish in the years ahead.
Do not omit that Mazda, partnered with Fiat, makes the excellent 124 Spider, albeit with Fiat’s MultiAir engine.
Love it, awesome
Thank you for this great summary of Mazda’s history, a prove that there is a place for excentric creativity in the mass market. Currently I drive a 323 BG, MX-5 NC and RX-8 and convinced others to join the Mazda club. My fsther drives a CX-30 after two CX-5s.
I absolutely adore my RX-8 and appreciate that you included it in your discussion. As you noted Mazda was under a lot of pressure from Ford to end the rotary. The FD was considered the end of the rotary as the 13B could no longer meet worldwide emission regulations. The fact that Mazda engineers were able to redesign the it to meet those standards is a testament to the engineering expertise Mazda has. While I don’t recommend a rotary life for most car people I know, I love how they smile when driving my RX-8. I hope Mazda never loses the design ethos that cars should be a joy to drive no matter what there purpose may be.
Beautifully written story, and I agree Mazda are truely unique
Dave… well written.