One of the little-known casualties of the corona-ed Geneva Motor Show this year was a Mazda celebration to mark the Japanese firm’s centenary. Any car-maker that makes it to the ton deserves a party in GRR’s view, so here’s ours – in the form of our pick of the top seven Mazdas of all time…
The seven best Mazdas of all time
Mazda began in Hiroshima in 1920. The name above the door said “Toyo Cork Kogyo” and as that suggests its first product was… cork. It moved into machine tools and then, in 1931, came up with its first vehicle in the form of a three-wheeled mini-truck called the Mazda-Go.
After that it was zoom-zoom all the way to today, via such eclectic achievements as rotary engines, the top step at Le Mans, the Bongo Friendee van, the world’s best-selling sports car, an innovative new type of petrol engine, and a raft of award-winning models today with a pure electric SUV waiting in the wings. And talk about coming full circle: the latest models use sustainable cork in their interiors…
For us at GRR, while there have been many brilliant Mazdas over the years (one look at the photo above and you’ll see what we’re on about), these are the seven cars that best define Mazda, a company for which “love of driving” has consistently proven to be more than just a slogan.
7 – Mazda R360
Making cars fun to drive was a Mazda imperative from the start. And the R360 really was the start: the first Mazda passenger car in 1960. The little coupe was never sold outside Japan so we will never know for sure, but it is easy to imagine it was a real hoot.
Its engineering was advanced for its class (and price), it used exotic materials to keep weight down, and its design was certainly smile-inducing. Japanese drivers took to it in droves, and by the end of 1960 it totally dominated that country’s “kei” (microcar) sector.
6 – Mazda 3/CX-30
Scroll forward 60 years and the latest Mazdas today, one a hatchback, the other a compact SUV, both stand out in their respective crowded markets for all the right reasons. Mazda has expressions for both their design Kodo, or Soul of Motion, and their engaging nature, Jinba Ittai, or driver-and-car-as-one.
They are traits you cannot fail to notice in a sports car like the MX-5 but to have them so prominent in practical family cars is a bonus. Plus there is innovation in the form of Skyactiv-X, a petrol engine that thinks it’s a diesel (by combining both spark and compression ignition) to boost efficiency, as clever as it is unconventional.
6 – Mazda MX-30
Skyactiv-X might not be the big answer in an increasingly electric world but Mazda has that covered as well with the MX-30, the firm’s first all-electric car due on sale in a year’s time. Mazda has been slow to electric vehicles and hybrids but, having accepted the inevitable, is now joining the battery brigade with a typically unconventional approach.
Here is the RX-8 of compact SUVs, complete with Freestyle rear-hinged back half doors and no centre pillar for a very access-friendly cabin. The hot rumour is there may even be a version coming later with a tiny rotary engine – to supplement power from the 141bhp e-Skyactiv drive system. You wouldn’t put it past them.
4 – Mazda 787B
Mazda was the first Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Heures du Mans in 1991, something it took Toyota another 27 years to achieve. The 787B was also the first, and only, racing car to win the great race using a non-reciprocating engine. The 787B was powered by a four-rotor Wankel rotary, as eardrum-shatteringly noisy as it was powerful, something all those who heard it at the Mazda tribute at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard in 2015 are unlikely to have forgotten.
It was not Mazda’s first time at Le Mans by any means, the firm having long chosen endurance racing as the ideal way of proving the rotary engine’s reliability. The hero of the 24th hour in 1991 was Johnny Herbert who insisted on extending his stint behind the wheel to take the car over the line. The car had only one problem during the 24 hours: a blown headlight bulb.
3 – Mazda Cosmo
The 1967 Cosmo coupe was Mazda’s halo model in period and today is probably the closest thing the company has to a true icon. The first two series of the rear-drive coupe (up to 1975) had the rakish looks to appeal, while rarity meant that, then as now, they were expensive and sought-after. A good early one today is well into six figures.
The Cosmo’s big claim to fame though was under the bonnet: this was the first Mazda with a Wankel rotary engine. The Cosmo was powered by a twin-rotor 1.0-litre engine with 110bhp built under licence from NSU, whose even more ground-breaking Ro80 went into production just a few months after the Cosmo. It wasn’t to be the last time Mazda used a rotary engine…
2 – Mazda RX-8
Yes, we know the RX-7 is a favourite of many and over three model generations proved a major hit for Mazda, especially in the US, as well as an effective race car. The swoopily-styled and potent third-gen RX-7 was rightly acclaimed everywhere, including the UK, but still we are ignoring it here – and plumping instead for its successor, the RX-8. Here is a car that in our view sums up Mazda’s unconventional take on things even more effectively.
Remember the RX-8? We should, for a whole host of reasons including super-smooth rotary engine power and a practical four-seat cabin with clever rear half doors – but mostly because it combined these attributes in a car that was an absolute ball to drive, with great steering and chassis balance. Fun? Absolutely. Failure to pass the emissions test put paid to it in Europe in 2010 and two years later in Japan which is when Mazda made its final Wankel engine. Will we hear the rotary’s warning buzzer at 6,800rpm ever again in a new car? We do hope so…
1 – Mazda MX-5
The world would be a poorer place without sports cars in general and without the Mazda MX-5 in particular. For a decade before its launch in 1989 the world was deprived of the affordable two-seat roadsters that Britain had specialised in, until we lost the plot. That left some real car guys at Mazda in both Japan and California to reinvent the formula.
They got that formula so right the car was inspirational from day one and today, four model generations later and competing in a very different motoring world, is back to its very best. As everyone agrees: the MX-5 had sold a million by 2016 and is today the top-selling roadster, ever.
Here’s to more Mazda thinking like that in the next century!
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