The eight best Mazda road cars ever made

11th November 2021
Seán Ward

Mazda might have started out as a cork manufacturer in 1920, but in the 100-plus years that have followed, it has produced some truly great road and race cars. It’s the road-going machines we’re focussing on today, however. From kei cars and hatchbacks to rotary sportscars and rear-wheel-drive drop-tops, here are Mazda’s eight best road cars ever.


Mazda R360

Where else could we start, really, than at the beginning? The R360 was Mazda’s first car, and without it, none of the machines that follow would exist.

Launched in May 1960 the R360 is a kei car, and was, therefore, diddy. Measuring less than 3m long and weighing a scarcely believable 380kg, it seated four, used independent suspension at all four corners, and featured a two-cylinder, four-stroke, engine. It was also incredibly successful. Mazda sold 4,500 on the first day, and by the end of the year, it accounted for 15 per cent of Japan’s entire new car market.


Mazda Cosmo

Think Mazda, think rotary – it’s hard to disconnect the two. The Wankel rotary engine was invented in 1929 by German engineer Felix Wankel, and while Mazda wasn’t the first company to use the technology it is the company that popularised it – if Mazda’s automotive journey began with the R360, the company’s rotary adventure started with the Cosmo.

Launched in 1967 after hundreds of thousands of testing kilometres, the Cosmo, known as the 110S in Japan, is a beautiful looking machine and incredibly rare, with just 1,176 built in total. What’s more the Cosmo helped change the perception of Mazda from that of a safe, steady manufacturer of small cars and trucks to a company that could serve up excitement, as it was Mazda’s first sportscar.


Mazda MX-5 (NA)

Well, it wouldn’t be a list of the best Mazdas ever made without an MX-5, would it? And in truth, while we’ve selected the original NA, we could have thrown the NB, NC or ND in here and they would have quite comfortable held their own, each with their own plus points and all built and sold at times when other manufacturers didn’t see the segment as a money-spinner.

So, the NA. Debuted at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show (there were three cars, one in red, one in white and one in blue), the first MX-5 came to be after American car journalist Bob Hall pitched the idea of a small, lightweight convertible sportscar to Mazda’s R&D chief Kenichi Yamamoto in April 1979. It might have taken years for the project to come to fruition, with a number of fascinating twists and turns along the way which we do not have space to mention here, but when it did the world went crazy for it, with around 450,000 sold worldwide from 1989 to the NB’s arrival in 1997. 


Mazda RX-3

The Mazda RX-3 is where the rotary engine really got into its stride. Launched in September 1971 and arriving on UK shores in 1972, the RX-3, known as the Savanna in its native Japan, used a 982cc 10A rotary engine (US cars had a more powerful 1,146cc 12A rotary) and could hit 60mph in 10.2 seconds. Front-engined and rear-wheel-drive, it was fun, well balanced and, thanks to a choice of coupe, saloon and later estate body styles, popular. 

Confusingly, there were piston-engined versions of the RX-3, named the Grand Familia in Japan, the 808 in the USA and, because Peugeot owns the rights to car names with a zero in the middle, the 818 in Europe. 

Sadly the estate was dropped from the UK in 1974, and by 1976 the RX-3 was gone altogether. But its success can be seen by comparing it to the four-cylinder 818 as, in 1973, the UK importer for Mazda sold three times as many RX-3s even though it came with a £335 premium, a significant amount when the total price was £1,663. It was also the car that brought rotary power to the masses, as while just 1,176 Cosmos left the factory gates more than 286,757 RX-3 were built. Oh, and it was quite a successful racer, too, with more 100 wins in races across Japan plus a victory in class at the 1975 Bathurst 1000 and a third in class at the Daytona 24 the same year, with only Porsches and Ferraris ahead.


Mazda 3 MPS

If you put the MX-5 to one side, Mazda hasn’t done a performance road car for quite some time. That is a great shame, not least because there have been a number of corkers. One such vehicle was the Mazda 3 MPS. 

Spawned from the BL generation of 3, the front-wheel-drive 3 MPS (known as the Mazdaspeed Axela in Japan and the Mazdaspeed3 in the USA) had a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder with 260PS (191kW) and 380Nm (281lb ft), would hit 62mph in 5.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 155mph. Plus, the MPS made use of a six-speed manual gearbox, a limited-slip differential and 320mm ventilated front discs. This was a serious drivers’ car.

Maybe a hot hatch doesn’t work with Mazda’s current lineup, but goodness, wouldn’t it be brilliant to see a modern 3 MPS with performance to match the Ford Focus ST or Honda Civic Type R?



Mazda Luce Coupe R130

Looking for a rare Japanese coupe designed by Bertone? Look no further than the Luce RC130.

Penned by a not-yet-30-year-old Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone, previewed in 1967 and introduced in 1969, just 976 of these stunning machines were made between October 1969 and October 1972. Those low build numbers make it intriguing enough, and that’s before you consider it is the only front-wheel-drive rotary Mazda, with a 1,310cc 13A engine, producing 129PS (94kW), nestled beneath that beautiful bodywork. That engine, too, was designed entirely for the RC130, a truly unimaginable amount of effort considering that low production figure.

It is, possibly, the most beautiful Mazda of all time. It also contrasts rather nicely with our next list entrant… 


Mazda Bongo Sky Lounge

We bet you weren’t expecting this, were you? Yes, you could argue the Mazda Bongo Lounge is a ‘bus’ rather than a ‘car’, but it didn’t race, and so where else could it go if not here?

Firstly, how unbelievably cool is it? Secondly, how unbelievably cool is it? Known in Europe as the E-series, and just one of many vehicles that forms part of a long and varied Bongo family tree, the Sky Lounge was launched in 1983 and featured solar-powered air conditioning. The want is strong – we’re not sure why, but it is.


Mazda RX-7

Another rotary hero, this time the RX-7. There are three generations of RX-7 to choose from, the original SA, the second-generation FC and the third-gen FD. In the end, we’ve settled on the final of the trio, not only because it is the rarest (just under 69,000 were built compared to the FC’s 272,000 and the SA’s 471,000) but because it was an FD, albeit a heavily modified example, that was Han Seoul-Oh's weapon of choice in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. It’s just cool.

Announced to the world in 1991, the FD’s 1.3-litre twin-rotor, twin-turbocharged engine produced 237PS (174kW), which was sent to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual box (a four-speed auto was also available) and, thanks to a kerb weight of 1,310kg, was enough to send the car to 62mph in 5.1 seconds and on to 156mph flat out. What’s interesting about the 13B engine, though, is that its turbochargers were sequential, meaning the first spooled up and delivered boost from 1,800rpm and the second got into its stride at 4,000rpm, with peak power overall at 6,500rpm. Only one version was available in Europe, complete with twin oil-coolers, an electric sunroof, cruise control, rear storage bins in place of back seats and the stiffer suspension and strut braces from the R models, and only 210 right-hand-drive cars were ever delivered through the Mazda UK dealer network.

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