February 14, 2011

micro exotics

Recently I’ve become really smitten with Japanese kei cars. I just can’t help it; some of these little runabouts are really just super cool. And the ones I’ve really fallen in love with are the ABC kei sports cars: the AZ-1, Beat, and Cappuccino (photo below).

As I wrote before, specifications that define kei cars have existed since the beginning of the modern Japanese car industry. Such compact and efficient specifications were also popular in contemporary Europe; just look at the Fiat 500 (the original), the Isetta, or even the original Mini. Cars like these might not appear as exciting as an outright sports or muscle car, but they are. In some ways, I actually think they’re more exciting. Even back in the ’50s and ’60s, people were hotting up kei cars and racing them, just as Minis and Fiat 500s were being hotted up and raced, many times beating out the “giants” at the race tracks. There were sporty kei cars such as the Fronte Coupe, which really can be considered a sports car, and hot hatch versions of the kei car, such as Suzuki’s Alto Works, abounded by the ’80s. Then all of a sudden in the early ’90s appeared a trio of proper kei sports cars: the ABC. They were unique in that they were purposefully developed as sports cars, with many classical sports car traits, even a little bit of exoticism, but in kei car sizes. The AZ-1 and Beat were both mid-engined; the former sporting gull-wing doors, the latter an open-top convertible. The Cappuccino may appear conventional in comparison, what with its traditional F/R layout, but it had a trick top that made it a hardtop coupe, a targa, and a roadster all in one. All of them were powered by 3-cylinder engines displacing around 660 c.c.; the AZ-1 and Cappuccion were turbocharged, while the Beat was normally aspirated in Honda tradition. These cars might not have been very fast, but they were certainly extremely exciting.

It’s hard to pin down my favorite of these three; they’re all so awesome and I want them all. If pressed, I would say I prefer the Beat and AZ-1. And if pressed again, I’d pick the AZ-1. The AZ-1 was marketed under the Autozam marque, a brand created by Mazda in the late ’80s as it was attempting to follow suit after Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, and Nissan/Infinity. Mazda’s scheme was, however, a bit more ambitious…or complicated…or confusing. It hoped to diversify its brand appeal with Autozam providing ultra-compact cars, Ẽfini sporty cars, and Eunos premium cars; similar plans were made abroad with the luxury-oriented Xedos in Europe and Amati in the US. The Mazda brand, meanwhile, would continue to provide midrange cars. The plan failed largely due to the Japanese recession, from which Mazda suffered more so than the Japanese Big Three. Consequently, the Amati brand never materialized, and the planned first Amati product, the Millenia, was simply sold as a Mazda. A pity, not just because the Millenia was a decent product, but also that we never got to sample the premium and uniquely-styled Eunos models sold in Japan. Anyhow, as purveyor of ultra-compact cars, Autozam’s lineup were rebranded Mazda kei cars, the most recognizable name of which was the Carol. By the late ’80s, Mazda was collaborating with Suzuki on kei cars; the Carol, for instance, was really a Suzuki. The AZ-1’s origin also began with Suzuki. At the ‘85 Tokyo Motor Show, Suzuki showed a concept called the RS1 (“a” in photo), a mid-engined targa sports car powered by the 1.3L engine from the Cultus/Swift. This was followed two years later by the RS3 (“b” in photo), an evolution of the RS1, now closed-top. This project, however, was eventually suspended by Suzuki, whose focus was shifted to another sports car project that led to the F/R Cappuccino. Collaborating with Suzuki, Mazda picked up the mid-engine RS1/RS3 project instead, putting in charge Toshi Hirai. Importantly, Hirai was known for his role as project director of the original Miata, impressive credential indeed.

Hirai and his team worked on the design and engineering of the mid-engined kei sports car using Suzuki powertrain. At the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, three concepts were shown, now called the AZ-550 Sports Types A, B, and C, under the Autozam marque. Type A (“c” in photo above) had gull-wing doors and, with the exception of pop-up headlights, was incredibly similar to the eventual production AZ-1 down to the color scheme. Type B (“d” in photo) was more akin to a further evolution of the RS3, with conventional doors and a distinctive pyramidal greenhouse. Had this version gone into production, it would’ve been quite similar to the Honda Beat. Interestingly, Type B’s theme was “high-tuned pure sports,” suggesting that this was the more serious and spartan sports car. Type C (“d” in photo) was a pure show car nicknamed “petit C car,” presumably the same mechanicals as the other two but sporting a miniaturized Groupe C racer body similar to Mazda’s Le Mans race cars. All three cars were powered by 550 c.c. Suzuki engines, as this was the displacement limit of kei cars then. This was a very fun trio; I wish I was at the Tokyo show then to see them. As you can imagine, public reaction to the cars were very positive, and Mazda decided to develop the Type A into the production version, which eventually went on sale in 1992.

By 1992, kei car engine displacement limit had been raised, and the production AZ-1 had a turbocharged 660 c.c. 3-cylinder engine, shared with the Cappuccino, coupled to a 5-speed transmission. Powertrain and many other mechanical components were sourced from Suzuki, but the car was manufactured by Mazda. Suzuki did get its own version called the Cara, which was essentially identical save the badge and a pair of rectangular front fog lights. The AZ-1 may have been a kei car, but as a mid-engine sports car with gull-wing doors, it might as well be an exotic. Dimension was extremely compact, as you’d expect from a kei car, but you’d have to see one to truly appreciate its diminutive size. I’ve never seen one in person, but I have seen a Cappuccino, and trust me when I say that a first-generation Miata looks huge in comparison. The stock AZ-1 weighed just under 1600 pounds, and the inline-3 engine—not an unsophisticated one, with four valves per cylinder—produced 64 turbocharged horsepower. It certainly wasn’t fast—top speed was 87 mph and 0-60 mph took 11 seconds—but it drove like few other cars did. It was nimble and responsive, helped no doubt by its size and (lack of) weight, but also by its incredibly fast steering with only 2.2 turns lock-to-lock. Suspension was MacPherson struts at all four corners, with disc brakes all around. A drive in this car is enough to convince anyone (who’s not stupid) that you don’t need to go fast to have fun.

The AZ-1, along with its twin Cara, was certainly a colorful member of a quirky but awesome trio of sports cars that came just at the pinnacle of Japanese sports car development in the 20th century. Unfortunately, onset of the Japanese economic recession conspired against Mazda and sports cars in general. Not helping was also the relative high price of the AZ-1, which was only marginally less expensive than the Miata. In the end, just under 5000 AZ-1s and Caras were sold during a 2-year production run. The Cappuccino and Beat lasted much longer and, consequently, were sold in larger numbers. Autozam, along with Mazda’s other sub-brands, did not survive, although to this day Mazda’s kei cars still carry the AZ prefix and are still sourced by Suzuki. Looking back now, this trio of cars were born in such a charismatic time, the likes of which might not be seen again, at least for a while. They’re all quite beloved nowadays by those in the know. More recently, Daihatsu tried to revive the kei sports car market with the Copen, which has enjoyed some success and is still in production. Will Honda bring back the Beat? There’re speculations, and many people would love to see that happen, including me. And Mazda has commented that the next Miata—the ND—will be smaller and lighter. With the current regulations specifying safety equipment, it’s unlikely that kei sports cars, if revived, would be allowed to be sold here. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing safety regulations at all.) The closest thing we can enjoy to these ABC kei sports car, then, is perhaps the Lotus Elise, which certainly has some spiritual similarity to the Beat and AZ-1. And as always, they become importable after 25 years, which for the AZ-1 would be 2017. Maybe by then the world would have recovered economically and I’ll have some disposable income.

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