the top ten

greatest mazdas

 
Story Jack Baruth

In April of 1970, the first shipment of cars left Hiroshima for the United States. It was a bit of a gamble for Mazda to enter the American market. The regulations on motor vehicles were quite different, the territory to cover was enormous, and a long-distance call from Japan to the new company headquarters in Seattle was still an expensive proposition.

Many larger automakers had already tried and failed to make it here; many more would try and fail afterwards. But there was something in Mazda’s challenger spirit which appealed to American drivers both then and now. Here are ten of the cars and trucks that made Mazda a household name halfway around the globe from its first home.

1970/1971 RX-2:

A ROTARY BEGINNING

As the first Mazda to be sold here in any quantity, the sleek RX-2 had to make an impression --- and it did. Motor Trend enthused that it could “make mincemeat of a BMW 2002,” raving about the seamless power and stratospheric redline of the 12A rotary engine. The RX-2 coupe and sedan were quickly joined in showrooms by a rotary-powered pickup truck and wagon, which further solidified the firm’s association with the rare and innovative engine even as it expanded its American lineup to nine vehicles in total, some of which were powered by a traditional inline-four. Mazda enthusiasts continue to cherish and restore the RX-2 today, often swapping-in a more recent, and more powerful, version of the iconic rotary.

1970/1971 RX-2: 

A ROTARY BEGINNING 

As the first Mazda to be sold here in any quantity, the sleek RX-2 had to make an impression—and it did. Motor Trend enthused that it could “make mincemeat of a BMW 2002,” raving about the seamless power and stratospheric redline of the 12A rotary engine. The RX-2 coupe and sedan were quickly joined in showrooms by a rotary-powered pickup truck and wagon, which further solidified the firm’s association with the rare and innovative engine even as it expanded its American lineup to nine vehicles in total, some of which were powered by a traditional inline-four. Mazda enthusiasts continue to cherish and restore the RX-2, often swapping in a more recent, and more powerful, version of the iconic rotary.

1979 626:

THE WORLD CAR

Mazda’s Capella family sedan had provided the basis for the RX-2 in the United States andelsewhere, but it had been sized and styled primarily for Japanese customers. The new Capella, called “626” here in the States, was meant to take on the world. Styling was sleek and modern, and the two-liter four-cylinder made outstanding power while meeting all new emissions regulations. In 1981, a “Luxury” variant appeared, a belated recognition of the fact that after just a decade in the market Mazda was already considered to be a cut above the competition.

The generations of 626 to follow would introduce a variety of technological innovations to the market segment, including four-wheel-steering and turbocharged engines. A hatchback variant with a V-6 engine and five-speed manual transmission proved to be a rare delight for enthusiasts, as did the high-octane Mazdaspeed6 which followed. Today’s Mazda6 Turbo continues this tradition, offering a premium experience for drivers in search of something extra.

1979 626

THE WORLD CAR

Mazda’s Capella family sedan had provided the basis for the RX-2 in the United States and elsewhere, but it had been sized and styled primarily for Japanese customers. The new Capella, called “626” in the States, was meant to take on the world. Styling was sleek and modern, and the two-liter four-cylinder made outstanding power while meeting all new emissions regulations. In 1981, a “Luxury” variant appeared, a belated recognition of the fact that after just a decade in the market Mazda was already considered to be a cut above the competition.

The generations of 626 to follow would introduce a variety of technological innovations to the market segment, including four-wheel steering and turbocharged engines. A hatchback variant with a V6 engine and five-speed manual transmission proved to be a rare delight for enthusiasts, as did the high-octane Mazdaspeed6 which followed. Today’s Mazda6 Turbo continues this tradition, offering a premium experience for drivers in search of something extra.

1979 RX-7

A STAR IS BORN

The RX-7 wasn’t the first Mazda to be exclusively rotary—that honor went to the home-market Cosmo sports coupe—but it would be the first to thoroughly exploit that powerplant’s unique advantages. The two-rotor 12A sat well behind the front axle, tightly wrapped in a sleek fastback shape that looked like it had come directly from the future. It was fast, it handled like a dream, and it competed with cars costing twice as much or more.

A major revision in 1984 added a larger engine, sleeker trim, and a considerable helping of luxury equipment, and the next-generation RX-7 would expand the line to include turbocharged and convertible models. But it was the hard-charging, twin-turbo model of 1992 that would become a pop-culture star thanks to front-and-center placement in a series of street-racing films. The original car would also spawn a successful global club-racing series, Pro7. Today, the RX-7 remains a dream car for enthusiasts from multiple generations.

1980 B2000 PICKUP:

A WORLDWIDE WORKHORSE

Mazda’s sporting image has become so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness over the past fifty years that it’s easy to forget about the company’s remarkably successful compact pickups, which sold more than two million units around the globe. When the 2.0-liter inline-four was placed into the second-generation B1800 truck for 1980, the resulting “B2000” quickly became a common sight on our roads.

Available with standard cab and two bed lengths, the B2000 could be had with a 5-speed manual transmission which made it a sporting proposition in its own right. In an era where many compact trucks attempted to look like shrunken versions of their full-sized cousin’s, the tidy styling and proportions of the B-Series stood out in a very good way. It would go on to become a truly international proposition, with assembly sites from Iran to Colombia to Zimbabwe --- and many are still on the road today, after decades of faithful service.

1980 B2000 PICKUP

A WORLDWIDE WORKHORSE

Mazda’s sporting image has become so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness over the past fifty years that it’s easy to forget about the company’s remarkably successful compact pickups, which sold more than two million units around the globe. When the 2.0-liter inline-four was placed into the second-generation B1800 truck for 1980, the resulting “B2000” quickly became a common sight on our roads.

Available with standard cab and two bed lengths, the B2000 could be had with a 5-speed manual transmission which made it a sporting proposition in its own right. In an era where many compact trucks attempted to look like shrunken versions of their full-sized cousin’s, the tidy styling and proportions of the B-Series stood out in a very good way. It would go on to become a truly international proposition, with assembly sites from Iran to Colombia to Zimbabwe—and many are still on the road today, after decades of faithful service.

1981 GLC:

FACING FRONT 

The compact Mazda Familia was badged GLC --- “Great Little Car” --- when it arrived in the United States for 1978, but its maker had greater plans in store already. For 1981, the GLC added front-wheel-drive to its list of virtues. Immediately given Japan’s Car Of The Year award, the GLC received almost universal acclaim as an affordable, economical, and uniquely spirited take on the economy car.

At a rated 43 highway miles per gallon, the GLC Sedan was a bit of a secret weapon in the showroom wars, with a deep trunk and comfortable accommodations for the rear-seat passenger. The rest of the GLC was as modern as tomorrow, with four-wheel independent suspension and supportive bucket seats, but it was the styling that sold it to many buyers: clean and properly proportioned, with sleek sides and an upscale appearance. Today’s Mazda3 continues that tradition, at a considerably greater pace.

1981 GLC

FACING FRONT 

The compact Mazda Familia was badged GLC—“Great Little Car”—when it arrived in the United States for 1978, but its maker had greater plans in store already. For 1981, the GLC added front-wheel-drive to its list of virtues. Immediately given Japan’s Car Of The Year award, the GLC received almost universal acclaim as an affordable, economical, and uniquely spirited take on the economy car.

At a rated 43 highway miles per gallon, the GLC Sedan was a bit of a secret weapon in the showroom wars, with a deep trunk and comfortable accommodations for the rear-seat passenger. The rest of the GLC was as modern as tomorrow, with four-wheel independent suspension and supportive bucket seats. However, it was the styling that sold it to many buyers: clean and properly proportioned, with sleek sides and an upscale appearance. Today’s Mazda3 continues that tradition, at a considerably greater pace.

1988 323 GTX:

THE RALLY REPLICA

The next GLC traded its great little name for the “323” badge found elsewhere in the world. It was also Mazda’s platform of choice for the World Rally Championship, where tuned-up four-wheel-drive variants did battle on dirt, tarmac, and snow. When the firm won on Sunday, what could the buyers drive on Monday? The 132-horsepower 323GTX, which put its turbocharged torque through a planetary center differential and a five-speed manual transmission, was the roadgoing answer to that question.

Only 1,243 lucky owners took Stateside delivery of a 323GTX. Some of them ordered the optional digital dashboard; all received a biplane rear spoiler and Recaro seats. The “rally-replica” fever would go on to define a few other manufacturers in the years to come --- but Mazda was there first.

1988 323 GTX

THE RALLY REPLICA

The next GLC traded its great little name for the “323” badge found elsewhere in the world. It was also Mazda’s platform of choice for the World Rally Championship, where tuned-up four-wheel-drive variants did battle on dirt, tarmac, and snow. When the firm won on Sunday, what could the buyers drive on Monday? The 132-horsepower 323GTX, which put its turbocharged torque through a planetary center differential and a five-speed manual transmission, was the roadgoing answer to that question.

Only 1,243 lucky owners took Stateside delivery of a 323GTX. Some of them ordered the optional digital dashboard; all received a biplane rear spoiler and Recaro seats. The “rally-replica” fever would go on to define a few other manufacturers in the years to come—but Mazda was there first.

1990 MX-5 MIATA

JINBA ITTAI

There were plenty of sports cars before the MX-5 Miata, but in the 30+ years since its introduction the little roadster has remade the enthusiast world in its own image. Drawing inspiration from the “little British cars” of previous decades, the Miata would be defined by the Japanese philosophy of “Jinba ittai”—horse and rider in harmony. From the initial shipment of basic-equipment cars in just three colors to the 181-horsepower, Recaro-and-Brembo-equipped 30th Anniversary RF retractable hardtop, the Miata has always been best of breed on both road and track.

You can’t tell the Miata story without discussing Spec Miata, the most popular club-racing series in North America. The majority of today’s amateur racers get their start behind the wheel of a Mazda, and the Global MX-5 Cup pro series gives them a chance to showcase their talents at an international level.

1992 929:

THE BEAUTIFUL ONE

What happens when you apply Mazda’s challenging spirit to a full-sized luxury car? The 1992 929 was the answer to that question. Unabashedly gorgeous, packed with technology, the 929 was wide enough to incur special taxes in its home market and rare enough to draw double-takes everywhere it went. The driver-focused cockpit housed a rotary-inspired steering wheel. Power went from a three-liter V-6 to the rear wheels, which were also electronically steered.

Frameless door windows and a blacked-out central pillar gave the 929 a sleek hardtop look, while the long, low decklid served as a forthright riposte to the “wedge” styling of the day. Today, Mazda serves this market with the luxurious CX-9, but thirty years ago this was the only way to fly.

1992 929

THE BEAUTIFUL ONE

What happens when you apply Mazda’s challenging spirit to a full-sized luxury car? The 1992 929 is the answer to that question. Unabashedly gorgeous, packed with technology, the 929 was wide enough to incur special taxes in its home market and rare enough to draw double-takes everywhere it went. The driver-focused cockpit housed a rotary-inspired steering wheel. Power went from a three-liter V-6 to the rear wheels, which were also electronically steered.

Frameless door windows and a blacked-out central pillar gave the 929 a sleek hardtop look, while the long, low decklid served as a forthright riposte to the “wedge” styling of the day. Today, Mazda serves this market with the luxurious CX-9, but 30 years ago this was the only way to fly.

2007 CX-7:

THE DRIVERS CROSSOVER

A low-roofed, flared-fender crossover with aggressive styling, luxurious interior, and a turbocharged engine? That could describe any number of six-figure luxury offerings today --- but in 2007 only the Mazda CX-7 answered to that description. Those lucky owners who chose the CX-7 got more than just a look at the future a decade hence; they also had the chance to experience the best-handling sport-utility-vehicle of its era.

At a time when some automakers were still selling converted pickup trucks as family crossovers, the CX-7 offered something distinctly different, and dramatically better. It couldn’t be mistaken for anything else on the road --- and its owners wouldn’t have it any other way.

2007 CX-7 

THE DRIVERS CROSSOVER

A low-roofed, flared-fender crossover with aggressive styling, luxurious interior, and a turbocharged engine? That could describe any number of six-figure luxury offerings today, but in 2007 only the Mazda CX-7 answered to that description. Those lucky owners who chose the CX-7 got more than just a look at the future a decade hence; they also had the chance to experience the best-handling sport-utility-vehicle of its era.

At a time when some automakers were still selling converted pickup trucks as family crossovers, the CX-7 offered something distinctly different, and dramatically better. It couldn’t be mistaken for anything else on the road—and its owners wouldn’t have it any other way.

2012 CX-5

ENTER THE KODO

When Ikuo Maeda created Mazda’s Kodo design philosophy, he wanted to suggest the dynamic force—the soul—of the Mazda automobile. “As we are a Japanese car company, we believe that a form sincerely and painstakingly made by human hands gets a soul.” The CX-5 crossover marked the debut of that philosophy on the North American market.

Its taut styling expressed the CX-5’s unique virtues: lightness, responsive controls, and high cockpit visibility. Today, Mazda’s full lineup of crossovers contains the CX-5's enthusiastic spirit, while further enhancing its premium appeal. Each of them has a spirit, a focus—and a soul.
 

THE 2019 MAZDA CX-5