Mazda and me; almost 50% of Mazda’s impressive ‘ton’.
As a car mad youngster, Iain Robertson was conscious of one Japanese carmaker’s often tangential approach to the world car scene, a reputation cemented in recent times with its alternative slant on fuel consumption and its style stance.
From the ‘I-wish-I-still-had-it-today’ (IWISHIT) department, alongside a poster of a Jaguar E-Type on my bedroom wall was the strange picture of a Mazda Cosmo 110S. I still like to think of the coupe as an oriental E-Type, although it was powered by Mazda’s version of Felix Wankel’s amazingly simple rotary engine. While the British sportscar was a classic from the outset and I did own an example for just a week (it cost me a cool £750, which was refunded to me, when I revealed that the insurance was also £750!), the Mazda drew me in with its technological appeal.
Although it proved to be unreliable, my father’s NSU Ro80 was a German-built, very accommodating, rotary engined family car that I adored. Intriguingly, he almost acquired a Mazda Montrose for my mother but I remember that she ended up with a Cortina instead. By the mid-1970s, armed with a Driver’s Licence and residing in Canada, I acquired my first Mazda, a rotary-engined RX3. As much as I loved it, it was perpetually thirsty, returning less than 20mpg of cheap petrol regularly. Yet, it handled well, was also quick, with a whip-crack throttle response, revving to almost 10,000rpm and sounding like a treacle tin full of angry bees, on full chat. I swapped it for a Chevy 4×4 pickup powered by a 454cu in V8 engine…as fickle as I was, at least I was also familiar with gas-guzzling.
Returning to the UK in the late-1970s, following a year’s worth of Ford Granada, I acquired a Mazda 1300, a cute looking small saloon car. It was followed by another Mazda, a more attractive 818 saloon, also (under)powered by the same 1.3-litre petrol engine. What both of those cars lacked in performance, was more than supplemented by sheer willingness and total reliability, regardless of being thrashed to within inches of their lives.
Although I moved on transport wise, with a run of (now) highly collectible British and European motorcars (and further doses of IWISHIT), my role as a car tester ensured that every new Mazda would be on my launch and personal test list, as I retained the maximum respect for the brand and, with very few exceptions, I always looked forwards to driving the latest models. By late-spring 2002, and the Italian launch of the enticing new Mazda6, Mazda and me became somewhat laced together again. Having entered the annual ‘MPG Marathon’ in a 2.0-litre model, I was absolutely gobsmacked to finish third overall and win the class, after a surprisingly gruelling, 400-miles competitive drive around the West Midlands, North Wales and the North of England.
In the summer of 2003, I was back in a Mazda6 and contesting the Cape-to-Cape Rally for production cars. While our team needed to reach Nordkapp, Norway (the northernmost point in Europe), before commencing the challenge, following two-and-a-half days of high-pressure, non-stop (apart from refuelling) but strictly road-legal motoring, south through Scandinavia, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Spain, we arrived exhausted but as the overall winner at Cape Tarifa, the southernmost point in Europe. It was a tremendous achievement.
In late-2006, I took a Mazda6 MPS, the 267bhp turbo-petrol saloon, to another class victory on the MPG Marathon. I enjoyed a series of trophy wins (Mazda CX-7 SUV, Mazda6 Estate) and another outright victory (in a 2009 Mazda3 MPS hatchback) over successive years. On each occasion, the Mazda had exceeded expectations by such a huge margin, which was based on percentage improvement over the Official Combined fuel economy figure, that the results not only surprised me but, more vitally, Mazda Cars UK.
Actually, 2002 had been a fascinating year for Mazda, as it relaunched its sportiest model, the RX-8, to much acclaim on the Venetian coast of Italy, with a UK test exercise that involved a lengthy drive on a most challenging route around south-west England. The RX-8 was notable for its ‘suicide’ vestigial rear cabin doors that provided easier access to a most comfortable 2+2 interior. However, it was also powered by the latest Renesis version of the Mazda-modified rotary engine. In its punchiest guise (228bhp) the twin-rotor unit’s capacity displaced a mere 1.3-litres. There was a less expensive 178bhp alternative that could return in excess of 30mpg but, with access to its rasping high-revvability, the more potent model was the coupe of choice. Its problem was drink-related; 18-22mpg was the norm but it also needed a quart of oil with every tank of petrol. It would lead to its demise by 2010.
Interestingly, a trip to Norway revealed a possible future for rotary engineering, when Mazda allowed a select number of British testers to sample a hydrogen fuelled version of the RX-8. With a minimum of modifications, the Renesis twin-rotor unit was able to run with surprising efficiency on liquefied hydrogen.
Bringing the Mazda experience bang up-to-date, the latest Mazda3 (launched last May) and the enticingly svelte CX-30 (launched last December), both of which can be powered by the firm’s outstandingly frugal 2.0-litre Skyactiv-X engine are signposts to the future of the brand, with the company’s first electrified model (MX-30) due later this year. From a carmaker capable of producing tiny sports models, like the AZ-1, which looks like a 3/5ths-scale Ford RS200, all the way to the world’s best-selling two-seater, the ubiquitous MX-5, which is off-limits to drivers of my dimensions, Mazda has a wonderful 100 years of history and it has certainly not finished making it.
Conclusion: While some car brands can be regarded as run-of-the-mill, perhaps even ‘ordinary’, Mazda has always managed to dabble in the extraordinary, which makes it standout from its rivals and acts as a warranty of both intrigue and fascination.