Tuesday 17 September 2013

Autozam AZ-1

The Autozam AZ-1 was a mid-engined two-seater kei car produced from 1992 to 1995 as a joint project between Mazda and Suzuki. Kei cars are a class of small car in Japan with tax and insurance benefits over larger vehicles, they also have black on yellow registration plates instead of the green on white of a regular sized car. You've probably never heard of Autozam, and that's not surprising as the name is not well known outside of Japan.

Autozam originates from the late 80s when Mazda was experimenting with a brand diversification marketing strategy. Three new brands were created; Autozam (economy), Eunos (premium), and Efini (performance). You'll likely know Eunos from the Eunos Roadster, and Efini from the RX-7. The Autozam brand lineup consisted mostly of kei cars that were rebadged Suzuki models and it was at Suzuki that the AZ-1 first started to take shape. Designs for a small mid-engine sports car had been considered as far back as 1985. Although Suzuki started to develop the car and produced working concepts, they mothballed the project in favour of a different design that would eventually become the Suzuki Cappucino roadster. It's at this point Mazda stepped in and took on the original project.

For the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, Mazda presented the AZ-550 concept so named as the kei rules permitted a maximum engine size of 550cc. There were three versions of the AZ-550 on display; the Type-A, Type-B, and Type-C. The Type-A featured pop-up headlights and gullwing doors, Type-B was a more conventional small sports car, and Type-C was styled like a miniature Group-C endurance racer featuring Mazda's blue and white livery.
Type-A was the concept that was seen as the best commercial prospect and was the design selected for further development. After some design changes, the AZ-1 was finally ready for launch in late 1992. The production version featured a larger 660cc engine and fixed headlamps instead of pop-ups, but it did keep its signature gullwing doors. The AZ-1 shared many mechanical parts such as brakes and suspension with the Suzuki Alto Works, and the engine was a three cylinder turbocharged Suzuki unit. The car was actually rebadged and sold by Suzuki as the Cara, the only difference being the name and some additional front foglights. Only two colours were available, Classic Red, and Siberia Blue. Both of these were matched with Venetian Grey lower body panels and colour coordinated seats. Let's take a look at the original brochure.
Despite Kei cars being generally popular, the sports orientated AZ-1 only achieved limited success. It was very cramped inside and hardly any use in terms of practicality. There was also serious competition from the Honda Beat and Suzuki Cappucino models. Economic problems in Japan at the time didn't help either and ultimately less than 5000 models were made before production was halted. In an attempt to boost weak sales there were some special models introduced including a Mazdaspeed version. This car had some exterior upgrades and was painted a single colour rather than the normal two-tone. As well as the A-Spec bodykit there were also uprated springs and dampers, a limited slip differential, sports air intake, and some new alloy wheels. It kind of resembles a small F40.
There was even a version by short-lived Mazda spin-off M2 Incorporated. Their design was named M2 1015 and featured a new bonnet with integrated foglights, new rear spoiler, and M2 badging. This limited model still commands a high price in Japan. RE Amemiya also created a show car loosely based on the AZ-1, which you can read about here.
The AZ-1 has something of a cult following in Japan and there are regular large meets for the ABCC cars - AZ-1/Cara, Beat, Cappucino, and Copen. With the Daihatsu Copen no longer made, there aren't any sports kei cars around anymore. The majority of kei cars are basically a box on wheels, I wonder whether it's time the micro sports car made a comeback with some sort of electric hybrid engine, or perhaps increasingly strict safety regulations, and the popularity of ever enlarging SUVs have killed them off for good.