So far, the Honda Beat and Suzuki Cappuccino had shown two relatively traditional, albeit tiny, takes on the Kei sportscar. However, Mazda clearly hadn’t scratched their Kei sports car itch, and in 1992 Japan’s freak flag would fly proud in the form of the gullwing-doored Autozam AZ-1.
Designed by the same team responsible for the MX-5, and built-in collaboration with Suzuki, the AZ-1’s story begins at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, where Mazda debuted three concept versions of the car, then known as the AZ-550 Sports. The Type A was closest to what would become the production version of the car and featured gullwing doors, Ferrari Testarossa-style side strakes, and pop-up headlights. The Type B was inspired by contemporary trends in tuning and concept cars, and was themed as “High-tuned pure sports”, whatever that means. The Type-B was the only of the three to feature regular doors like a boring normal car, but it made up for it with a stripped-out racing style interior, a pyramid-shaped greenhouse, and dual exhausts. Looking at it now though, we can be thankful that it didn’t make it into production because to be honest, it was pretty janky. On the other hand, the Type-C is the car that is truly missed. Inspired by Mazda’s Group C prototype race cars, the Type C looks like what happens if you give a whole design team unlimited access quaaludes and played “racecar, but smaller” Heaven’s Gate Cult-style over the speakers non-stop. It incorporated the same blue on white paint scheme as Mazda’s endurance racers and sat on sick to death turbofan wheels. Although the Type-C was the public’s favorite at the time, why this wasn’t the winning design becomes pretty clear when taking into account the barren interior, overall ridiculousness of the design, and general lack of marketability. Still, it will remain one of the all-time automotive “what ifs”.
So the Type A was the winner, which is hardly a compromise when you consider how little of the design was changed to make it production-ready. Unfortunately, the pop-up headlights had to go for structural rigidity reasons – boo. The skeleton frame was changed to steel for rigidity reasons too, and after three years of development, which mainly took place in the UK, despite never being sold there, the AZ-1 was ready to turn the Kei rulebook on its head.
Okay, the AZ-1 still followed all the Kei regulations, so like the Beat and Cappuccino it was a proper motoring midget, and the turbocharged 657cc Suzuki engine still only produced 63 horsepower and a Cappuccino-matching 63 lb-ft of torque. Despite having a roof, the AZ-1 was the lightest of our Kei trio, weighing in at a featherweight 720 kgs. Like the Beat, it was also mid-engined, and clearly did the best tiny supercar impression of the three, looking like an F40 that wasn’t exposed to enough growth hormone.
Sales began in September 1992, with the AZ-1 available in two colours, Siberian Blue and Classic Red, which both featured Venetian grey lower body panels and a sticker price of 1,498 million ¥ (the equivalent of £10,500), making it the priciest of the three. This ultimately turned out to be the nail in the coffin for the AZ-1, as in early 1992 Japan entered an economic recession. In the eyes of the financially scalded Japanese public, the AZ-1 was considered both too cramped and too expensive for a Kei. Consequently, the AZ-1 did not sell like the proverbial hotcakes. It didn’t even come close to selling like the Beat or the Cappuccino, which each had a production run of 33,600, and 28,010 respectively. Over a production run that lasted just a year, only 4,392 AZ-1s were produced, making it by far the rarest of the Kei Sportscar ABC.
Even so, Mazda was still left with plenty of stock, and in a bid to get rid of the unwanted AZ-1s a plethora of special versions were created. This brings us to what is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Kei sportscar design in the form of the Mazdaspeed AZ-1. The Mazdaspeed version included a body kit that featured an enhanced hood, front spoiler, giant rear wing and did without the two-toned paint of the production version. Options for the Mazdaspeed AZ-1 were numerous and included sports suspension, exclusive alloys, front and rear strut braces, mechanical limited-slip diff, performance air filter, and stainless steel and ceramic exhaust system. All in, these additions turned the already sporty AZ-1 in a properly sorted road and track car. If you’re looking for an AZ-1, these options are definitely recommended.
Although the Japanese consumers did not take to the AZ-1 as Mazda and Suzuki might have hoped, history has been kind to the little car. Widely regarded as the most focused driver’s car of the three, the AZ-1 lives up to its sales tagline of ‘ultimate handling machine’, and unsurprisingly there’s a bustling tuning scene for these wicked micro supercars. If you’d like one for yourself, these are also much easier to find than a Beat or a Cappuccino, at least in the UK. However, all that rarity and desirability comes at a price. Whilst there are about a dozen for sale at the time of writing, each is priced around the £15k mark, making it two to three times more expensive than the other Kei sports cars. That said, as a second car the AZ-1 is hard to beat in my eyes, and for the money, I’d much rather take one of these JDM unicorns than a slightly tired Porsche Cayman.
Whether or not it still remains a better value proposition than a Honda Beat or Suzuki Cappuccino for half the price requires a bit more consideration, so be sure to read the next article to find out!