While American manufacturers are looking more backward than forward for inspiration for their products--look at the Ford GT and Mustang and the Dodge Challenger concept for confirmation--Japanese automakers are much more focused on moving ahead.
Among the evidence is the Mazda Kabura, this stunning little coupe designed at the company's West Coast studio in Irvine, California, under the watch of Franz von Holzhausen, the director of design at Mazda North American Operations. "It seems like the Americans are reaching out for the good old days and good old times," says the thirty-seven-year-old von Holzhausen--who was previously responsible for the Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky at General Motors--"whereas the Japanese don't necessarily have this history to draw on or can even relate to it. So instead of falling back, we want to design cars that fit the future."
The concept's aggressive proportions are highlighted by monster nineteen-inch front and twenty-inch rear wheels, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Kabura is its interior packaging, which features three-plus-one seating.
Looking at the car, it's hard to believe that the Kabura has room for any more than two people, but by utilizing the space normally taken up by the glove box and a conventional dashboard, Mazda designers were able to move the passenger seat forward, leaving room for a full-size chair behind it. With this offset seating arrangement, there's space behind the driver for a jump seat. Only children need apply for this pew, however, since it is large enough only for a fiftieth-percentile adult.
Gee-whiz concept-car features include a two-piece glass hatch and an extra door on the right-hand side of the car that glides, much like the Kaiser-Darrin's did, straight back into the wheel-arch area.
This three-plus-one layout makes sense, according to von Holzhausen, because "Mazda research has shown that younger buyers feel that their cars are very personal to them and that they don't generally carry people around. If they do, the maximum number of people they carry is three, and then, most of the time, that won't be for long-distance traveling--just to get to the airport, for instance." Mazda doesn't have an inexpensive entry in the coupe market, which is emerging (again), so it made sense to explore this area. "We actually clinicked the concept, trying to feel out the marketplace. It is still very much a concept, but one for which we have done our homework."
The Kabura--named for a Japanese word meaning "first arrow launched into battle"--is based on MX-5 running gear and powered by a 190-hp version of the 2.0-liter DOHC in-line four-cylinder MZR engine. Mazda is at pains to point out that the underpinnings were chosen to ensure that the vehicle moves under its own power, not for any production purposes. As such, the Kabura is about one inch longer than the MX-5, which is only 157.3 inches long.
Of course, the question is, will Mazda build it if everyone loves it? Moray Callum, Mazda's worldwide design director, is adamant that you will see elements from all three of its latest concept cars in the future, but not the cars themselves. We suspect, though, that Mazda is looking very carefully at the small-coupe market, partly because we know that there are people inside the company who would love to re-create the vibe around the original 1972 rotary-engined RX-3 coupe.
The problem for Mazda is whether it can produce a low-cost coupe using its current front-engine, rear-wheel-drive architecture, as exists for the MX-5 and the RX-8. In a way, there's little point in Mazda basing such a coupe on an existing front-wheel-drive platform, such as the 3, because the company would just be coming late to the Honda Civic Si party, even if the resulting car turned out to be superior. Do we think there's a market for something this good looking, that offers MX-5-style driving thrills, and that would be affordable? Absolutely. But, then, we don't have to make a business case for it.