If you ever find yourself behind the wheel of an Autozam AZ-1, be prepared to be the center of attention. At the gas station, traffic lights, parking lots—pretty much everywhere we roamed around California’s scenic Monterey Bay area in the AZ-1—the sight of the tiny, Classic Red Japanese curiosity prompted one simple question: “What is it?”
The short answer: a pint-sized, gullwing-doored, plastic-bodied sports car with a mid-mounted sub-1.0-liter engine and a name straight out of a Japanese anime. Built exclusively for sale in Japan by the now defunct Autozam (once a subbrand of Mazda) from 1992 to 1994, the AZ-1 was officially classified as a “kei car,” a vehicle engineered to meet the regulations of Japan’s smallest street-legal segment.
Generally speaking, kei cars are uninspiring transportation modules. Thanks to restrictions on overall size, engine capacity, and horsepower, they’re city cars through and through, built to serve a starkly utilitarian purpose. On the flip side, they’re affordably priced and designed to sip fuel. They’re also taxed at a lower rate than larger cars and cost less to register and insure. Although the AZ-1 met the kei-car mandate, it fell squarely outside of the boring box thanks to a unique blend of sport and style.
In the late 1980s, Japanese automakers, reveling in a booming domestic economy and benefiting from exploding sales, started to develop kei-sized cars that were actually fun to drive. The AZ-1 was born out of this mindset and owes its existence in large part to the design of two mid-engine Suzuki concepts from 1985 and 1987, the RS/1 and RS/3. As the story goes, Suzuki eventually abandoned work on the more radical RS concepts in order to focus on the Cappuccino, a traditional front-engine, convertible, sporty kei car that fell in line with the similar Honda Beat.
Cue Mazda, which took over development of the project in the late 1980s and installed Toshihiko Hirai as its product chief. (Toshihiko-san also held the same position on the first-generation Miata program.) By 1989, Hirai had three new AZ-550 concepts ready for that year’s Tokyo auto show. Type A looked much like the AZ-1 production car does, and Type B was slightly less dramatic with conventional doors. Type C looked like a mini-Group C sports prototype racer—right down to its finned BBS alloys. In the end, Mazda found the Type A most likely to return a profit. Roughly three years later, in September 1992, the Autozam AZ-1 went on sale.
At just shy of 11 feet long, the two-seater features short overhangs, chunky and straight-edged plastic body panels, and styling cues gratuitously borrowed from cars that could almost literally eat the AZ-1 for lunch. Its side strakes and high-profile rear wing hearken to the Ferrari Testarossa and F40, respectively. The front end, with its carved-out headlight pockets and hood scoop, mimics the Ford RS200 that terrorized the Group B rally car scene in the late 1980s. The side windows have only a small opening section, which is similar in scope to another ’80s dream machine, the Lamborghini Countach.
The AZ-1 charged onto Japanese roads powered by a Suzuki-sourced, transverse-mounted, twin-cam, 12-valve 657cc turbocharged three-cylinder making 63 hp and 63 lb-ft
of torque paired with a five-speed manual. Rolling on an 88.0-inch wheelbase, it also featured an independent strut suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Unfortunately, even for a kei car, the AZ-1 proved too small and expensive for many, costing the equivalent of roughly $12,000 at the time for a car that struggled to comfortably fit two people. A Japanese recession did the rest, helping to usher the little sports coupe out of production by the end of 1994. The unintended side effect was that the AZ-1 is now perhaps the rarest kei-class sports car of its era. Although it stickered for less than a new Eunos Roadster (the Japanese market Miata), the AZ-1 was priced higher than the Beat and Cappuccino. Just 4,392 were built in all (plus 531 badge-engineered Suzuki Cara models), versus 28,000 Cappuccinos and more than 33,000 Beats.
The 1992 AZ-1 we’ve been starring in is owned by Mark Brinker, a Texas-based surgeon and enthusiast of interesting cars. (His collection includes several rare Japanese classics and the one-off Herb Adams Pontiac Vivant concept.) Brinker’s AZ-1 is an even rarer Mazdaspeed version, which is reportedly one of as few as 100 produced. It includes a factory body kit with a unique hood, front chin spoiler, and rear wing. Sport-tuned struts and springs, front and rear strut bars, a mechanical limited-slip differential, stainless-steel sport muffler, and unique alloy wheels (wearing narrow 165-width tires) were also part of the package.
Inside, the AZ-1’s white gauge faces with red needles look sporty, as does its three-spoke, leather-covered steering wheel—another Mazdaspeed option. The interior door handles are borrowed from the Miata, and the spare tire is stashed behind the fixed-back, high-bolstered seats, akin to the mid-engine Fiat X1/9. There’s very little in the cabin to distract from the task of driving—just simple climate and audio system controls on the center stack (all labeled in Japanese, of course) and not a whole lot else. The floormats are embroidered with “AZ-1 Exciting Micro Coupe.” Very Japanese.
Getting into the little ’Zam can be a challenge, though it gets easier with practice. Best to start by putting your left leg into the car first (remember, this is a right-hand-drive vehicle) then slide it carefully underneath the steering wheel as you scoot your butt into the driver’s seat. Then it’s just a matter of contorting your right leg enough to get it inside the car before you pull the door strap to close the gullwing door; it’s a good idea to duck down slightly as you do if you’re approaching the 6-foot range.
Once in, you’ll probably find that your left leg is somewhat pinched between the center console and the steering wheel and that you have limited mobility with your hands on the steering wheel—your left leg is blocking the space your left hand would use while making a left turn. The pedal box is also quite tight, but a pair of relatively narrow size 11 shoes didn’t find it too much of an issue.
Turn the key, and the AZ-1’s turbocharged three-banger fires up with a fairly mundane exhaust note that’s a bit of a letdown initially. But once you slot the shift lever into first, take up the clutch pedal, and give the ’Zam some throttle, the sound intensifies as the revs pick up. By 3,000 rpm the engine starts to come on cam, and by 6,000 rpm it’s feeling like a real sports car. There’s another 3,000 rpm to go before you hit the 9,000-rpm redline, and those final revs per minute sound outstanding, almost demanding that we let the revs soar before upshifting. The little subliter engine sings its turbocharged heart out, with a mechanical noise that sounds almost exotic yet all its own. It’s not what you’d call quick—0 to 60 mph takes about 10 seconds even given the vehicle’s scant 1,590-pound curb weight—but the sensation of speed in such a small, analog car is fantastic.
The non-assisted steering is heavy when navigating parking lots, but it lightens up nicely at speed while retaining plenty of feel and precision. Similar to the more modern Alfa Romeo 4C, when you move the wheel just off center, the car immediately starts to change direction. You can never relax, and it’s part of the reason the ’Zam feels like such a driver’s car. Toss it into a corner, and it will roll only slightly on its Mazdaspeed sport suspension before taking a set and holding its line through. There’s just so little weight, so little mass, it’s almost as if you’re wheeling a 1:1 scale version of a 1980s Micro Machines toy car.
Want one? Now that the feds allow you to lawfully import any car that’s at least 25 years old, it opens the door to bringing an AZ-1 of your own to the States, but be sure you check your state and local statutes before you drop as much as $17,000 on a great example. Get one, and you’ll be all but assured to have the only Autozam AZ-1 at your local cars and coffee. Just be ready to answer the inevitable “What is it?” question for the duration of the show.
Mazda and its subsidiary, Autozam, put a lot of effort into getting the design just right. So much so that it displayed three AZ-550 concepts at the 1989 Tokyo auto show and asked the public for feedback. Type A most closely resembles the production car, with a change from retractable to fixed headlights to lower cost and improve structural rigidity. Type B featured conventional doors, vertical headlights, and bulbous fenders, and Type C appeared as a Group C endurance racing prototype with a bubble-style canopy and racy rear wing. Type C was actually the most popular with the public, but Mazda officials decided Type A was the most viable.
For more classic Japanese cars, see some of our favorites from the inaugural Japanese Automotive Invitational show.