Mazda legends come

of age

Mazda Cosmo, 1971, front
Mazda Cosmo, 1971, side
Mazda Cosmo, 1971, rear
Mazda Cosmo, 1971, interior
Mazda Cosmo, 1971, instruments
Mazda Cosmo, 1971, rotary engine
Mazda 323, 1979, front
Mazda 323, 1979, side
Mazda 323, 1979, rear
Mazda 323, 1979, interior
Mazda MX-3, 1994, front
Mazda MX-3, 1994, side
Mazda MX-3, 1994, rear
Mazda MX-3, 1994, interior
Mazda MX-3, 1994, engine

THERE'S something wonderfully refreshing about driving a collection of modern classics - cars that have become cherished almost as soon as they hit the road.

Mazda has built its reputation on solid engineering but has always added a touch of the unexpected.

It's a sort of techno avant garde and it has grown the Japanese brand a loyal following of those who don't just appreciate automotive style but those who relish groundbreaking technology.

Now the brand - based in Hiroshima - is celebrating its centenary and 60 years on the auto scene in which time it has become a major player on the global stage.

To show off its rich heritage, lovingly developed since 1960, the company brought together some of its rarest model at an event in Germany where it has its European headquarters.

Cars such as the Cosmo - the world's first mass production twin rotary engined sports car - that caused a sensation when it first arrived back in 1967.

Other models assembled for the event included an example of the original 323 - a car which spearheaded the hatchback revolution in the 1970s - and the MX-3 which rewrote the rule book for sports coupes in the 1990s.

There were also examples of the MX-5 roadster which has become the most popular little sports car ever and a Guninness Book of World Records holder with well more than a million sales notched up since it first came onto the scene in 1989.

Others making an appearance at the event in Augsburg were Mazda 929s from 1985 and 1974, a Mazda 626 Coupe from 1978, a R130 Luce from 1969 and examples of the RX-7 - Mazda's best selling rotary car - including a turbo charged convertible model from 1991.

That was the year Mazda staked its claim to fame in the Le Mans 24 hours race when it became the first Asian brand to win the legendary endurance event with the 787B racer - another rotary engined model with a 2.6-litre displacement pushing out 650bhp, outshining competitors from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Jaguar.

From a company which made its first mainstream car only in 1960 - a tiny 356cc four seater called the R360 Coupe - its was a fitting culmination to years of perseverance bringing the Wankel-inspired rotary engine to its full potential.

The car the got the rotary ball rolling was the Cosmo Sport 110S which was a two-door hardtop coupe powered by a twin rotor 982cc engine developing 128ps.

With futuristic looks incorporating plexiglass covers over the headlights and just 4.1 metres long, it weighed in at a very light 940kg which aided performance and gave it a 0 to 60 acceleration time of 8.8 seconds and a reported top speed of 125mph.

Fuel economy was in the low 20mpgs and even today it has a flourish to its performance.

Mazda believes there are only two Cosmos remaining in the UK and the one we tried was a 1971 model on Belgian plates.

Given its year of creation the interior was highly sophisticated with comprehensive instrumentation laid out akin to that of an aircraft cockpit.

Its five speed gearbox has a relatively short throw - a characteristic that Mazda would repeat on virtually all its manual models - and once on the move it still lived up to Mazda's original claim that driving the Cosmo was ‘more like flying'.

At lower revs though the engine proved a little less compliant and needed a fair amount of throttle to keep it alive.

Such a criticism couldn't be made of the 323 which although conventionally powered with a four cylinder 1.3-litre engine positively flew for a car of 1979.

Although only a four-speed manual it had brisk acceleration of 0 to 60 in 9.8 seconds and although its maximum of 87.5mph may sound a little lacking by today's standards it proved lively and responsive all the way to the national speed limit.

What impressed was its on-road demeanour which for a relatively small car - just 3.8 metres long - was very much on the sporty side which must have been a breath of fresh air for those wanting such a new car for around £4,000 as it was then.

It placed the 323 in a competitive position and one which suited the baby boomer generation to a tee - and would go on to spawn modern Mazdas such as the current Mazda3.

However, the car which possibly encapsulates the greatness of Mazda's appeal to those in the know has to be the MX-3 - a model which took V6 technology into new territory when it was launched in 1991.

Its striking coupe design hid amazing features such as fantastic handling from lightweight construction - it weighed just over one tonne - and excellent chassis tuning with a superbly smooth 1.8-litre V6 developing 133ps.

The exhaust note under acceleration is a joy and it could achieve 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds with a top speed of 120mph.

Features such as electronic door mirrors and power steering would have not been the norm for cars in the mid-1990s but were standard fit on the MX-3 - although the indicator stalk was sited to the right of the steering wheel.

Even today the MX-3 handles with aplomb and its feel is utterly modern. No wonder that in its day it was much sought after.

But that is what Mazda is all about - a brand that defies convention to produce some of the best cars money can by.

Sampling some of the latest iterations such as the CX-30 and CX-5 SUVs to and from the event proved the point - utterly modern motors, equipped to the gunwales with kit and achievable fuel economy in the mid-60s to the gallon is all part an parcel of the Mazdas of today.

So is great styling with the brand's Kodo philosophy of beautifully crafted designs at the fore and groundbreaking engine technology such as Spark Controlled Ignition which is at the core of its SkyActiv-X engines that perform like a petrol engine with the economy of a diesel.

And as it enters the electrical age the rotary engine is making a comeback and will be used on the soon-to-arrive MX-30 SUV as a range extender, effectively doubling its range to around 250 miles.

The MX-30 is Mazda's first EV and first examples of the battery-powered model will be released in Britain next year priced from £30,495 before the Government grant for low emission cars.

For a company that began as a cork produced back in 1920 it's an incredible evolution.

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