If you anytime acquisition yourself abaft the caster of an Autozam AZ-1, be able to be the centermost of attention. At the gas station, cartage lights, parking lots—pretty abundant everywhere we roamed about California’s breathtaking Monterey Bay breadth in the AZ-1—the afterimage of the tiny, Archetypal Red Japanese concern prompted one simple question: “What is it?”
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The abbreviate answer: a pint-sized, gullwing-doored, plastic-bodied sports car with a mid-mounted sub-1.0-liter agent and a name beeline out of a Japanese anime. Congenital alone for auction in Japan by the now asleep Autozam (once a subbrand of Mazda) from 1992 to 1994, the AZ-1 was clearly classified as a “kei car,” a agent engineered to accommodated the regulations of Japan’s aboriginal street-legal segment.
Generally speaking, kei cars are dull busline modules. Acknowledgment to restrictions on all-embracing size, agent capacity, and horsepower, they’re burghal cars through and through, congenital to serve a starkly commonsensical purpose. On the cast side, they’re affordably priced and advised to sip fuel. They’re additionally burdened at a lower amount than beyond cars and amount beneath to annals and insure. Although the AZ-1 met the kei-car mandate, it fell absolutely alfresco of the arid box acknowledgment to a different admixture of action and style.
In the backward 1980s, Japanese automakers, amusement in a booming calm abridgement and benefiting from exploding sales, started to advance kei-sized cars that were absolutely fun to drive. The AZ-1 was built-in out of this mindset and owes its actuality in ample allotment to the architecture of two mid-engine Suzuki concepts from 1985 and 1987, the RS/1 and RS/3. As the adventure goes, Suzuki eventually alone assignment on the added abolitionist RS concepts in adjustment to focus on the Cappuccino, a acceptable front-engine, convertible, adventurous kei car that fell in band with the agnate Honda Beat.
Cue Mazda, which took over development of the activity in the backward 1980s and installed Toshihiko Hirai as its artefact chief. (Toshihiko-san additionally captivated the aforementioned position on the first-generation Miata program.) By 1989, Hirai had three new AZ-550 concepts accessible for that year’s Tokyo auto show. Type A looked abundant like the AZ-1 assembly car does, and Type B was hardly beneath affecting with accepted doors. Type C looked like a mini-Group C sports ancestor racer—right bottomward to its finned BBS alloys. In the end, Mazda begin the Type A best acceptable to acknowledgment a profit. About three years later, in September 1992, the Autozam AZ-1 went on sale.
At aloof shy of 11 anxiety long, the two-seater appearance abbreviate overhangs, beefy and straight-edged artificial anatomy panels, and administration cues chargeless adopted from cars that could about absolutely eat the AZ-1 for lunch. Its ancillary strakes and high-profile rear addition catch to the Ferrari Testarossa and F40, respectively. The advanced end, with its carved-out headlight pockets and awning scoop, mimics the Ford RS200 that abashed the Group B assemblage car arena in the backward 1980s. The ancillary windows accept alone a baby aperture section, which is agnate in ambit to addition ’80s dream machine, the Lamborghini Countach.
The AZ-1 answerable assimilate Japanese anchorage powered by a Suzuki-sourced, transverse-mounted, twin-cam, 12-valve 657cc turbocharged three-cylinder authoritative 63 hp and 63 lb-ftof torque commutual with a five-speed manual. Rolling on an 88.0-inch wheelbase, it additionally featured an absolute strut abeyance and four-wheel disc brakes. Unfortunately, alike for a kei car, the AZ-1 accepted too baby and big-ticket for many, costing the agnate of about $12,000 at the time for a car that struggled to calmly fit two people. A Japanese recession did the rest, allowance to conductor the little sports auto out of assembly by the end of 1994. The adventitious ancillary aftereffect was that the AZ-1 is now conceivably the rarest kei-class sports car of its era. Although it stickered for beneath than a new Eunos Roadster (the Japanese bazaar Miata), the AZ-1 was priced college than the Beat and Cappuccino. Aloof 4,392 were congenital in all (plus 531 badge-engineered Suzuki Cara models), against 28,000 Cappuccinos and added than 33,000 Beats.
The 1992 AZ-1 we’ve been starring in is endemic by Mark Brinker, a Texas-based surgeon and enthusiast of absorbing cars. (His accumulating includes several attenuate Japanese abstract and the one-off Herb Adams Pontiac Vivant concept.) Brinker’s AZ-1 is an alike rarer Mazdaspeed version, which is reportedly one of as few as 100 produced. It includes a branch anatomy kit with a different hood, advanced button spoiler, and rear wing. Sport-tuned struts and springs, advanced and rear strut bars, a automated limited-slip differential, stainless-steel action muffler, and different admixture auto (wearing attenuated 165-width tires) were additionally allotment of the package.
Inside, the AZ-1’s white barometer faces with red all-overs attending sporty, as does its three-spoke, leather-covered council wheel—another Mazdaspeed option. The autogenous aperture handles are adopted from the Miata, and the additional annoy is buried abaft the fixed-back, high-bolstered seats, affiliated to the mid-engine Fiat X1/9. There’s actual little in the berth to abstract from the assignment of driving—just simple altitude and audio arrangement controls on the centermost assemblage (all labeled in Japanese, of course) and not a accomplished lot else. The floormats are abstract with “AZ-1 Exciting Micro Coupe.” Actual Japanese.
Getting into the little ’Zam can be a challenge, admitting it gets easier with practice. Best to alpha by putting your larboard leg into the car aboriginal (remember, this is a right-hand-drive vehicle) again accelerate it anxiously beneath the council caster as you abscond your base into the driver’s seat. Again it’s aloof a amount of contorting your appropriate leg abundant to get it central the car afore you cull the aperture band to abutting the gullwing door; it’s a acceptable abstraction to avoid bottomward hardly as you do if you’re abutting the 6-foot range.
Once in, you’ll apparently acquisition that your larboard leg is somewhat bankrupt amid the centermost animate and the council caster and that you accept bound advancement with your easily on the council wheel—your larboard leg is blocking the amplitude your larboard duke would use while authoritative a larboard turn. The pedal box is additionally absolutely tight, but a brace of about attenuated admeasurement 11 shoes didn’t acquisition it too abundant of an issue.
Turn the key, and the AZ-1’s turbocharged three-banger fires up with a adequately banal bankrupt agenda that’s a bit of a anticlimax initially. But already you aperture the about-face batten into first, booty up the clamp pedal, and accord the ’Zam some throttle, the complete intensifies as the revs aces up. By 3,000 rpm the agent starts to appear on cam, and by 6,000 rpm it’s activity like a absolute sports car. There’s addition 3,000 rpm to go afore you hit the 9,000-rpm redline, and those final revs per minute complete outstanding, about ambitious that we let the revs arise afore upshifting. The little subliter agent sings its turbocharged affection out, with a automated babble that sounds about alien yet all its own. It’s not what you’d alarm quick—0 to 60 mph takes about 10 abnormal alike accustomed the vehicle’s bare 1,590-pound barrier weight—but the awareness of acceleration in such a small, analog car is fantastic.
The non-assisted council is abundant back abyssal parking lots, but it lightens up accurately at acceleration while application affluence of feel and precision. Agnate to the added avant-garde Alfa Romeo 4C, back you move the caster aloof off center, the car anon starts to change direction. You can never relax, and it’s allotment of the acumen the ’Zam feels like such a driver’s car. Toss it into a corner, and it will cycle alone hardly on its Mazdaspeed action abeyance afore demography a set and captivation its band through. There’s aloof so little weight, so little mass, it’s about as if you’re wheeling a 1:1 calibration adaptation of a 1980s Micro Machines toy car.
Want one? Now that the admiral acquiesce you to accurately acceptation any car that’s at atomic 25 years old, it opens the aperture to bringing an AZ-1 of your own to the States, but be abiding you analysis your accompaniment and bounded statutes afore you bead as abundant as $17,000 on a abundant example. Get one, and you’ll be all but assured to accept the alone Autozam AZ-1 at your bounded cars and coffee. Aloof be accessible to acknowledgment the assured “What is it?” catechism for the continuance of the show.
Mazda and its subsidiary, Autozam, put a lot of accomplishment into accepting the architecture aloof right. So abundant so that it displayed three AZ-550 concepts at the 1989 Tokyo auto appearance and asked the accessible for feedback. Type A best carefully resembles the assembly car, with a change from retractable to anchored headlights to lower amount and advance structural rigidity. Type B featured accepted doors, vertical headlights, and annular fenders, and Type C appeared as a Group C ability antagonism ancestor with a bubble-style awning and animated rear wing. Type C was absolutely the best accepted with the public, but Mazda admiral absitively Type A was the best viable.
For added archetypal Japanese cars, see some of our favorites from the countdown Japanese Automotive Invitational show.
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