Some of the best Japanese cars from the ’90s are passing the 25-year mark and becoming available for import into the US. One of those examples is the Mazda Autozam AZ-1 Kei car. This little car is a scaled-down version of a mid-engined Italian supercar. Kei cars have been a popular type of vehicle in the Japanese market for years now, and there is a good reason for that. For starters, Japan is a fairly crowded country thanks to its geographical size, therefore some things are smaller, like their roads and streets for example. There are also other advantages of having a small car. One of the main ones is that Kei cars are lighter, cheaper, and have smaller engines, which then translates into better fuel economy.
The AZ-1 is quite possibly one of the best and most well-known examples of a Kei car. Mazda and Suzuki combined their powers and created the Autozam brand. While Suzuki provided the engine, Mazda engineered and built the body. This match-made-in-heaven created what we now know as the AZ-1. Although it was only produced for two years (Oct. 1992-1994), the AZ-1 has won over enthusiasts’ minds and hearts the world over. It came powered by a 657cc turbocharged engine that produced a total of 64hp and 63 ft. lbs. of torque, on a good day. However, the AZ-1 is much more than just numbers. Amazingly enough, even McLaren was inspired by this tiny car. That’s right, the McLaren F1 got its idea for gullwing doors from the AZ-1. We bet you didn’t know that!
The original idea for the little AZ-1 goes all the way back to 1985 when Suzuki was working on a mass- prototype similar to the AZ-1. That plan was scrapped in favour of the roadster project that later became known as the Cappuccino. Mazda on the other hand, introduced their version in 1989 called the AZ-550. This pre-production model fully met all the Kei car requirements, which stated that the engine of the car must be under 660cc and the length should not be greater than 126 inches.
Pros and Cons
- Unique gull-wing doors
- Extremely rare
- Extremely fun to drive
- The rear-mounted engine provides excellent handling
- Can be easily upgraded to produce more power
- Rare so replacement parts may be more expensive
- Becoming a collectors car so the price is increasing
- Extremely limited storage
- Doesn’t fit larger drivers
Besides the obvious issues of it being a tiny car, we are going to go over some of the other issues that AZ-1 owners have stumbled across over the years. As previously stated, larger people might have a hard time getting in, but an even harder time getting out. The other downside people complained about was that the pedals are very close together, even for some with small feet. In addition to that, the gears were hard to engage and felt “clunky” at times. As far as the engine goes, not many complaints have been heard. After all, it’s made by Suzuki. In the event of something going wrong, spare parts can be a nightmare to come across, even in Japan. These cars were built in very low numbers and for a limited period of time, so it isn’t like there are a lot of them sitting somewhere in a Japanese salvage yard.
Currently, the average price seems to hover just under $20,000. Due to the scarcity of these little cars, we expect that the price will continue to shoot up. There are some examples that can be had for as little as $10,000, but we highly recommend against those. We have selected two models to show you each end of the spectrum.
Although Kei cars may be unusual here in North America, they are quite common in Japan. At one point, over 40% of the vehicles purchased there were Kei cars in one form or another. Below are some models that closely resemble the AZ-1.
- Honda Beat (Read our Honda Beat Buying Guide)
- Suzuki Cappuccino (Read our Suzuki Cappuccino Buying Guide)
- Daihatsu Copen
Models and Specifications
Since the AZ-1 was only produced for 2 years, we are going to focus more on the special editions made rather than the different generations.
Mazdaspeed version of Mazda Autozam AZ-1
The Mazdaspeed version of the AZ-1 was designed to showcase all the available parts and options for this model. For example, the body kit featured redesigned hood, new spoiler, and rear wing. There was an additional option for ad all-red or blue interior which was not available on the regular production models. Additionally, there were numerous mechanical upgrades available on the Mazdaspeed version. These included a ceramic muffler, shock absorbers with sport springs, available front and rear strut bars, mechanical LSD, and so on.
1994 Mazda Autozam AZ-1 (M2 1015)
In 1994 there M2 Inc, a subsidiary of Mazda created the M2 1015 version. The most notable feature of this special edition was the way they integrated the front fog lights into the bonnet, in addition to the new front bumper and rear spoiler. There were three uniform colors to choose from. Those colors included white, black, and silver. Sadly, out of the 50 special editions produced, the manufacturer only sold about half of them. To recoup some of the money, M2 sold the parts individually from the remaining ones.
There were only slight cosmetic changes to the Cara, but the most noticeable changes were the added fog lights. View Suzuki Cara listings for sale.
1993 Mazda Autozam AZ-1 (M2 1014)
1014 was a one-off car specifically built for the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show that took some design elements from the famous Lamborghini Cheetah of the time. It was a rally version of the AZ-1 with features like a pair of detachable spotlights on the hood. Moreover, the glass roof found on the regular AZ-1s was now made from plastic and fully detachable.
They Name Kei cars comes from the Japanese word that roughly translated into “lightweight car”.
After WWII, money was tight in Japan. This is also the time that the first Kei cars started to appear. Not only are the vehicles cheaper but the running costs (insurance, tires, fuel, etc) are significantly cheaper with a smaller vehicle.
Due to the strict regulations, the maximum engine must be 660cc or under to qualify as a Kei car.
Yes! Luckily the AZ-1 just rolled over 25 years old, making them legal to import stateside.
We don’t recommend that anyone over 6-feet tall tries fit in this small car. Although it is possible, it would not be very enjoyable or comfortable.
We think so. Due to the fact that the AZ-1 was produced for only a couple of years in limited numbers, we are sure this car will become a future classic, thus only going up in value.
How to Import a Mazda Autozam AZ-1
Read our ultimate guide, How to Import a Car from Japan.