As Crazy as the name might sound, the Mazda Bongo is one of the best JDM vans, and it’s among the most successful cars produced by Mazda. Success is owed to its compact size body that is not large like the Toyota HiAce but larger than other vans in its class, such as the Mitsubishi Delica and Honda Stepwgn.
The Mazda Bongo is also among the few JDM vans made in various configurations, thus giving customers a wide range to choose from, which comes in handy today if you are looking to buy one. The Bongo Friendee is the most common Mazda Bongo Variant in the United States and Canada due to the ever-growing camping culture. However, competition in the JDM camper van scene is stiff, especially with the better-equipped Mitsubishi Delica in play.
In the United States, Kei vans and trucks are the most preferred, but larger van and truck sales have been increasing lately since most of the best model years were produced in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. For example, the Toyota HiAce H100 Custom Living Saloon and Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear. The Mazda Bongo hasn’t caught up, but it will soon, especially due to the establishment of owners’ forums, and it’s cheaper than its competition.
Mazda began producing the Bongo in the mid-1960s when there was a high demand for transportation services in Japan; thus, it was first made as a passenger van/wagon and a load van. Later, a Bongo truck variant was introduced to the Japanese market, and other companies, such as Ford, began badge engineering the Bongo.
To know more about the Mazda Bongo, the pros and cons of buying one, and what you should look for when purchasing one, we have compiled a comprehensive guide with all that, among other factors, for any interested Mazda Bongo future owner.
Pros and Cons
You get the Mazda Bongo in three main configurations, a standard load or passenger van, a camper van, or a truck. Most JDM vans were made as either passenger or load vans and truck configurations. Also, the Mazda Bongo truck is available as a cabin crew truck if you get the long-wheelbase Bongo Brawny truck.
So, what do you do with a Mazda Bongo, or what can you do with one after buying it? For starters, you can always keep it and use it as a load van since most imported to the United States don’t have passenger seats. In Japan, most are used for business purposes only, and it’s pretty rare to find one with rear seats.
Most importers don’t import JDM vans with rear passenger seats as they don’t have seatbelts, and it’s illegal in some states to drive a car without passenger seatbelts. You’ll only get a JDM van with passenger seats if factory seats are fitted with seatbelts.
If you are considering converting a Mazda Bongo into a camper van, get the Bongo Friendee which is already kitted for camping from the factory. One will cost you roughly $10,000, which might be cheaper than buying a non-camper model and converting it into a camper van.
The Mazda Bongo wagon with the monospace load area isn’t that common in the United States and Canada, but it makes a good camper van canvas. Especially if you get one with a four-wheel-drive, it has better ground clearance and leaf spring suspension at the rear; thus, it handles better than the Friendee camper. The only downside is that it’s smaller but has enough build space to fit two, which is not that bad.
Unlike most camper trucks and vans, the Mazda Bongo is relatively small, a shared advantage among JDM vans. You don’t have to park in designated campervan fields, which are congested and lack or have poor amenities. Instead, you can park one at a Walmart parking lot or any space. Provided you have all you need, you’ll be set. The Mazda Bongo’s size makes it easier to maneuver around town and is also hardy enough to withstand some light trails.
One of the main reasons why you should buy any JDM car or van, including the Mazda Bongo, is reliability and durability. Sure, the Mazda Bongo has its share of issues, but when maintained well, it will last for over 300,000 miles, and you’ll only need to change normal wear and tear parts. Most Mazda Bongo problems are caused by owner negligence or improper usage. Old age is another mechanical fault enabler common in all JDM cars.
Low Running Costs
For around $10,000, you can get a Mazda Bongo Friendee with a turbodiesel engine and four-wheel-drive, which makes a cheap purchase if you are looking for a nice mid-sized camper van to tour the country with. And since the Bongo Friendee comes factory equipped with all the necessary camping essentials, buying one and not paying rent if you are an adventure junkie always on the road makes more sense. Just wandering on back roads viewing life through the windscreen and winging it simultaneously!
Other Mazda Bongo Variants are priced at around $6,000 to $15,000, depending on whether it’s a truck or a van. However, these are hard to find in the United States and Canada, leaving importation as the only option. This can be done through an import agent or do it by yourself. But with the Bongo Friendee being camping-ready, would you still buy a Bongo van at the same price and convert it into a camper van?
Constantly being on the road means the fuel pump is your best friend, so what is the Mazda Bongo’s fuel consumption? On average, the Bongo Friendee will average around 21mpg if you get one with a petrol engine, while variants with a diesel engine will average nearly twice as much, which is not bad for a 25-year-old camper van.
Mazda Bongo Spare parts might be hard to find, but they are inexpensive; thus, replacing everyday wear and tear shouldn’t dent your pockets that deep. Also, some parts in most cars are universal such as glow plugs and timing belts can be used provided they are of correct specifications.
The Mazda Bongo Friendee
Camper vans aren’t made to look good as they are more purpose-oriented, but the Mazda Bongo Friendee stands out among most as it doesn’t shout, “hey, look at me, I’m a big slow camper van!” Due to its minimalistic look, nobody will ever suspect it’s a camper van due to its minimalistic look, especially if you have the retractable top closed and closed rear window blinds.
You can even drive a Mazda Bongo Friendee to work; nobody will ever guess you can live off what you drive daily. You’ll always be that dude who drives his van to work and goes grocery shopping in it. Little do they know that you can hit the road on Friday after a tough week at work and end up in a green camping spot at the foot of a hill range unbothered, just enjoying birds chirping and running river water.
Tough To Work On
Every vehicle owner prefers to work on their vehicle once in a while or do a pre-check before setting out on a long trip. In most cars, you have to open the hood, which isn’t the case in some Mazda Bongos, as the engine is either mid-mounted under the front seats or mounted at the rear.
If the engine is mid-mounted, which is the case in the Bongo Friendee and other Bongo vans, you have to remove the seat before getting to the engine, which is not emergency-friendly. Especially if something is wrong and you can’t turn off the engine from the ignition. Checking oil and power steering fluid levels also becomes a tiresome process, and when it comes to engine maintenance, it’s even worse.
You get a rear-mounted engine in Mazda Bongo Vans made between 1966 and 1975, and the engine is more accessible than the mid-mounted one in other model years. A hatch in the load area accesses the engine, but you don’t want coolant boiling or other complications if there’s a load at the back.
Experience Body Roll
JDM cars are great driver-focused vehicles, but this doesn’t mean that all of them should be driven similarly. You can’t drive a Nissan Skyline the same way you drive a Nissan Figaro, and you can’t drive a Mazda Bondo the same way you’d drive a Mazda RX-7. Some require more soothing than others.
Like any camper van, it’s tricky driving the Mazda Bongo at high speeds, mainly due to body roll caused by a constantly shifting center of gravity at high speeds. The effect might not be felt on smaller bongos but on the Bongo Friendee, which is taller and has a longer wheelbase, you might feel swaying movements at high speeds and when going over large bumps.
Unavailability of Spare Parts
JDM vans haven’t caught up in the US market, and owners feel this effect, especially when getting spare parts and good mechanics. Getting replacement parts specifically for the Mazda Bongo is not a walk in the park, and it’s one of the reasons why a Mitsubishi Delica or a Toyota HiAce H1000 is a better purchase. You must scout for parts online or ship from Japan if a major mechanical part is used explicitly on the Mazda Bongo breaks. And both options might take weeks or even months to get what you need.
When buying a Mazda Bongo, checking that everything is in good working condition is advisable. On a 25-year-old van, you can’t be so sure, but it’s reassuring to know that what is there will work and you’ll have gotten a replacement by the time it fails.
Diesel Engines Overheating
Some Mazda Bongo owners have complained of overheating, especially in Bongos with diesel engines. In most cases, overheating is caused by low coolant caused by oil leaks in the cooling system. It may be raptured coolant lines, worn-out clamps, or corrosion in the radiator. It’s recommended to overhaul the cooling system instead of replacing one part after another.
Coolant lines also get clogged; thus, coolant circulation is insufficient to cool the engine. This is mainly caused by accumulating debris from the head gasket, using the wrong coolant, or a cracked cylinder head. A disintegrating head gasket is a major culprit if the coolant lines are flogged. Depending on the extent of the damage, you can either replace the coolant lines or flush the cooling system after replacing the head gasket.
If replacing the coolant lines doesn’t stop the leaks, check the condition of the water pump and thermostat, and in most cases, you’ll find that they have never been replaced. A clogged, corroded, or damaged water pump also causes poor coolant circulation, thus causing the engine to overheat.
Lastly, too much coolant in the cooling system might rapture the coolant lines. Some drivers do this during long drives since they believe that more coolant provides better cooling. Always ensure you fill coolant according to manufacturer specifications on your Mazda Bongo.
When buying an older car, one of the issues you must prepare for is oil leaks. Different cars have different causes for oil leaks, and on the Mazda Bongo, oil leaks are caused by a faulty valve cover gasket. However, it often occurs on variants with the 2.5-liter V6 petrol engine than in others.
Most owners recommend replacing the valve cover gasket some miles earlier than most manufacturers recommend, around 30,000-60,000 miles depending on driving habits. Early signs of valve cover gasket include oil drops on the top of the engine. If ignored, the engine will start misfiring as the oil gets on the spark plugs and the timing chain. Oil leaking from the valve cover gasket is not a major concern if it’s minimal, but it won’t be long before you smell burning oil and there’s a decrease in oil levels.
Replacing the cover gasket is an average fix, especially if you have some mechanical expertise. The only issue is the Mazda Bongo’s engine placement, making it challenging to work on the engine. If you decide to do it yourself, ensure you torque the valve cover correctly, or you’ll need another gasket soon.
Rust is inevitable on JDM cars since they have a thin layer of paint compared to vehicles from other manufacturers. Also, salt is not used on roads in Japan, thus eliminating the need for a rust-protective coating; therefore, the paint wears out quickly when the car is driven on highways with salts. On the Mazda Bongo, rust mainly occurs on the wheel arches, side skirts, quarter panels, and underneath.
Removing rust and repairing rust sports is not an easy fix, especially if the rust has eaten through the body panels. And if a Mazda Bongo has such rust, you should probably not buy it, especially after considering how hard parts are to come across.
On the other, surface rust can be repaired before it worsens, and you can use rust to bargain for a lower price. It depends on your willingness to pay for the car and the project budget. If repairs are not included in your budget, buying a Bongo with no rust is the best option, even if it might cost more, provided you apply a rust protective coating on areas prone to rusting.
Roof and Door Jams
Vans are great until the sliding doors start jamming or fail to close, which can be a pain in the neck. It’s even funny how the sliding door randomly opens while driving or after going over a bump. Sometimes the door handle stops working on either side, and you have to open the door from the side that works.
Due to old age, such components fail, and fixing them is difficult. You can try the install-uninstall method hoping it magically works but getting new door handles and locks is the best option. Also, check if the rollers on the door are well-greased and if there’s debris on the railings.
The Mazda Bongo Friendee camper van has a motor that lifts and lowers the free top. If it has blown a fuse, it won’t raise or lower the free top; thus, you must manually operate the free top. Like any other electrical component, the free top motor might fail if it has never been replaced. But before removing it, check if the struts are free, as they can sometimes jam deeming the top inoperable.
If the van hasn’t been used in a while, the rubber seal on the roof holds the free top in place, preventing the free top from opening. In such cases, opening the free top stresses the motor and might break it, so prying between the free top and the rubber seal is necessary before switching on the motor switch.
What to look for when buying a Mazda Bongo
If cargo area is a priority when buying a van or truck, the Mazda Bongo Brawny is the best option for a JDM van or truck. Loading space in the Bongo Brawny van is larger and more than the load area in the Toyota HiAce, thanks to the extended wheelbase. The same thing applies to the Brawny truck, but it gets even better since you can get a cabin crew Brawny truck but with a shorter bed.
The 2.5-liter V6 petrol engine isn’t as fuel efficient as you’d like a camper van to be. Mazda only used it in the Bongo Friendee, but from most Bongo owners, the diesel engine is more fuel-efficient and durable despite its cooling system issues.
Apart from the rust and failing roof motor, you should check if everything is in check when buying a Mazda Bongo Friendee. This includes the rear window blinds and the folding bed, which you’ll use if you plan to use the van and then upgrade it in the future. Of course, you can’t expect everything to work like new on a 25-year-old van, but it should be in good condition.
The Mazda Bongo is among the best JDM cars you can get for less than $10,000 if you are into vans. Prices remain unaffected by constant JDM car price inflations, and it’s possible to get one even for less than $6,000 but not a Bongo Friendee camper van.
Mazda Bongo For Sale
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Models and Specifications
1966-1975 Mazda Bongo
In 1966 Mazda first introduced the Mazda Bongo as a compact van only for the Japanese market built on the Mazda 1000’s chassis. At this time, most manufacturers were making wagons based on their flagship sedans, as Toyota did with the Crown wagon. The first gen Mazda Bongo was made as a commercial van, passenger van, or cab over-body truck, and it perfectly met customer demands at the time of production.
Early Bongo production years had a mid-mounted 782cc water-cooled engine, and a 1000cc was introduced in 1968. But the Mazda Bongo was not considered a Kei car at the time of production as dimension and engine size regulations were different according to Japanese traffic laws. A car could only be considered a Kei car if it had a 360cc or 550cc engine.
1977-1983 Mazda Bongo (E-series)
After Mazda briefly discontinued the Bongo due to tough economic times, they introduced the second-gen Mazda Bongo in 1977. It featured a front-engine rear-wheel-drive platform, and both Bongo vans and trucks were sold with four wheels on the rear axle, which increased load capacity. Due to the front-engine platform, the second-gen Bongo has a flatter front end compared to the first-gen, which has a wedge-like front end.
Engines used in the first-gen Mazda Bongo were discontinued due to strict emission laws enacted in 1963, which is another reason why Mazda halted the Bongo’s production for two years. 1977 saw the introduction of new four-cylinder engines ranging from a 1.2-liter petrol engine to a 2.2-liter diesel engine. During that year, the Mazda Bongo was sold outside Japan by Mazda and other manufacturers such as Ford. They badge-engineered the Ford Econovan, Econowagon, and Spectron based on the Bongo.
1983-1999 Mazda Bongo, Brawny, and Friendee
Mazda unveiled two Mazda Bongo variants in 1983, the standard Bongo with new engine options and the Bongo Brawny, a long-wheelbase version of the Mazda Bongo. Later in 1994, Nissan badge-engineered the Nissan Vanette, and Kia did the same with the Kia wide Bongo before Mazda unveiled the Bongo Friendee camper van in 1995.
Besides the new variants, Mazda introduced a four-wheel-drive option on all Bongo Variants and comfortable seats on cabin crew trucks and passenger vans. Buyers could also opt for alloy wheels, and the Friendee camper van also got soft closing doors which even Flagship sedans didn’t have at the time of production. An electric auto free-roof was also optional on the Bongo Friendee, replacing the high or standard flat roof.
Different petrol and diesel engines are available in the third-gen Bongo, including the 1.4-liter petrol and 2.2-liter diesel used in the second generation. However, the Bongo Friendee comes with a different 2.5-liter petrol V6 engine or 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine. You can also get one with a 2.0-liter petrol engine, but it’s not that common.
1999-2020 Mazda Bongo
The fourth-gen Mazda Bongo was introduced in the Japanese market in 1999 while Mazda was still producing the Bongo Friendee and Brawny, discontinued in 2005 and 2010. However, the fourth-gen Bongo still used the third-gen chassis as Mazda couldn’t afford a new platform, and the Bongo Brawny was re-introduced in 2010 badge engineered from the Toyota HiAce H200. Mitsubishi also joined other manufacturers in badge-engineering the Bongo to make the Mitsubishi Delica
The Mazda Bongo Friendee is probably the best-priced compact camper van. It’s not too small but also not too large, making maneuverability easy so you don’t have to leave the comfort of your van if you want to tour a small town while on a road trip. When maintained according to schedule and common issues fixed, a Mazda Bongo can easily last for 300,000 miles before major mechanical parts need to be replaced.
Four people can comfortably fit in a Mazda Bongo camper van since the sleeping area at the back can accommodate two, and the other two can sleep on the roof tent at the top. The only downside with a Mazda Bongo camper van is that the cabin seats don’t rotate, unlike most camper vans.
Not all Mazda Bongo variants are four-wheel-drive. Only two variants are equipped with 4WD as standard, the Bongo Friendee camper van and the Bongo Turbo 4×4. All others are rear-wheel-drive only, but there’s a chance you might get one with 4WD.
Mazda Bongo prices average around $5000 to $12,000, depending on the variant. Standard variants are the cheapest, and you might get one for less than $5,000, but if you want a Bongo Friendee camper van, budget for around $10,000.
The best place to buy a Mazda Bongo in the United States is from JDM car dealerships. There’s a chance they might not have any in stock, but importing one through them is better unless you are getting a good deal on a locally used Mazda Bongo.
The Mazda Bongo Brawny is a long-wheelbase variant of a standard Mazda Bongo, while the Bongo Friendee is a factory-equipped camper van.
How to import a Mazda Bongo
Read our Ultimate Guide on How to Import a Car from Japan
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