If there is one category of car where the Japanese really did reign supreme during the JDM “golden era” of the 1990s and early 2000s, it had to be the luxury cruiser/VIP segment.
Sure, German automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz had big luxury land barges (and more impressive technology and performance) but Japan gave the world a much quirkier and more interesting lineup of vehicles designed to haul executives, statesmen, and – presumably – shady-but-wealthy underground figures from the airport to the boardroom.
Probably the most famous and well-respected of the Japanese luxury sedans from the 1990s was the Lexus LS400 (or Toyota Celsior as it was known in the Japanese domestic market) which launched the Lexus brand into the automotive world as a byword for dependable luxury. You can learn more about the history of the LS400 in our comprehensive buyer’s guide, but suffice it to say that this car truly was a game changer. Japan proved it could tackle the Europeans head-on, and beat them at their own game, producing a car that was fundamentally better than the competition. As the story goes, when General Motors engineers stripped down an LS400 in the early 1990s to see just how Toyota had managed to do it, they concluded there was simply no way that GM would be able to build such a vehicle with their production methods and tools at the time.
However, alongside the LS400/Celsior were a number of other excellent luxury sedans.
In this edition of Forgotten Heroes, we take a look at one of Mazda’s offerings from the 1990s, the Sentia. While Mazda is best known for the Miata/MX-5 and the rotary powered RX-7, they also produced some fine luxury cars.
I have been looking forward to writing this article for a while, as I actually owned two Sentias (in succession, going from a generation one to a generation two car – which is pictured above) and have a particular fondness for this quirky, rare piece of Japanese luxury engineering. Despite having a peculiar affection for a car just about everyone else has forgotten, I’ll try not to let it cloud my judgement and will give a balanced appraisal of the Mazda Sentia.
Table of Contents
What Is It?
The Sentia was Mazda’s flagship luxury sedan of the 1990s, replacing the Luce.
The Sentia was built across two distinct generations, and was a competitor to cars such as the Lexus LS400/Toyota Celsior and Honda Legend.
Sentia was the name given to the car sold in the Japanese Domestic Market. However, it could also be purchased in Japan as an Efini MS-9 (Efini being Mazda’s short-lived attempt at developing a standalone luxury brand). The Efini MS-9 models came with more luxury features as standard, but are otherwise the same as the Sentia.
Sentias have found their way into countries with used, grey-market Japanese imports, such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
If the Sentia looks familiar to you, it might also be because sold in some markets outside of Japan (such as the United States, Australia and Canada) as the 929/Serenia.
There was also a badge engineered version called the Kia Enterprise, which was built up until 2002. The Enterprise isn’t totally the same as the Sentia, however, with some different body panels and other features.
As you’d expect of a flagship vehicle, Mazda put considerable effort into packing luxury features and technology into the Sentia. There were all the usual high-end options available, such as leather seats, genuine wood grain trim, and a six CD stacker with twelve speaker sound system. Basically, as long as you were willing to pay, the Sentia could be as plush as you’d ever realistically need it to be.
Power came in the form of either a 2.5 or 3.0 V6 engine (with 3.0 being the only option for the second generation) and mated to a conventional four speed automatic gearbox.
All Sentias were rear wheel drive, and featured speed-sensitive four wheel steering. At 35km/h or less this allowed the rear wheels to toe out in order to reduce the turning circle of the car, and at higher speeds the rear wheels could toe in to improve stability in the corners.
Another quirky tech feature was a novel way of keeping the car’s occupants cooler. We all know how horrible it is to climb into a hot car that has been parked out in the sun. It takes time for the AC system to start working properly, and after a long day of boardroom manoeuvring, the last thing an executive needs is to get into an overly warm cabin for the drive home. Lucky Mazda was on hand with a solution for the early 1990s executive sedan buyer who didn’t like to get too hot.
Buyers of the Sentia (or the 929 in export markets) could option the car with a sunroof that itself could be optioned with a solar- powered ventilation system. A solar panel was integrated into the sunroof, and when outside temperatures exceeded 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) a pair of fans integrated near the trunk/boot of the car would automatically activate and pull hot air out of the car.
The whole purpose of this system was to use solar power to “take the edge off” the heat that builds up inside a car. If you zoom in on the promotional brochure excerpt below (from Curbside Classic’s article on the Mazda 929 – the USDM Sentia) you can see a graph in the bottom left corner that explains the purpose of the solar ventilation system. A car parked in the sun for two hours would normally heat up to around 170F/76C. However, with the solar powered ventilation system running, the car would only heat up to around 140F/60C.
What this means in practical terms is that the Sentia’s trick cooling system could reduce the time it took to bring interior temperatures down to a comfortable 77F/25C (via the AC) by around 30% [source]
And if you really hated being too warm, you could have optioned your Sentia with Solar Control glass that reflects more of the sun’s infrared rays compared to regular glass, helping to keep temperatures more amenable.
If that wasn’t clever enough for the time, when the weather was below the 59F/15C mark, the system would instead use the solar panels to trickle charge the battery. This was considered clever enough to get a mention in a September 1991 issue of Popular Science:
When Was It Made?
The Mazda Sentia was built from 1991-1999 (although the last produced cars are “2000” year ones). As mentioned above, there are two distinct generations.
The first generation, “HD”, ran from 1991-1996.
The first generation car is the more popular choice, albeit more dated in terms of features. Most agree that it is the more attractive car in the exterior styling department.
The second generation, “HE”, was built from 1995-1999. It has a less rounded appearance, and while being the technically superior car is not considered as attractive by most:
While the HE gen cars are more modern, the styling was more generic. However, what’s interesting about the HE generation Sentia is that the styling was apparently based on that of a failed Mazda concept, the Amati 1000.
Looking to emulate the success of Toyota’s Lexus brand, and Honda’s Acura brand, Mazda sought to develop their own luxury spin-off brand called “Amati”.
Amati’s flagship car was meant to be a luxury sedan called the 1000, that would run rings around the Lexus LS400, Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series. The Amati 1000 was designed to have a “triple four” V12 engine (complying on paper with Japan’s 276hp gentleman’s agreement) and offering effortless power for the chauffeur-driven executive in a hurry.
Mazda spent up large on Amati, signing up dealerships in America, developing production lines and so on, investing over 50 billion yen. Mazda aspired to become one of the top three automotive manufacturers in Japan, and was willing to invest heavily to do so. A leading advertising agency in the United States was given a budget of $75 million USD to promote the Amati brand in America, with a view to launch in late 1993.
However, there’s a reason you still see Lexus and Acura cars, but you don’t see Amati. The program was cancelled in the early 1990s, having lost Mazda serious amounts of money.
Japan’s asset price bubble – which had inflated extremely aggressively in the mid to late 1980s, providing capital for companies like Toyota and Honda to fuel their expansionist aims – burst by 1992, leading to sharply declining asset prices. The Japanese economy entered what is now known as the “Lost Decade”. At the same time, the US economy entered into a milder recession following the Gulf War, which led to reduced demand for luxury vehicles. Credit availability tightened substantially in Japan, meaning that car sales declined. At the same time, due to collapsed asset prices Mazda couldn’t so easily access investment to keep the Amati brand going. As such, the Amati brand was cancelled, as Mazda simply didn’t have enough money to continue. This is a very interesting story, and something we intend on covering in more detail on Garage Dreams.
The Amati 1000 was supposedly based on the first generation Sentia/929 platform, but after the program was shelved some of the styling elements were brought back for the second generation Sentia.
On a side note, if you want to buy the “legacy” of the failed Amati project, another way to do so is by looking out for a Mazda Millenia/Eunos 800/Xedos 9 (Mazda’s ridiculous collection of sub-brands in the 1990s will be the topic of another article). The Mazda Millenia was originally meant to be the Amati 500, but as mentioned above that brand was shelved.
There doesn’t appear to be any reliable information about how many Sentias were built, but the car was never exactly a sales success, particularly the second generation.
Part of the problem was that this was an expensive car. According to Curbside Classic, the list price for the 1996 model 929 as sold in Australia was $79,000 AUD (a figure backed up by Redbook.com.au)
Plugging that in to the Australian Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator, it means that in today’s money the 929 would have cost you around $140,000 AUD. An eye watering sum, to say the least, and at the time you could get into a BMW 5 Series for similar money. Although the Sentia wasn’t quite so expensive in the Japanese market, it wasn’t a cheap car and there were plenty of competitive alternatives for the money. Long story short, the Sentia simply didn’t sell well enough to justify continued production.
Paradoxically, part of the reason for the Sentia’s commercial failure is that it was branded a Mazda. Apart from the Efini MS-9 badged cars, you were getting a Mazda – which had never been a brand associated with luxury. The export name – 929 – didn’t sound much more premium than “everyday” Mazda’s like the 323. Spending up large on a Lexus or Acura sounded plausible to cashed-up American buyers in the early 1990s. Parting with a big chunk of money for a Mazda? No, thank you very much.
Had the Amati brand launched successfully, it’s entirely possible that the Sentia/929 – as an Amati product – could have been much more of a sales success in export markets.
Why You Should Consider One
- Understated luxury – The Sentia conveys its occupants in luxury and comfort, without being too “in your face” about it. Apart form the rare Efini MS-9 cars – and as mentioned above the Efini brandname never took off anyway – to the outside world you are just going around in a big Mazda. This means you aren’t the centre of attention, which is nice for those of us who like to be discreet, but also helps to explain why the car wasn’t much of a sales success in its day; many of those who would have had the means to purchase one new would have picked something from a premium brand like Acura or Lexus (at least when looking at the export 929s).
- Respectable performance – The Sentia won’t win any land speed records, but you get more than adequate power from the V6 engine, particularly with the larger 3.0L option. There is ample power for pulling away from the lights or passing on the motorway. For a large luxury car, the Sentia isn’t too bad through the corners either. Press on too hard and it starts to wallow (and you do need to be careful of oversteer, particularly in the wet – I nearly spun my Gen 1 Sentia out on a wet roundabout when going a bit too quickly and turning too tightly).
- Comfortable – Although dated by today’s standards, the Sentia cabin is a nice place to be. The seats in both the front and back are comfortable, and it’s a pleasant place to be for an extended period of time. The suspension soaks up the bumps in the road nicely, and the cabin is quiet and refined. I once drove my Gen 2 about 500km in a day, stopping only for bathroom breaks, and got out the other side not feeling even the slightest bit stiff or sore.
- Something a little bit different – The Sentia was Mazda’s last RWD luxury sedan. It represents the end of an era, and it was one of their flagship cars of the time. While it wasn’t the best of its bunch, the rare nature and interesting history of the Sentia make it worthy of your consideration. This is especially so for the second generation car, when you consider that it was in some respects the follow up to the failed Amati program.
- Affordable to purchase on the used market – To put it bluntly, the Sentia fell out of bed price-wise in terms of depreciation. My first example (a Gen 1) I purchased for around $1500 NZD back in 2009. My second, which was in above average condition for age and mileage, cost me $3000 a few years later. In both cases I spent a few percent of what the cars originally cost. Although prices have risen since then, the Sentia is still a relatively affordable “modern classic” on the used market, primarily because most owners don’t really know what they’ve got. Dealers seem to be trying their luck to cash in on the JDM collectible craze, but if you can find a private sale example in good condition you should be able to score a bargain.
What’s Not To Love
- Not as good as some of the competition. This was the Achilles’ Heel for the Sentia in its time, and remains so today when considering one as a “JDM classic”. There are just so many good cars in this executive sedan segment, and many of them are technically superior to the Sentia. The Lexus LS400/Celsior is the best example of this. In almost every way, it was a superior car, from performance to features to reliability. Mazda simply didn’t do enough to make this car stand out in a crowded field. It wasn’t a bad car – contemporary reviews are largely positive, and having owned both generations I can personally attest to just how nicely these cars drive (even older, higher mileage examples). But when your competitors also do the job just as well, if not better, it’s hard to stand out. Compare and contrast to the Mazda RX-7, for example, which competed against many of the Japanese hero cars of the 1990s like the Skyline GT-R, Supra MK4, Mitsubishi GTO/3000GT and so on. Although all of these cars have their pros and cons, the RX-7 can always fall back on the fact that it has that unique rotary power plant, which instantly secures its desirability.
- Parts availability can be challenging for these cars, as not everything is shared with other cars in Mazda’s lineup. Furthermore, the complex and rare nature of the Sentia (especially these days) means that not every mechanic is going to be cut out to work on your car. I found this out the hard way with my second Sentia. It developed a small leak from the water pump, and so on the advice of the mechanic I used at the time I had the timing belt and water pump changed. However, the mechanic – although skilled in general and good with some complex European cars – made a mistake in setting the timing on the engine, and shortly thereafter it led to the catalytic converter burning out and the engine basically giving up the ghost. I had to sell my beloved Sentia for just above scrap value, to a guy who wanted to try and repair it and use it as a farm hack/project car. I should have been firmer on seeking restitution from the mechanic, but that is a story for another time. What is more interesting is that when I spoke to the local Mazda dealership (which I should have done instead of going to my independent mechanic) even they said that they saw so few Sentias that they would have to consult with their head office on the proper way to do a timing belt change. Compare this to something like the LS400/Celsior, which is still a complex car but which has a lot more “public knowledge” on how to maintain and fix it.
- As is often the case with once-expensive, complex cars, aggressive depreciation meant that the Sentia got cheap enough to fall into the hands of those who couldn’t afford to (or didn’t want to) maintain their car properly. Like most complex luxury cars, the Sentia was built to be sold new to people with the means to pay for repairs and maintenance, and the lack of maintenance “upkeep” is what has caused problems for many owners. I was the victim of this myself, primarily with my 2nd generation Sentia. It suffered particularly badly in the suspension department, as the previous owners had probably not kept up-to-date with routine and preventative maintenance, and had deferred smaller repair jobs that snowballed into bigger ones. Doing research for this article, it seems that Mazda at one point tried to incentivise customers to have the four wheel steering system turned off, presumably because the added complexity of operating it made for worse reliability issues in the suspension department (I couldn’t find any specific source verifying that claim, but definitely my 2nd generation Sentia used to go through ball joints like a dog through its breakfast) In an ideal world, you’d hold out for a Sentia/929 with robust service history (hopefully owned by people who cherished what they had, rather than people who just needed a cheap car that could be used and abused). If you buy one, put money aside for repairs as chances are you’ll need to invest in previously-deferred upkeep.
- Lack of safety equipment – The first generation Sentia, at least on the 1991 model that I owned, didn’t have any airbags at all. Some export market 929s did come with driver and passenger airbags, but as with many cars of the era, safety equipment wasn’t such a big consideration. However, other luxury cars of the time did offer more in the way of safety equipment, so if staying safe on the road is a key consideration for you, then the Sentia might not be the best buy.
- Thirsty for fuel – It’s a big, heavy, V6-powered sedan. Do I really need to say more? Not a big issue if you’re only driving it on occasion as a weekend toy or collectible, but if you are going to daily drive one, then you best have substantial investments in the oil industry.
Conclusion: Mazda Sentia
Overall, the Mazda Sentia is an interesting entry into the annals of the 1990s Japanese luxury sedan segment.
It was a good car, offering decent performance, comfort and capability.
I promised in the introduction to this article that I wouldn’t let my ownership of two Sentias cloud my judgement on this car. I think I’ve been fairly balanced in my assessment, and pointed out many of the clear problems that the car had as both a new vehicle and a used proposition. However, I still have wonderful, fond memories of both of mine. Road trips with friends and family, cruising around the streets at night trying to pretend that downtown Christchurch was the same as downtown Tokyo (it’s not, let me tell you tht) … this is a car with special meaning for me.
Unfortunately I have no images of my first Sentia. It was a 1991 car, with a 2.5L V6. It wasn’t exactly in amazing condition, with some average paintwork and a few dings and scrapes – but serviceable nonetheless. The previous owner had fitted a raucous exhaust to it in an attempt to do a cut-price “JDM VIP” job. I loved that car, and was immensely proud of it when I first bought it in my last year of high school. It also made me one of the people that everyone wanted a lift to parties from, because I had a car that was somewhat fast and comfortable (and had a good sound system with a trusty cassette adapter allowing the connection of the ubiquitous-for-the-time generic MP3 player).
My second Sentia, as featured in a few images in this article, was an even better car. Although it had some reliability issues – caused by a combination of insufficient maintenance over the years and the general complexity of cars of this nature – it was once again a great vehicle that met an untimely end. When it was working well, which it did for most of the ~3 years I owned it, it was a dream to drive. This was a car that cost less to buy than a top spec iPhone of the time, and made you feel a million bucks when driving it … at least compared to most of the cars my peers had at the time.
As a “curios” in 2022, the Mazda Sentia still holds up. If you want a retro JDM cruiser, then you’ll have fun with the Sentia and probably enjoy your ownership. It’s the sort of car that passengers climb into not expecting much, but then emerge impressed (I’ve got a great story to tell about this at the end of the article). I still have extremely fond memories of both of mine, particularly the second generation ‘Royal Classic’, which was a truly superb car up until it met an untimely end at the hands of a mechanic shop that didn’t know what they were doing with it.
The big problem with the Sentia, however, is competition from other Japanese car makers. There’s no escaping the fact that the Lexus LS400/Toyota Celsior of the same era is just a better car. More power, better reliability, superior features … you name it, the LS400 has it over the Sentia (apart from in the rarity stakes). Then there are other competitors as well, such as the Honda Legend, Nissan Cima and Toyota Crown, all of which have strong merits.
In a field of strong contenders, the Sentia never really did enough to stand out. Because of this, it faded into obscurity, and Sentias got cheap enough to fall into the hands of people like yours truly who didn’t have the means to maintain them.
Compare the Sentia to another of Mazda’s creations – the Cosmo. The third generation Cosmo, which launched around the same time as the Sentia, was a truly unique take on the luxury performance sports coupe, with its triple rotor engine and twin turbocharger setup, as well as a space-age interior. Although there were many great luxury sports coupes in the 1990s, the Cosmo still stands out because of its relentlessly high-tech nature. The Cosmo has become a very desirable and pricey car, while most Sentias still left are probably destined for the scrapheap. If only Mazda had taken the drivetrain from the Cosmo and plonked it into the Sentia body, as a sort of successor to the rotary-powered Mazda Luce of old, then the Sentia might be remembered differently.
Does this mean the Sentia isn’t worth buying?
No, of course not. If it was a garbage car, then it wouldn’t feature in the Forgotten Heroes segment.
If you look at the Sentia for what it really is – a portal back to a time when Japan was really trying to win in the luxury sedan segment – then it becomes a more compelling proposition. The Sentia is a truly interesting “time warp” car. It might not be the best on paper, but you’ll be enjoying the drive so much that you won’t notice.
In closing, I’ll leave you with a little anecdote about the Sentia.
My dad was a big fan of the Sentia, particularly my second generation one – he was always on at me to borrow it. One day, he had to pick up the CEO of the company he worked for at the time from the airport. This CEO – who shall remain unnamed (along with the company) – is a bona fide billionaire, and my dad chose to pick him up from the airport in a 200,000km-on-the-clock Mazda Sentia I had bought for about $3000 a couple of years prior.
You’d think that this would be a faux pas from which there could be no recovery. But it wasn’t. The CEO, who was used to high end and new European cars, was genuinely impressed with the Sentia … particularly the fact that it was badged a “Royal” car.
Long story short, if the Mazda Sentia is good enough for a billionaire, it’s good enough for any of us.