Mazda is one of the world’s most innovative car companies. They have produced some of the best cars of all time and in 2015, Mazda was the fifteenth biggest car maker by production worldwide.
The company is relentlessly consistent and unlike most other automakers, they have not really gone through a bad era of cars. While they have produced some duds along the way, Mazda have always had at least one excellent car in their line-up.
In this article we have put together a list of the ten best Mazdas of all time and the history behind them. Find out what these ten greatest cars are below!
A Brief History of Mazda
Before we take a look at Mazda’s ten best cars, let’s look at a little bit of history about the company.
Like many Japanese car manufacturers, Mazda started off producing products other than motor vehicles. The company began as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd, and was founded in Hiroshima, Japan on the 30th January 1920. It was later renamed to Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd and in the late 1920s it had to be saved from bankruptcy by the Hiroshima Saving Bank and other business leaders in Hiroshima.
In the earlier 1930s, Toyo Kogyo moved from producing machine tools to vehicles with the introduction of the Mazda-Go autorickshaw. During the Second World War the company manufactured weapons for the Japanese military.
While the company did not formally adopt the Mazda name until 1984, every vehicle they sold bore the name.
Beginning in the 1960s, Mazda was inspired by the NSU Ro 80 and decided that they wanted to develop a rotary engined car themselves. Mazda’s management saw the Wankel rotary engine as a way of differentiating themselves from other Japanese car makers.
When manufacturers such as Citroën and General Motors stopped development of the rotary engine, Mazda became the sole manufacturer of the technology for the automotive market.
In an effort to bring attention to itself and the Wankel rotary engine, Mazda decided to rapidly export its vehicles. The company’s rotary models quickly became popular for their combination of good power and light weight.
Following the sixties, Mazda continued to produce rotary engined vehicles and the company reached new heights when they launched their RX-7 sports car in 1978. In 1989, they launched the Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car that would go on to become the most successful sports car of all time.
Following the end of the RX-8’s production, Mazda decided to shelve the rotary engine. Most of their normal cars used regular piston engines and they decided it would be better to put their effort behind new technologies.
Starting in 2014, Mazda began to ship cars with their SkyActiv Technology that improved power output and fuel efficiency, while reducing emissions.
With the growing interest in electric and hybrid vehicles Mazda decided to reinvest in rotary technology as a lightweight range booster. It is unknown what the future will hold for Mazda, but with the company’s track record they are sure to produce some special cars in the future.
The Ten Greatest Mazdas of All Time
Mazda RX-7 FD (1992 – 2002)
The third generation Mazda RX-7 is one of the most loved and well-regarded sports cars of all time. It was wildly futuristic when it first launched in 1992 and the design still holds up today.
Compared to the boxy second-generation RX-7, the FD featured smoother body lines. The new RX-7 FD’s elegant design was primarily the work of chief designer Yoichi Sato and Taiwanese automotive artist, Wu-huang Chin, who also worked on the MX-5 Miata.
Along with the updated body design, Mazda also fitted a new sequential twin-turbocharged 1.3-litre twin-rotor engine. The new 13B-REW engine produced 252 horsepower (188kW) when the car first launched, however, by the end of the RX-7’s production run power was rated at 276 horsepower (206 kW).
This powerful engine combined with a relatively low bodyweight of 1,300 kg meant that the RX-7 could go from 0-100 km/h (62 mph) in just over 5 seconds and on to a top speed of around 260 km/h (160 mph).
In the last year of production, Mazda created a limited run of 1,504 RX-7 FDs that were labelled as “Spirit R”. The Spirit R RX-7 featured all the extra features that Mazda fitted to their previous special edition models, such as cross-drilled brake rotors.
Today, the Mazda RX-7 FD has become a real collector’s item with Spirit R models being the most collectable. If you would like to know more about the history of the RX-7 FD or about buying one, check out our buyer’s guide here.
Mazda MX-5 Miata NA (1989 – 1997)
The first generation of the MX-5 was launched at the Chicago Auto Show on February 10, 1989. It was inspired by the post-war era of British sports cars such as the MG B and Triumph Spitfire.
In Japan, the MX-5 was not badged as a Mazda as the company was experimenting with the creation of different marques for deluxe models, similar to Toyota’s Lexus brand. Instead, the company sold the MX-5 under the Eunos brand.
The MX-5 was the work of a collaboration between a man called Bob Hall and Mazda’s Kenichi Yamamato, the president of the company at the time. Once the MX-5 project was approved, Toshihiko Hirai would become the chief engineer for the car.
Mazda kept the body of the MX-5 as small and as light as possible to not only produce excellent handling characteristics, but also so that the vehicle could comply with Japanese compact car regulations. This meant that the MX-5 weighed in at around 960 kg (2,120 lb) and the wheelbase was just 2,265 mm (89.2 inches).
The lightweight body was combined with a 1.6-litre DOHC four-cylinder engine that produced 115 horsepower (86 kW), and later a 1.8-litre powerplant that produced 129 hp (96 kW).
Mazda also gave the car front and rear independent control arm suspension, a first for the company, four-wheel disc brakes and stamped steel wheels.
When it launched, the MX-5 was highly praised for its fun driving characteristics and price. Motoring journalists appreciated the special attention paid to cockpit ergonomics, the short-throw shifter, the precise handling and its ability to be easily controlled beyond the limit of traction. You can find out more in our buyer’s guide.
Mazda Cosmo (1967 – 1972)
There is no way we could create this list without including the Cosmo, the first production Mazda car to be fitted with a rotary engine. Mazda chose the “Cosmo” name because it reflected the worldwide fascination with the Space Race and they wanted to showcase the rotary as a forward-thinking, future technology.
The Cosmo made its first appearance as a prototype car at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show. Between 1965 and 1966, Mazda produced 20 pre-production Cosmos for their test department and 60 for dealership testing.
Full production of the Cosmo started in May 1967 and lasted until 1972. The cars were hand built at a rate of about one a day, which made a total of 1,176.
The Series I Mazda Cosmo was fitted with a 0810 two-rotor 982 cc engine that produced around 110 horsepower (this model was named the 110S for export markets). It used a Hitachi four-barrel carburettor and a slightly strange ignition design – two spark plugs per chamber with dual distributors. Mazda mated the rotary engine to a four-speed manual transmission.
In 1968 the Series II Mazda Cosmo was introduced with a more powerful 128 horsepower (95kW) engine. It also featured power brakes, 15-inch wheels and an upgraded 5-speed manual transmission. Compared to the Series I, the new model was faster with a top speed of 193 km/h (120 mph) and a quarter-mile time of 15.8 seconds (Series I was 185km/h and a 16.4 second quarter mile).
Part of the Cosmos success in Japan was attributed to the fact that the rotary engine gave Japanese buyers a financial advantage when they had to pay their annual road tax. Buyers could get a more powerful engine without having to pay the tax for something above one litre.
Mazda RX-2/Capella Rotary (1970 – 1978)
The first generation of the RX-2 was an important car for Mazda. It was the first time that a rotary powered car went mainstream and it was sold as both a coupe and a four-door sedan.
The RX-2 was essentially an optional rotary engine package option for the Capella. In Japan the car was known as the Capella Rotary, while it was labelled the RX-2 for export markets. Like the Cosmo, the RX-2 benefited from the fact that it was placed in the lower road tax bracket.
Mazda fitted the RX-2 with a 1146 cc Wankel rotary engine that produced around 130 horsepower (97 kW). The rotary engine was mated to either a 4/5-speed manual transmission or a 3-speed automatic.
Production of the Capella Rotary started in 1970 with sales in Japan beginning in the same year. The RX-2 badged model made its United States debut early in the 1971 calendar year.
While the RX-2 started off with a bang, the oil crisis of the early 1970s massively impacted sales in almost all markets. Additionally, new emissions and safety regulations took their toll on the RX-2’s performance and design.
By 1976, the RX-2 was withdrawn from most export markets due to poor sales. However, production of the Capella Rotary would continue through to the next year, with the final models being sold in Japan in 1978.
While the RX-2 may not have achieved the sales figures that Mazda hoped, it showed the world that rotary powered cars could be fun, sporty and stylish.
Mazda RX-7 SA/FB (1978 – 1985)
By the late seventies Mazda had already shown that it could build excellent motor cars. However, it wasn’t until the first-generation RX-7 that things really started to take off.
Mazda launched the first-gen RX-7 in Japan in 1978 and it is commonly referred to as the “SA22C”. The car was brought in as a successor to Savanna RX-3 and it was designed to take on sports cars from other Japanese automakers.
Motor journalists and enthusiasts alike praised the RX-7 for its incredible handling and driving characteristics. This was of course in part due to the incredible rotary engine fitted to the RX-7, but also due to the car’s balanced near 50:50 layout and low bodyweight under 1,100 kg (2,425 lb).
Initially, the RX-7 was fitted with a 100hp 1.1-litre 12A Wankel rotary engine, but Mazda would later add a 163 hp turbocharged variant and a larger 135 hp 1.3-litre 13B rotary engine.
Models fitted with the standard 12A engine could accelerate from 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) in just over two seconds and go on to a top speed of around 190 km/h (120 mph). Performance for the turbocharged and 13B variants was significantly higher.
By the end of the first-generation RX-7’s production run more than 470,000 cars had been produced, with around 380,000 of those going to the United States market. In 2004, Sports Car International would name the car seventh on their list of Top Sports Cars of the 1970s. In 1983, the RX-7 would appear on Car and Driver magazine’s Ten Best list for the first time in 20 years.
Mazda MX-5 Miata NB (1998 – 2005)
The second-generation Mazda MX-5 had big shoes to fill when it launched in 1998. The first-gen model had been widely successful, and Mazda needed to do something special to keep the magic going.
Mazda fitted the NB with an updated, more powerful range of engines and borrowed many of the external styling cues from the third-generation RX-7. While many of the interior and exterior parts were different, the most notable change was the new headlights that replaced the old pop-up ones.
Like the previous model, the NB continued to use four-wheel independent suspension, with enlarged anti-roll bars at the front and rear. To improve braking performance Mazda fitted better, wider tyres and stronger brakes.
For the new model, Mazda raised the compression ratio of the 1.8-litre engine and changed the intake cam design to a solid lifter with a stronger cam. However, the biggest change to the design was the introduction of Mazda’s Variable Intake Control System, which improved engine performance at both low and high rpms.
Power for the updated engine was rated at 140 hp (104.4 kW) and 157 Nm (116 lb ft) of torque. This combined with a relatively low bodyweight of 1,065 kg meant that the 1.8-litre model could go from 0 – 100 km/h in 7.8 seconds and could reach a top speed of 210 km/h (130 mph).
Along with the updated 1.8-litre engine, Mazda also continued to offer the smaller 1.6-litre B6 engine as an option for European and Japanese buyers.
Later in the NB’s life a turbocharged package option was offered that increased power to around 178 horsepower. Turbocharged cars also received, a torque-sensing limited-slip differential, improved suspension, performance tyres and 17-inch Racing Hart wheels. With more power the turbocharged MX-5 could hit 100 km/h in as little as 6.7 seconds.
Mazda 3 MPS / Mazdaspeed 3
The Mazda 3 is one of the most important cars in the company’s history, however, there is one particular model that stands above the rest. This is of course the Mazda 3 MPS (Mazda Performance Series) that was introduced for the 2007 model year and continued to be produced until 2013.
The Mazda 3 MPS (also known as the Mazdaspeed 3 in North America and the Mazdaspeed Axela in Japan) was a performance model of the standard Mazda 3.
To create the MPS, Mazda fitted the 3 with a 263 hp (196kW) 2.3-litre inline four-cylinder engine that drove the front-wheels. The car was also fitted with a GKN Limited Slip Differential and the engine was mated to a six-speed manual transmission.
Mazda based the MPS on the five-door version of the Mazda 3, but added extra structural bracing and gave the car subtle performance styling cues.
Performance was overall excellent with a 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time of around 6 seconds and a top speed of around 250 km/h (155 mph).
In 2010 Mazda introduced the second generation of the car that retained the 2.3-litre turbocharged engine, but with a few updates. The ECU was revised to give a more useful power curve and the gear ratios were changed to be slightly wider.
Overall, the entire range of Mazda 3 cars deserves to be on this list, but the Mazdaspeed 3 MPS is undoubtedly the greatest Mazda 3 model they have produced to date.
Mazda 6 MPS (2005 – 2007)
Like the Mazda 3 MPS above, the Mazda 6 MPS was a high-performance version of the standard car. It featured a turbocharged version of the 2.3-litre MZR Inline four-cylinder engine that produced as much as 274 hp (European models were detuned to 256 hp) and 380 Nm (280 lb ft) of torque.
Unlike many of Mazda’s other models at the time the Mazda 6 MPS came with an all-wheel drive system. It used Mazda’s Active Torque Split computer-based control system that routed between 100% of the power to the front and 50% to the rear depending on the driving conditions.
Mazda based the 6 MPS on the four-door sedan version of the standard car and mated the 2.3-litre turbocharged engine to a 6-speed manual transmission.
Production started in 2005 with sales beginning in the later part of the year. North American buyers could opt for either the “Sport” trim package or the “Grand Touring” package. The Sport came with a cloth interior and a standard key, while Grand Touring models featured a leather interior and keyless entry/ignition.
Like the Mazda 3 MPS, the 6 could go from 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) in around six seconds and hit a top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph).
Mazda CX-5 First Generation (2012 – 2017)
While we aren’t the biggest fans of crossover cars, the first-generation Mazda CX-5 is arguably the company’s most important modern vehicle. It sold incredibly well and despite its form factor, the CX-5 still embodies Mazda’s driving philosophy and balanced engineering.
The design of the CX-5 was based on the Mazda Minagi and it was created to replace both the Tribute and the CX-7. Mazda first displayed the CX-5 at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, while the Japanese model was displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show the same year. Production models went on sale the next year and at its introduction the CX-5 won the Car of the Year Japan Award.
Mazda offered the CX-5 in both front-wheel and all-wheel drive variants and buyers could opt for either a 2.0-litre 162 hp four-cylinder petrol engine or a 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel with 147 hp or 173 hp. A 2.5-litre SkyActiv Inline-four cylinder petrol engine was also an option in some markets.
A facelifted model was unveiled at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show and it entered production in 2016. The most notable changes included updates to the exterior styling, reductions in road noise, an improved infotainment system and a sport mode for the six-speed automatic transmission.
The first-gen CX-5 was replaced by the equally excellent second-generation in 2017, however, the former was a massive step forward for the company and is why it is one this list.
Mazda MX-5 Miata ND (2015 – Present)
While the third-generation of the Mazda MX-5 was well received, it didn’t spark the same joy that the previous two models had. It was heavier and, in some ways, less direct than the first two generations.
When the fourth-generation ND launched it became immediately apparent that Mazda had returned to the MX-5’s roots. The car was not only lighter but could also be had with a more powerful engine. Mazda unveiled the car in 2014 and started producing them the next year.
Compared to the NC, the MX-5 ND was around 100 kg (220 lb) lighter and about 105 mm (4 inches) shorter). This meant that the vehicle’s curb weight was around 1,000 kg (2,200 lb), an incredible feat for a modern production car.
Mazda offered the base model with a 1.5-litre 129 hp engine, while the 2.0-litre models were rated at 155 hp in North America. A 181 horsepower 2.0-litre engine was also available and the engines were mated to either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Another big change for the new MX-5 model was the steering system. The NC had previously used hydraulic power steering, but the new model used Mazda’s Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS) system.
Along with the standard soft-top model, Mazda also launched the MX-5 RF (Retractable Fastback). This model features a rigid roof and buttresses that give the car a more coupe-like appearance. The top can retract just like the soft-top variant and the interior is almost exactly the same.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the MX-5, Mazda launched the 30th Anniversary Edition in 2019. The car came in an exclusive Racing Orange colour with a special numbering badge. Additionally, Mazda gave the car forged aluminium wheels from Rays Engineering and updated Brembo front brakes. Only 3,000 of these models were produced.
Summary of the Best Ten Mazdas of All Time
Mazda has produced a number of other excellent cars during their time in business with notable ones being the MX-6 and the MX-3. This list is our opinion on the ten greatest Mazdas of all time, let us know what you think are best in the comments below.