Two days after driving this thing, I had a McLaren 650S for a day. A friend asked what it was like. “Pretty fast,” I replied, “But it’s no AZ-1.”
Here is is, clearly the best of the kei-cars I’ve ever driven, and I’ve driven a few (please note: won’t drive a Honda Beat until later this year, so there may be an update). How the heck can you cram this much character in a car with the footprint of a Barbie Corvette? Gullwing doors, mid-mounted turbocharged engine, Mazdaspeed aero upgrades, side-strakes, 63hp. Oh right, 63 hp. That’s... not a lot. (More pictures and a brief history of the AZ-1’s development below.)
Mind you, when you’ve got the curbweight of an anorexic chickadee, a little power goes a long way. This car’s about as heavy as a Lotus Super7, and while not exactly huge on horses, the turbo’d 3-cylinder revs to 10,000rpm. It sounds like a turbocharged pencil sharpener.
This being the Mazdaspeed version (rare, only 100 made), there are a few interior and exterior goodies to go with. The car is a single colour rather than two-tone, and there’s this racing-style steering wheel on the inside. It’s like a Ferrari F1/40th.
It’s exactly like a five-speed winged insect. Yes, there’s not much in the way of straight-line speed if you flub things up, but stringing together corners in this thing is like building one of those gravity-fed marble toys we all had as kids. Halfway through the drive on the mostly-flat roads of the Fraser Valley, we head up into the hills and find a slithering piece of fresh tarmac that might as well be a Japanese touge: smooth, winding, inviting.
You have to venture pretty far afield to find a road where you’d feel comfortable flogging a car in BC. The speed-limits are relatively low, made for the lowest-common-denominator Pontiac Grand Prix running duck-tape taillights and two donuts spares. However, in a factory-spec kei-car, a speed limit isn’t a restriction. It’s the lap record.
Foot to the floor, revs up, darty steering communicating every single thing those pizza-cutter tires are doing. The AZ-1 is tip-toe poised going into the corners and you zip out of them with that offbeat angry three galloping away like half a Dino. It’s wonderful.
A shame, then, that this car arrived far too late in the Japanese economic bubble - as a sales phenomenon, it was a relative disaster. Far more Cappuccinos and Beats were sold, never mind Figaros and Be-1s and all the other Nissan oddballs.
It is the rarest of the keis, a flittery little gull-winged thing that barely translates to North American roads. I put it next to this week’s loaner, the sales-champ Ford F-150. Which one’s got the bigger heart? No contest.