2011 Mazda AZ Wagon- Everything You Need from A To Z

DSCI0505“Dang, this street is narrow” I think to myself.  “Are we going to fit?”  Before us lay a slim gap lodged between two solid concrete walls misleadingly called a street.  Jutting out like massive booby traps were more obstacles than a Championlink golf course; telephone poles, bike stands, and signs warning of pedestrians.  This passageway was barely wide large enough to fit Rush Limbaugh, let alone a passenger car with three people and a corresponding amount of baggage.  Of course, as the valiant driver, I didn’t tell my passengers about my grave concerns and embodied a confident façade.  However, the left half of my brain had grim images of missing paint, or even worse, being indefinitely wedged between centuries old stonework. Gingerly, we crawled along inch by inch and like passengers in a plane during a storm, gawked out the windows at how close we were to the passing hurdles.  Finally, success!  We clear the barricades and move onto the next street full of hardships.  There’s a famous advertising quote from the early 20th Century “The right tool for the right job.”  In this case, we had the perfect tool to overcome this situation; the Mazda AZ Wagon.

DSCI0553If you’ve never seen or heard of the Mazda AZ Wagon, don’t feel bad.  It’s only sold in Japan and has never been exported in mass numbers.  It’s one of the numerous offerings in a automotive market that is unique to Japan; the kei car (aka K-car or 軽自動車 locally).  While these cars would be running jokes in the United States and many other countries, the kei car is serious business in Japan.  Introduced shortly after World War II as a way to promote the automobile industry to a war-torn and motorcycle-obsessed nation, kei cars were originally designed to combine the best attributes of both a motorbike and four-wheeled vehicle and served as a bridge into car ownership for many.  They offered the compactness and value of a bike. but the stability and weather protection of a car.  The government imposed strict limitations on size and power for these specialized vehicles. Indeed, the first kei cars of the late 1940’s were nothing more than motorcycles planted onto four wheels and with some extra seats.DSCI0506

Over the years, the Japanese government has occasionally raised the strict limits on the kei car’s performance and size.  But it doesn’t happen too often.  Case in point, the last time new standards were imposed was in 1998 when the limit on body length was increased by a mere 3.9 inches, but the same rules on engine capacity from 1990 remained unchanged  In other words, the kei cars haven’t altered too much since the originals from the 1940’s.  The present day limitations on a kei car’s specs is that it must be no longer than 133.9 inches, no wider than 58.2 inches and that the maximum displacement is 660cc (o.6 liters) with an engine output of no more than 63 horsepower.  For comparison, the car with the least amount of horsepower on the US market presently is the Smart ForTwo and that comes with a relatively robust 70 horses.

CAM00187Despite those paltry dimesnions, over one million kei cars were sold in Japan in 2012 and it’s a market that can’t be ignored.  Japanese manufacturers that are household names in the US sell these unfamiliar cars; Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Suzuki, and Mitsubishi all produce their own variants, and some even have multiple kei car offerings in their lineups.  This breed of car is easily recognizable by the special yellow license plates (regular cars have white plates) and is a common sight in every Japanese parking lot.  Whilst owning such a car would be a dreadful nightmare for many Americans, why are the Japanese so eager to scoop them up?

It’s not a huge mystery behind the motivation.  For one, the Japanese government offers appealing incentives to kei car owners.  Sales tax is 3% on a kei car, compared to 5% for a standard sized vehicle, and annual vehicle registration is 30% less as well.  Insurance companies also offer discounts to make the mini cars more enticing.  Lastly, as in the case with our harrowing alleyway experience, Japan is a small mountainous country condensed with 127 million people and space is tight on its ancient streets.  A kei car is the right tool for the job.

DSCI0503The AZ Wagon is Mazda’s outgoing offering and was first introduced to Japan in 1994.  Throughout its history, it has been a rebadged Suzuki Wagon R, which in itself has been consistently one of Japan’s best selling cars.  The car you see in these pictures is the fifth generation AZ Wagon which was introduced for 2008.  Suzuki has since moved onto a sixth generation Wagon R in 2012 and the AZ Wagon has been discontinued.  Our test car proved to be one of the last examples of the AZ nameplate.  However, the good news is that Mazda currently sells a replacement model, the cheerfully named Flair, that is, as always, a twin of the Suzuki.  No one can now blame GM for being the only one determined to continually badge-engineer its offerings.

DSCI0508How does the AZ Wagon stack up as a kei car?  Measuring 133.7 inches from bumper to bumper, the little Mazda edges its way to being one of the largest kei cars on the market.  This is all subjective, of course, as the AZ Wagon is still 11 inches shorter in length than a US spec Chevrolet Spark microcar, and over two feet shorter than a Ford Fiesta hatchback.  Like many domestic Japanese small cars, the AZ Wagon is taller than it is wide- 65 inches tall and 58 inches wide, which means it is also substantially narrower and taller than that aforementioned Fiesta, and any other US market subcompact.  These bizarre dimensions seem to infringe on a person’s innate sense of proportion.

DSCI0510Most folks want to know what it’s like to pilot all of this wackiness down the road.  Surprisingly, it drives like a real car.  The high seating position and vast, upright windshield are deceitfully similar to a large car and the view out is not unlike that of a regular minivan.  Turn the key and the engine starts up with the fervor of a V6.  However, under the stubby hood is a somewhat sophisticated 0.6 liter (once again almost reaching kei car limitations) three-cylinder dual overhead cam motor with variable-valve timing that produces a breathless 52 horsepower.  Many motorcycles have larger and more robust powerplants. The last time a mass-produced car offered such a paltry sum of sheer oomph in the US was in 1994 with the Geo Metro XFi.  Japanese manufacturers have been crafty when it comes to finding loopholes in the government regulations and a turbocharger is available on the AZ which adds some needed boost while remaining within the strict guidelines.  Our particular AZ had the regular, weaker engine and images of having to use the Flintstones technique of foot power came to mind before obtaining the car.  But it didn’t turn out to be the case.  Scooting around the streets of Shinjuku and Tokyo with a full load of passengers proved to notably drama free.  In the city, the car felt downright sprightly and dare I say, brisk.  It didn’t feel bogged down and kept up with the traffic flow on busy streets and between traffic lights.

DSCI0492Thanks to Japan’s extremely conservative speed limits and strict enforcement, we never had many chances to push the car to higher speeds.  On empty country back roads, where 40mph was well over the suggested speed limit, the car continued to putt along quite nicely and had a smooth power band.  However, once we entered an expressway or climbed a hill, like we did during a venture near Mt. Fuji, power delivery would deplete quickly and the car strained to gather speed beyond 50mph.  Engine noise would increase dramatically and the sound was similar to an overloaded Cuisinart.  Thanks to balance shafts, the engine wasn’t inflicted with the inherit three-cylinder shake that plagued prior three-bangers while idling.  Keep this car’s intended purpose in mind and, overall, it goes along its business just fine around congested cities and quiet roads.

DSCI0513Mazda, or Suzuki depending on how you look at it, offered three transmission choices on the AZ Wagon; a five-speed manual, CVT automatic, or traditional four-speed automatic.  Ours came with the latter and for the most part it was a well-polished device.  Shifts were smooth and well-timed around town and there was no jerkiness that is often associated with automatics matched to small motors.  But the transmission can only do so much with the engine’s limited torque, and would try its best to place power to the front wheels during demanding situations.  Hill climbs equated to continual gear hunting as the tranny had to downshift and row its way to lower gears to take advantage of the power.  Driving the AZ Wagon through hilly terrain forces the driver to reevaluate the urgency of getting somewhere and to just enjoy the scenery along the way.  Eventually, the car will get there.

Handling proved to be surprisingly enjoyable.  Despite its top heavy stance, the AZ had a stable, go-kart feel through the corners.  It’s a fun car to toss around on a back road and offers decent grip.  It’s still important for a driver to remember that this car is not a Lotus Elise.  Get a little aggressive on a curve and there is just enough rear end slide to add a smile to an enthusiast’s face.  Once the driver overcomes the high seating position and the fact that they’re precariously perched on skinny 13 inch tires, it can be an enjoyable drive and feels like a mini-Mini Cooper, so to speak.  Overly assisted power steering felt vague and artificial, but was consistent and added to driver confidence once they get used to its behavior.  In parking lots it did occasionally feel a little heavy, but otherwise it was well tuned.

Ride was perhaps the biggest (no pun) surprise.  The wheelbase, at 94 inches, is longer than the Chevy Spark’s and almost reaches the length of a much larger Fiesta’s.  The wheels have intentionally been placed to the furthest corners with little overhang. That translates to a stable and absorbent drive even over the roughest road surfaces, which there are few in Japan.  On some harsher back roads, the car remained composed and compliant, similar to a much larger vehicle.

CAM00171The beauty of the AZ is inside and that long wheelbase pays off tremendously here.  The classic Air Supply song “Making love out of nothing at all” comes to mind in how Mazda made so much space out of such a tiny footprint. Open any of the AZ’s wide swinging doors and passengers are greeted to a cabin that is not dissimilar to a full-size SUV. The vehicle packaging on the AZ, and many other kei cars, is just amazing and an example of the efficient Japanese use of space that is applied on everything from capsule hotels, to buildings, and cars.

DSCI0552Clever space saving ideas abound.  The front seat is one single bench (much like the classic American cars from the 50’s) and the shifter is mounted high on the console which opens up space for long legs.  That bench is convenient when the inevitable tight parking space comes along and the driver must escape via the passenger side door.  This situation won’t result in Cirque de Soleil acrobatics to get out.  The front passenger seatback foCAM00182lds almost completely flat to allow loading of long items. Power foldaway mirrors are standard, unheard of in the US economy car segment, but a necessity on Japan’s narrow laneways.  The roofline is tall enough to clear passengers wearing bowler hats, and the back seat reclines and slides to-and-fro, adding flexibility for bodies of all shapes and sizes.  A deep recess below the glove box can house a water bottle and CAM00179the cupholders themselves pop out from the outer edges of the dash, in front of the air vents, which not only avoids having a space-stealing center console, but also keeps drinks frosty and cold.  The diminutive exterior measurements truly bely the accommodating space inside and the AZ’s designers have put much thought into exploiting every cubic inch.

DSCI0557Rear passengers are treated to more legroom than many family sedans, and the driving position is not cramped.  However, not everything is perfect.   Taller corn-fed American front passengers will find their knee rubbing against the slight curvature of the lower edges of the dashboard and the front bench seat has as much shaping and support as a picnic bench.  Cargo space behind the back seat is tiny.  Fold doCAM00169wn the easy-to-convert rear seats however, and the AZ does a Honda Fit-like trick by offering a flat loading floor that offers more volume than several small SUV’s.  The opening to the trunk is wide and low; making the little hatch able to gobble up large objects; much like the original Scion Xb.  Wheelwell intrusion is minimal and the will allow for wider objects, like plywood.   The AZ is indefinitely versatile and would be an easy car to convert inCAM00168 different hauling situations.  Below the flat loading floor is an inflator kit but no spare tire, which is a disappointing omission but somewhat understandable given the limited space to utilize.

CAM00173Ahead of the driver is a simple gauge cluster reminiscent of a Tyco product’s decal sticker.  A massive speedometer, hogging most of the real estate, optimistically promises speeds of up to 140km/h (84mph) in a cool, retro 80’s orange font.  A simple digital fuel gauge flanks the bottom of the cluster along with a trip computer.  There is no tachometer or temperature gauge, but all of CAM00172the necessary information is read easily at a glance.  Air conditioning controls are the refreshingly simple three knob design, but they were blocked partially from the driver’s reach by the nearby shifter.  And what seems to be a common occurrence in Japanese rental cars, the factory stereo was replaced with an upscale aftermarket radio and navigation system.  Embarrassingly, I can’t really CAM00175judge the ergonomics of the radio, not only because it isn’t the original unit, but all of the buttons and verbal instructions were in Japanese.  The cute voice that echoed through the cabin with turn-by-turn directions was polite, but also maddening because we couldn’t turn her off or figure out where she was taking us.  It’s not really the AZ’s fault, as it did come originally equipped with what appeared to be (at least in the owner’s manual’s pictures) a very user friendly setup.

CAM00178Other Japanese oddities abound.  Every vehicle registered in the country is required to carry a flare, much like the reflective hazard-triangle in Europe, in case of accidents.  The AZ’s is located in the front passenger’s footwell and held on by a specialized clip.  Lastly, like the Toyota Prius in the US, domestic vehicles in Japan feature an audible alert when the car is shifted into reverse.  It’s much like the “beeping” given off by large commercial vehicles, except it can only be heard by the car’s occupants and not by anyone outside.  It’s somewhat pointless, as hopefully the driver is aware that they are in reverse, and the people nearby should be warned more so.  Initially it was distracting, but like anything else, we adjusted and toned it out over time.

CAM00174Due to large windows, thin roof pillars, and those large, power fold-away mirrors, visibility was excellent all-around.  One little irritation was that the top of the upright windshield was situated far forward of the driver and the extended roof would block the view of overhead traffic lights, which seem to be the only variety in Japan.  It required some ducking, especially because of my tall stature.  The AZ’s minimal footprint also resulted in an incredibly tight 13.2 ft. turning CAM00180radius, which is less than half of a Chevrolet Spark’s or Ford Fiestas (32ft and 34ft. respectively).  Needless to say, the AZ was a breeze to park in a country where open spaces are elusive and a drive to the corner store requires negotiating tight alleys.  Let’s hear it again; right tool for the job indeed.

CAM00167Interior fit and finish was tight and the cabin felt well-constructed and durable.  The materials themselves were built to a price point and were hard to the touch, but what is there is lovingly assembled.  Styling inside is generic and geared towards space efficiency instead of form.  Outside, the stubby looks and offbeat stance would turn heads in the US.  Not because of it being gorgeous, but due to the sheer eccentricity of it.  However, the AZ looks tame compared to some more outrageous and cartoonish designs on Japanese roads such as the Daihatsu Tanto or Suzuki Palette.  The square edged, blocky style is appealing enough and reminiscent of the original Scion Xb or Nissan Cube.  Let’s call the AZ handsome for a tall kei car and leave it at that.

DSCI0521As with any other small cars equipped with minuscule engines, a major benefit is fuel economy.  In this case, the AZ Wagon doesn’t disappoint.  We soldiered over 180 miles in a mixture of Tokyo traffic, open roads, and mountain passes with three full-size passengers onboard and were rewarded with an average of 17.5km/liter, or about 41mpg.  Upon returning the car after a full day of driving, we had only burned off half the fossil fuels that were in the car’s tank.  These are excellent results and beat any non hybrid in the US, which is important considering Japan’s higher fuel prices.

Our test car had 42k miles at the time of testing and as mentioned, everything was solid and holding together well with no mechanical or visual defects.  The only worn item was the pocket on the back of the front passenger seat had torn at its edges, which is very minor complaint.

DSCI0556Pricing when the AZ Wagon was brand new started at around USD$10,812 for the base XG trim.  The four-speed automatic is no extra charge over the manual, and that’s exactly how our test car was equipped.  In an age where subcompacts start at over $15k in the US and can weigh in at over $20k fully equipped, our AZ proved to be excellent value, especially considering that power steering, dual airbags, power windows, door locks, mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, and CD player are all standard.  There were still some key missing features; a telescoping steering wheel, USB and Bluetooth, but that’s easily forgiven with the low price of entry.  It is possible to check every option box and a loaded AZ Wagon in XS trim with the 4WD system and CVT automatic rings in at approx. USD$14,125; still excellent bang-for-the-buck.

DSCI0519Does the AZ Wagon have any chance of making it to the US?  Probably not- both for logical and logistical reasons.  The AZ is technically a Suzuki product, and that Japanese brand pulled out of American shores in late 2012 due to dismal sales.  Plus the AZ goes against Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” image that the company has worked so hard to uphold.  And realistically, even though some people would love a chance to own a fuel efficient, roomy, quirky, and cheap set of new wheels, the AZ just isn’t equipped to handle America’s wide boulevards and expansive stretches of freeways.  And given that sales on similar cars, such as the equally Japanese-funky Nissan Cube or tiny Smart ForTwo, are in a slump, it just doesn’t make for a business case here even if the AZ could meet our stringent crash standards.

No, the Mazda AZ Wagon, along with all of Japan’s kei cars, is the platypus of the automotive world.  It is offbeat to anything else on the globe and has survived by adapting to its surroundings, which would render almost any other car useless.  Its own isolation on a small island across the ocean has allowed it to evolve without outside influence.  Exporting it DSCI0504overseas could result in losing its distinctive Japanese approach if it tried to appeal to foreign markets.  No, the AZ Wagon belongs only in the Land of The Rising Sun, but it still goes without saying that it is an amazing example of modern packaging and simple driving fun.  For what it is, and where it is, the AZ is the right tool for the job and deserves a commendable 4.0/5.0 boomerangs

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