Today’s Mazda 2 meets its adorable ancestor from 25 years ago, the 121.
THE early 1990s were great years for Mazda in terms of vehicle design, with the Hiroshima automaker introducing some of the best-looking cars of their era. They still look darn good today – Mazda’s 1990s supermodels such as the curvaceous FD RX-7, elegant Eunos Cosmo, Jaguaresque Sentia/929 and amazing gull-wing Autozam AZ-1.
Amazing, too, is the Autozam Revue, which made its domestic debut in September 1990 and was exported as the Mazda 121. It’s styled like a merry mix of Tamagotchi toy, bowler hat and half a jar of jellybeans. It’s still one of the most comical cars to ever hit the streets of Singapore, and I cannot help but smile when I see the elusive cutie.
The amusement continues when I’m reminded that the 121 is actually a notchback, not a hatchback like the 2. Relative to the latter’s relatively gigantic tailgate, the 121’s little boot lid is a bonsai-small barrel of laughs. The laughter gets louder when I spot the two winglets retrofitted to the rear of this particular 121 – one on the boot and the other above the windscreen. It’s as pointless, and hilarious, as putting spoilers on Doraemon. Both cars belong to the Nipponese supermini segment, but their diff erence in dimensions is big enough to make the 121 seem like a “1.21” beside the 2.
The old number is 3.8m long and sits on a 2.39m wheelbase, while the new number is over 4m long, sits on a 2.57m wheelbase, and is also wider and taller. The 121’s original tyres from Japan were 165/70s on 13-inch wheels, which were upsized to 175/65 R14s for Singapore – still two inches down on the 2’s standard footwear of 185/60 R16s. The 121’s exterior is smaller, but its interior space is similar to the 2’s, and slightly better in some ways. The notchback boot, for instance, has a capacity of 290 litres, a useful 40 more than the 2’s hatchback trunk.
121’s 1.3-litre is “inactive” compared to the 2’s SkyActiv 1.5-litre.
The 121 also feels airier on the inside, thanks to its thinner pillars, taller windows and tinier dashboard. It’s like sitting in a metal bubble, instead of the compact “zoom” box that’s the other Mazda. The 121’s party trick is its Funtop, a fully motorised fabric roof that can be opened from front to back or vice versa, allowing the occupants to “split” the sunlight/moonlight, share all of it or block it out completely. This “funtastic” $4500 option (in 1991) was worth every dollar, because it really makes the 121 more fun. The 2 doesn’t even have a sunroof option.
The old 121 performs wonderfully on a gentle drive down mazda’s memory lane.
Other than said omission, the Deluxe-spec 2 has modern amenities that would qualify as futuristic novelties for the 121 driver back in the 1990s. The 2’s part-digital instrument cluster, multi-function 7-inch touchscreen and handy central controller are 21st century features that make the 121 so last millennium, although the manual handbrake and equally snug driver’s seat in both cars make the age gap less massive.
121 notchback (far left) is more spaceefficient than 2 hatchback.
Funtop is 121’s best feature and still has a special appeal after all these years.
The 2’s infotainment system is light years ahead of the 121’s basic head unit, which has an “FM booster” to improve the radio reception, but the audio output struggles against the cabin’s poor insulation. The essentials are there, though. Air-conditioning that’s cold enough in our hot weather, power steering that’s eff ortless, central locking that works (loudly) and electrically operated front windows. Retro touches include manual winders for the rear windows, an ashtray and the aftermarket wood-rimmed steering wheel possibly hijacked from a first-generation MX-5.
The 2’s cabin has much nicer materials and far tighter build quality, but I don’t know how they’ll look and feel like 10 years from now. The 121 we have here was manufactured in 1991 and has clocked over 182,000km since then, yet its COE-extended cabin appears to be holding up pretty well.
In terms of performance and driving pleasure, the 1.5-litre 115bhp 2 is a mild hot hatch compared to the cool 121. But the 5-speed manual, 1.3-litre oldtimer still moves and manoeuvres with youthful gusto, and its acceleration isn’t too lethargic for a 24-year-old Japanese classic. Most importantly, with its Funtop open and the sun overhead, the 121 performs wonderfully on a gentle drive down Mazda’s memory lane.