TORONTO, Ontario – In 1968, a little Japanese automaker set sail for the second biggest country in the world, hoping to expand its business and show the world that it was different from other companies. Mazda faced some troubled times over the course of its existence, but it’s still going strong and still caters to driving enthusiasts around the globe.
Fifty years ago, Canada was only the second market Mazda had exploited outside of Japan—the first one being Australia. It initially set up shop in Burnaby, British Columbia, and its first dealerships were established in BC as well as in Alberta. Its dealer network gradually expanded across Canada starting in 1970, and there currently are 165 sales points nationwide.
The first models sold in Canada were the R100, a small two-door coupe with a rotary engine, and the B-Series pickup truck. By the way, a version of the latter was available for a few years with a rotary engine, and to this day, it was the only pickup trunk ever produced with such a powertrain. The Mazda 1200 compact coupe and sedan were added in 1969, as were the large 1500 and 1800 sedans.
During the 70s, the midsize 616 and 618 sedans appeared, along with the 808 and the rotary-powered RX-2, RX-3, RX-4 and Cosmo. In 1978, Mazda Canada moved its headquarters to Scarborough, Ontario. The decade ended with the appearance of the GLC compact-car family, the third-generation B-Series pickup, the 929, the 626 as well as the RX-7. The 80s eventually brought the 323, the MX-6 and the MPV, but the most significant launch of the decade happened in 1989, with the arrival of the 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata. At least for sports-car enthusiasts.
The Miata immediately drew attention, with its British roadster-inspired design, huge pop-up headlights and affordable price tag. Many were bought, and first-generation models are frequently seen on Canadian roads in the summertime.
The 90s welcomed the third-generation RX-7, which had become a finely tuned machine with a twin-turbo rotary engine. The 323 hatchback and 323 Protegé sedan were Mazda’s best-selling vehicles during that time, while the B-Series pickup was still going strong. In the 2000s, the Mazda3, Mazda5 and Mazda6 were all launched, along with the Tribute, CX-7 and CX-9 SUVs and the RX-8 four-door sports car. The company also brought their SKYACTIV powertrain and chassis technology to market, while the CX-5 and CX-3 models arrived during the 2010s, as did the Mazda2 subcompact.
Mazda’s next decade will start with the introduction of its new SKYACTIV-X powertrains, an all-new generation of the Mazda3, redesigned vehicles based on its latest KODO – Soul of Motion design philosophy as well as—fingers crossed—the eventual return of a rotary-powered sports car.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary in Canada, Mazda organised a shindig at their headquarters, located in Richmond Hill since 2004. Owners of pristine, beautiful MX-5s of all generations (NA, NB, NC and ND) gathered and parked their prized possession alongside the new-and-improved 2019 Mazda MX-5, which we got the opportunity to drive the same day.
There was cake, but the real treat for us journalists happened the day before, when Mazda Canada let us drive vehicles part of their heritage collection. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to experience the 1967 Cosmo 110S that belongs to the company, as it’s a rare and very valuable car. According to the automaker, a mint Cosmo of that era can be worth as much as USD$100K. However, we did get to sample a few vintage MX-5s, an RX-7, and RX-8 and—why not!—a B-Series pickup.
1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The original Miata was a brilliant back-to-basics sports car. It was light, it was simple and it was all about the drive. Its 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine develops 116 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque, matched to a five-speed manual transmission. Although this test car included power steering, it was an option, as was air conditioning, a radio and a limited-slip differential. The available hardtop was only available in red during the first year of production, but there were only three paint colours to choose from anyway—red, white and blue.
On the road, the car obviously couldn’t hide the fact that it was almost 30 years old, but that didn’t prevent it from being enjoyable with short-throw shifter, its lively steering and its sense of lightness.
1993 Mazda RX-7
The first-generation RX-7 introduced in 1978 was small, nimble and affordable, just like the first Miata. The second-generation was subsequently bigger, more powerful and handled better, and for a short period of time, was even available as a convertible. The third-gen RX-7 appeared in Canada for the 1993 model year, and was only sold until 1995. It was a fairly expensive car, priced between $40K and $50K. It boasts a 1.3-litre twin-rotor engine equipped with two sequential turbochargers—a small one to eliminate turbo lag off the line, and a bigger one that kicks in at around 4500 rpm. You can definitely feel and hear the second one spooling up.
2004 MAZDASPEED MX-5
Up until now, this was the most powerful MX-5 sold by Mazda. The MAZDSPEED MX-5 is equipped with a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine that produces 178 horsepower, up from 142 hp in other variants of the roadster. This was my personal favourite car of the day, not only because of its performance, but its combination of interior space, handling and style. The MAZDASPEED version was expensive, though, priced at $34,395. And it wasn’t even available with air conditioning.
2010 Mazda B-Series
As previously mentioned, Mazda’s pickup was part of the Canadian lineup from the get-go, and ended its career in 2010. The last generation was based on the Ford Ranger, and shared its powertrains. That included a 143-horsepower, 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine as well as a 4.0-litre V6 that produced 207 horsepower. There’s nothing sporty about this pickup truck, as it wheezes its way up to speed and swallows fuel like a tanker ship. However, it could tow up to 5460 lbs. (2477 kg) and started at $15,795 back in 2010. Our test truck is equipped with the SE+package that includes two bucket seats instead of the three-passenger bench, and cost $26,475 when new.
2011 Mazda RX-8 GT
We really miss this sports car, which offered a somewhat practical side with small rear doors to help us climb into the rear seats. The RX-8 wasn’t as powerful as the last RX-7, but its naturally aspirated, 1.3-litre rotary engine produces 232 horsepower with the six-speed manual transmission and 212 with the six-speed automatic. Rated at 159 pound-feet, torque was rather thin, and fuel consumption wasn’t a strong point either. Still, driving the RX-8 again reminded us just how well balanced this car is. Priced from $41,995, the car wasn’t all that affordable, and the navigation system in the GT trim was a scandalous $2,595 option.
2015 Mazda MX-5 25th Anniversary
Right before the fourth-generation hit the market, Mazda closed the production cycle of the NC MX-5 with a bang. The 25th Anniversary edition was produced in limited numbers, and featured unique pistons and connecting rods, gunmetal 17-inch alloys, Soul Red Mica paint, off-white leather upholstery and a black power retractable hard top. Its 2.0-litre engine develops 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. This special-edition MX-5 was priced at $40,925, or $42,125 with the optional six-speed automatic.