Automotive Histories: Mazda’s Amati Division – Is It Better To Have Loved And Lost, Or To Never Have Loved At All?

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Honda, Toyota and Nissan had all launched luxury divisions by the dawn of the nineties and Mazda saw no reason why they couldn’t launch one of their own, too. Like an envious younger sibling that wanted to do what the older kids were doing, Mazda excitedly prepared to launch its new luxury division, to be called Amati (Latin for “to love”). Its shareholders, like stern parents, had to tell them they couldn’t go out and play.

Of course, that admonishment came after Mazda had already spent three years and $434 million dollars researching the creation of the Amati brand, announced in 1991 and scheduled for a North American launch in 1994. Their dreams were officially declared dead on October 26, 1992 at a news conference in hometown Hiroshima.

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The Amati lineup was to have consisted of 3-4 models at first. One of these would have been based on the Eunos Cosmo. This sleek coupe was the first production car to feature sequential twin turbochargers, and these were mated to a 3-rotor, 300 horsepower version of Mazda’s rotary engine.

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Two of Amati’s planned sedans, the 300 and 500, were eventually launched under different nameplates. Curiously, Mazda launched the Eunos sub-brand in Australia. Despite unique badging, these Eunos models – the 500, 800 (Mazda Millenia) and 30X (MX-3) – were sold in Mazda dealerships. In European markets, the 500 and 800 were known as Xedos 6 and Xedos 9 in another half-hearted attempt at a luxury sub-brand.

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The Xedos 6/Eunos 500 was a sleek, slippery four-door sedan based on the CA Platform, shared with the Mazda 626. Inline four-cylinder engines were available in some markets with more expensive variants offering Mazda’s smooth 1.8 and 2.0 V6 engines. The compact dimensions and voluptuous curves made the Xedos 6 a real looker, with some critics likening its styling to that of a mini Jaguar.

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The Amati 500 would have simply been what became the Mazda Millenia (aka Eunos 800, aka Mazda Xedos 9). Interestingly, when the Millenia was eventually launched in 1995 in the US, one TV ad proclaimed, “We put the money into the car and not into a luxury division and all that overhead.” That was a little disingenuous seeing as Mazda had basically scrapped a luxury division at the 11th hour. The Millenia was available with a supercharged Miller Cycle 2.3 V6 that featured in Ward’s Best Engines list for four consecutive years. Despite its front-wheel-drive layout and more conservative styling, the Millenia was marketed as a sportier offering than the gorgeous, rear-wheel-drive 929/Sentia. Ultimately, this product overlap at the high end of Mazda’s range was short-lived: the Millenia survived until 2002 but the last model year of the 929 in North America was 1995.

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The final Amati was to be called the 1000 and would have served as the brand’s flagship sedan. Here’s where things get interesting. While its styling was curvier than that of the Lexus LS, the exterior was ultimately very conservative. However, under the hood was one of the most fascinating engines of the Japanese bubble era.

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The Amati 1000 was to be powered by a 3981cc, 12-cylinder engine with 3 banks of 4 cylinders in a W configuration. First previewed at the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show, the engine was limited to 280 hp and 274 ft-lb as per a Japanese gentleman’s agreement. The engine block was aluminum, the cylinder heads and oil pan magnesium and the pistons and valves made of ceramic.

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Although many of these engines were developed for testing, the engine never made the jump to series production in any Mazda. A pity: although it was the definition of overkill, this engine would have beat Volkswagen’s W12 to market by a decade and given Mazda some serious bragging rights.

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While Mazda’s W12 never made it to production, the 1000 did – potentially. Not much else is known about the 1000’s platform but it is believed to have been based on the Mazda 929/Sentia, which seems logical given the size although the Millenia received a mostly new platform. When Amati was scrapped, the 1000’s body appears to have been dusted off for the 1996 redesign of the 929.

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The research had been done, offices had been leased in California and 82 dealerships had been signed up to sell the cars. In addition to this, a flexible assembly line was set up in Hofu to produce the new luxury cars at a cost of $500 million. But those initial costs were just the beginning of what would have been a very expensive launch: in Amati’s first few years, projected costs of $500 million would have been spent on marketing and an estimated further $330 million in development.

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These were heavy-spending days at Mazda, the company having spent $1 billion a year from 1990 to 1992 just in the Japanese market in an effort to become Japan’s No. 3 car maker, behind Toyota and Nissan. They had launched 11 new models in the 18 months prior to the Hiroshima press conference, as well as doubled the number of showrooms in Japan and introduced the new ɛ̃fini, Eunos and Autozam sub-brands. This kind of profligate spending was par for the course for Japanese automakers at this time, but they all had a reality check when the Japanese stock market and property bubble burst in 1991.

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Mazda’s dreams of tackling Lexus and Infiniti were dashed and, to add insult to injury, the company posted multi-million dollar losses and skidded from being Japan’s 4th largest automaker in 1992 to merely its 6th, after Mitsubishi and Suzuki. Mazda also struggled with profitability in the North American market due to its heavier reliance, vis-à-vis Nissan and Toyota, on imports. This was a problem as the US market made up over a third of Mazda’s global sales in 1996 (375,416, 2.5% of the US market). Furthermore, Mazda had invested heavily in a new production line at Hofu that was now operating at one-third capacity.

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On April 12, 1996, Ford invested a further $481 million to increase its equity stake from 25% to a controlling 33.4% stake. If there was any hope left for a Mazda luxury division, it was well and truly dead by 1996. Ford also dumped Mazda’s sub-brands.

It wasn’t the first time Mazda needed help from Rich Uncle Ford as this latest cash infusion resembled one made by Ford in 1979. Mazda had over-invested in the intriguing yet fuel-inefficient rotary engine during the 1970s. Poor Mazda had been the victim of bad timing then, too: the energy crisis had arrived right as Mazda was putting its rotary engine in everything from luxury sedans to pickup trucks and busses.

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Given Nissan’s perennial struggles with its Infiniti brand in the 1990s and Mazda’s financial issues, had Amati been launched it would not have been smooth sailing. The luxury car market was increasingly crowded, especially in North America, the Yen was driving up Japanese car prices and Mazda would have had to over-leverage itself to afford the marketing and development investment Amati needed. Furthermore, two of its cars would have been niche products – a W12 flagship sedan and a rotary coupe – and the other two, while nice cars, were not class leaders. Mazda wanted to play with the bigger kids but the grown-ups wouldn’t let them. It was probably for the best.

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