Trust the Japanese, with their veritable smorgasbord of domestic market choices, to manufacture two mechanically-related sedans that look extremely similar and yet share not a single exterior panel. The HC-Series Mazda 929, badged Luce in Japan, was available as either a sedan or a hardtop. Unfortunately, North Americans received only the bland sedan. In Australia, we were fortunate enough to receive both the sedan and the slightly less bland hardtop.
The previous generation of 929, the HB, had also been sold as a hardtop sedan or more conventional sedan, as well as a dashing coupe that was available with the Wankel rotary engine and badged as Cosmo in some markets. But for those piston-powered HBs, the most powerful engine available was a very mild 2.0 four-cylinder; this was available with a turbocharger, but only in a handful of markets. The underpinnings were conventional, with the HB 929 featuring a semi-trailing arm rear suspension. Alas, its rakish wrapper disguised a rather pedestrian offering. The HB was never offered in the United States.
The HC was a big leap. It featured Mazda’s first V6 engine, a creamy smooth and refined 3.0 mill. Still rear-wheel-drive, the rear suspension was now an independent, transverse-link set-up. Although the HC was still constrained by Japanese taxation-related width restrictions, it represented an impressive effort by Mazda to tackle premium sedans from Japan, Europe and elsewhere. And yet Mazda went ahead and wrapped it in achingly dull styling.
Well, it looked big at least. Alas, it looked painfully derivative, a melange of S-Class and bland JDM luxury sedan cues. The hardtop – available in Japan with the 1.3 13B turbocharged Wankel rotary – was easier on the eyes, with smoked taillight clusters, frameless door windows, and a 1.18 inch lower roof. Overall length was 2.36 inches less than the sedan, although other dimensions – like the narrow 67.12 inch (1700 mm) width – were shared.
The HC-series was launched in the Australian and North American markets in late-1987 but the Wankel rotary-powered model stayed in Japan. Australia received the hardtop but North American consumers were given the choice of an available five-speed manual transmission. Sales were slow in North America and the manual transmission take rate must have been minuscule as by 1989 it was gone. By 1990, the available Automatic Adjusting Suspension – allowing the driver to choose between two damping settings – was also discontinued in the North American and Australian markets due to slow sales.
It may have looked like some frumpy JDM luxury sedans like the Nissan Cedric and Toyota Crown, but the 929 fortunately had a bit more spring in its step. Body roll was controlled and its ride and handling was well-balanced thanks to the all-independent suspension.
Initially, the 929 had an advantage in power over many rivals but by 1989 the new Toyota Cressida and Nissan Maxima shaded the 929’s 158 hp and 170 ft-lbs. Still, the 929’s single-overhead cam, fuel-injected V6 was smooth and mated to an automatic transmission with excellent shift quality. It was with its quiet cabin and impressive refinement that it more resembled those plush JDM sedans, but unlike a Crown if a corner appeared the 929 wouldn’t embarrass itself.
That quiet cabin featured comfortable seats that unfortunately lacked in the bolstering department. Faux woodgrain trim was splashed liberally across the dash, although the interior design was criticized by some for having too many different textures and colors. Four could sit comfortably in the cabin, but the 929’s narrow width and protruding transmission tunnel put a fifth passenger in an unenviable seating position. Standard equipment was comprehensive: power windows, mirrors and locks; oscillating dashboard vents; and power disc brakes front and rear, with optional ABS. Leather seats and a heated driver’s seat were optional.
For 1990, a more powerful 24-valve, double-overhead cam 3.0 V6 was made available in the hardtop (Australia) and S sedan (North America). This punchier V6 put out 190 hp and 191 ft-lbs of torque, more than the Maxima and finally lineball with the Cressida. But for those who have come to associate Mazda with “zoom-zoom” and a sportier image than the more staid Toyota brand, driving the Cressida back-to-back with the 929 would have come as a surprise. The Cressida had more engaging handling and a firmer suspension tune, while the 929 was softer and more refined. But the 929’s edge in refinement wasn’t overwhelming and left Mazda’s flagship in an uncomfortable position: no strong image, thanks to derivative styling, and no real point of distinction from its rivals. The 929 was comfortable, pleasant, refined, high-quality and… well, nice. For many, that was sufficient. But it didn’t give the 929 much momentum, especially in North America where it was a new nameplate and up against the hot-selling Acura Legend.
1991 was the last year for export sales of the HC. It remained for sale in the Japanese market for a few years and was also sent to South Korea (in dowdier sedan form), where it was sold as the flagship Kia Potentia.
The next-generation 929 featured dashing, curvaceous styling albeit at the expense of interior room and trunk space. Alas, the return of stylish lines to the 929 series was short-lived: the 929 was discontinued from North American markets after 1995, replaced by the Millenia. The styling proposal for the aborted V12 Amati 1000 was dusted off for a restyled 929 in 1996. The price may have been slightly reduced, but $AUD 80,000 was an outrageous price to most Australians for such a nondescript sedan with a mainstream badge on it; $80k was BMW 5-Series money. The 929 was consequently axed in Australia after just two years and survived little longer in Japan, wrapping up production in 1999. Again, the tooling was sent to Kia (it was sold as the Enterprise). The HE Sentia was a repeat error by Mazda, the company expecting once again for a flagship with such anodyne styling to sell.
The HC 929 could have been more successful, particularly in the North American market, considering its pricing was well under that of the Acura Legend, and it had an absorbent ride, competent handling and a silky smooth V6 engine. But it was already working with a handicap: a mainstream brand name instead of an Acura or Lexus badge, and a brand name that was less-established and successful than Toyota. What it didn’t need was anonymous styling to further prohibit success. Americans, in particular, were clamoring for high-quality Japanese imports. They just weren’t clamoring for the 929.