Curbside Capsule: 1996-97 Mazda 929 – The Swan Becomes An Ugly Duckling

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The late 1980s and early 1990s was a time when Japanese automakers experimented with exciting new technology and styling. Amidst this, Mazda launched its most beautiful 929 (Sentia) yet, a sleek, sensuous four-door sedan with styling more befitting of a Jaguar than a Mazda. Then, reality set in. In the wake of a Japanese economic crisis, the country’s automakers dropped many of their more interesting models and many of the cars that remained received conservative revisions. The 929 was no exception.

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Japanese car buyers tend to be a conservative bunch, especially those who purchase luxury sedans. After an initial burst of enthusiasm in the Japanese market, the 1991 Sentia’s sales sunk and never recovered. In North America, too, the car’s sales performance was disappointing and it was dropped after 1995. It therefore seemed logical to Mazda that, given the nameplate was retired from North America, the car should be redesigned to receive a more traditional style that would help JDM sales. Squaring off the 929’s lines also had the advantage of increasing interior space, which was important as domestic flagship sedans were often chauffeur-driven and the outgoing 929’s sleek styling impeded headroom. The new 929 had a roofline 1.5 inches taller and 4.7 inches longer and the trunk was bigger, albeit with an annoyingly high lip that impeded access.

amati 1000 magazine pics 1

As mentioned yesterday, Mazda’s stillborn Amati luxury division was to be topped by a 12-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive sedan known as the 1000. While this never saw the light of day, its conservative design was used for the 1996 929.

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Now, the Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45 – with which the Amati 1000 would have battled – were no style icons. But while the 1996 929 appeared suitably starchy for its luxury sedan role, its styling was very derivative. One wonders how the Amati 1000 or the Mazda 929 would have been received in North America had either been launched with its C-pillar reminiscent of the first-generation Mitsubishi Diamante and its rear having shades of Mercury Grand Marquis.

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Dynamically, the 929 was little more athletic than a Diamante or a Grand Marquis. Smooth luxury was the aim of the game, as it was with the outgoing 929 with which the 1996 model was almost identical to under the skin. Just one powertrain was offered: a carryover DOHC 3.0 V6 with 185 hp at 6000 rpm and 200 ft-lbs at 3500 rpm mated to a four-speed automatic. The 929 cruised from 0-60 in just under 11 seconds. Despite the starchier styling, the 929 was no worse than its predecessor dynamically and yet, importantly, it was quieter and more refined to drive. Four-wheel steering also remained available.

1998 mazda sentia Jdm interior

1998 JDM Sentia interior. The Japanese often prefer cloth to leather in their luxury cars.

As with many contemporary Japanese cars, there was some cost-cutting made. Rear-seat air-conditioning vents were deleted, as was the automatic transmission display in the instrument cluster. However, there was more fake wood trim, again to facilitate a more “traditional” luxury ambience. Standard equipment was comprehensive, including keyless entry, power front seats, leather trim and the whole gamut of power accessories.

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The outgoing 929, being a premium sedan with a non-premium nameplate, had been a niche performer in Australia. But while the new 929 saw a sales uptick in Japan, the 929’s already low sales figures in Australia truly tanked. It wasn’t just because luxury car buyers didn’t have Mazda showrooms on their list. It was also because the Yen had driven up the 929’s price to absurd heights. At $AUD 79,000, the 929 was priced right up against the BMW 520i and Lexus ES300. The latter saw massive price cuts in 1997, undercutting the 929 by a whopping $18,000 or the price of a new Mitsubishi Mirage.

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So, while a nice car, the 929 had none of the snob appeal of a BMW, none of the sleek lines of its predecessor, and nothing additional to really offer over a Honda Legend (Acura RL) or Lexus ES. To further sabotage the 929, right across from it in the showroom was the sleeker Eunos 800 (Mazda Millenia). The 929 was priced smack bang in the middle between the base Eunos 800 2.5 V6 and the Eunos 800 M with its supercharged, Miller Cycle 2.3 V6.

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Although the Eunos 800 never impressed Mazda with its sales performance, it stood to reason that having two similarly-priced luxury sedans in the same showroom was a bad idea. The 929 lost out and was axed from Australian showrooms after just two seasons. In Japan, it continued until 1999; it would, however, be discontinued without a replacement. However, the ugly duckling lived on: like the Amati 1000’s styling had been re-used for the 929, the 929 had its tooling sent to South Korea where it became the Kia Enterprise.

(While Australian sales figures for the 1996-97 929 are not available, I would speculate that they barely entered three digits – if that. I had spotted this 929 on the road and was gobsmacked to see such an incredibly rare car. Imagine my surprise when, a few days later, I saw it parked in the same spot I photographed the Mitsubishi Magna Elite wagon I wrote about. Is this a lucky parking spot?)

Related Reading:

Cohort Capsule: 1992 Mazda 929

Curbside Classic: 1986-91 Mazda 929/Luce

Curbside Classic: 2000 Mazda Millenia S