There were many problems with Mazda’s product and branding strategy in the ‘90s — so many, in fact, that the company’s future was in jeopardy. Most of it had to do with creating strange new domestic marques (Autozam, Eunos, etc.) and a stillborn Lexus equivalent for overseas use, but the latter part of that story has already been excellently told, so we’ll focus on a different aspect of Mazda’s brush with bankruptcy. Today, we will look at how Mazda, in parallel with the above missteps, also snookered themselves out of the JDM compact family saloon market and were compelled to resurrect a zombie nameplate to staunch the bleeding.
Mazda had a fairly clearly-defined range, once upon a time. There was a kei car (until the mid-‘70s, at least) and truck at the bottom, then the Familia (a.k.a 323) subcompact family car, the Capella (or 626 abroad, and also sold as the Ford Telstar) in the role of the compact 1500cc-ish model, then the Luce (929) as the executive saloon, with a smattering of deluxe (Cosmo) and/or sporty (Savanna / RX-7) two-door Wankels to complete the higher end of the range, punctuated by a sturdy pickup truck and the Bongo van. This was pretty much Mazda’s ‘70s and ‘80s.
The daring multi-marque strategy started in 1989 with the launch of Autozam and Eunos, soon to be followed by ɛ̃fini. The whole concept was a vast badge-engineering exercise, though some models were exclusive to a marque – the Cosmo was given to Eunos, for instance, and Autozam chiefly handled keis and compacts. But in all this flurry of activity, the heart of Mazda’s range became lost.
The Capella was a Mazda mainstay since 1970, when it was a RWD saloon / coupé duo just below the top-of-the-range Luce and Cosmo. Rotary engines were initially available (changing the model name to RX-2), but the traditional piston motors gradually gained popularity, so much so that they became the only option by generation two. The third generation (1982-87) marked the switch to FWD. The 4th generation (1987-91) Capella, known as the GD internally and, once again, as the Mazda 626 in most foreign markets, had a full line-up, comprising a notchback saloon, a hatchback saloon, a coupé and a van/wagon, the latter designated as GV.
In October 1991, these were nearly all replaced by the Mazda Cronos GE (1991-97, top left; known overseas as the 626) and its merry band of associates, namely the MX-6 coupé (1992-96, top right), the ɛ̃fini MS-6 (1991-94 bottom right) hatchback saloon and the Autozam Clef (1991-93, bottom left); the Ford Telstar (not pictured), also sold in Japan, was a complete clone of the Cronos and the MS-6. These all used a new GE platform that, crucially, made the cars over 170cm wide. There was also the Eunos 500 (not pictured either), which was a close cousin of the other GEs, but crucially did fit the 170cm width rule.
This was not a big thing overseas, but the Japanese taxman took heed and, as was his wont, taxed the Cronos and its clones accordingly. This tax thing, coupled with the multiplication of new nameplates and brands, made the hitherto affordable and familiar Capella an unattractive and confusing proposition for the average Japanese client. As with all bad decisions, Mazda were also cursed with terrible timing, as this new expensive family car arrived just when the economy crashed.
The Cronos/MS-6/Clef was an utter sales disaster domestically (JDM Cronos sales only came to 30,000 units from 1991 to 1997; the Clef barely topped 5000 units in three years). As the 626, it fared decently well overseas, but still, the home front required prompt action and soon received it in the shape of our featured saloon, the all-new and resurrected Capella CG.
Having a corner office at Mazda circa 1993 must have been quite an experience. The whole place must have seemed like it was coming apart at the seams. The launch of Amati, the Acura/Infiniti/Lexus equivalent, was cancelled at the eleventh hour and the Autozam/Eunos/ɛ̃fini experience was going south fast, despite the billions already spent. But what made Mazda go from fourth biggest Japanese carmaker in 1990 to sixth place in 1992, behind Mitsubishi and, of all companies, Suzuki? The Cronos was a big part of that.
Action was direly needed, so Mazda pulled out a bunch of all-nighters and crafted the narrow-body Capella CG by using the Cronos’ floorpan and the Eunos 500’s narrower track, eschewing the Cronos’ V6-heavy engine options in favour of a 1,8 or a 2-litre 4-cyl., and clothing the whole into an all-new 1695mm-wide body. From decision to launch date allegedly took about nine months, which might be some sort of world record.
The new 1994 Capella’s dimensions, both inside and out, were remarkably similar to the Capella that went out of production three years prior. Turns out that’s exactly what the JDM wanted in a mid-sized Mazda. And a lot of Peanuts merchandise, judging by this particular car. A Ford-badged clone, the Telstar II, was also devised and sold alongside the Cronos-based Telstar.
It looks as if our feature car was sold through the ɛ̃fini network, as the Cronos-derived MS-6 was deleted from the range in 1995, leaving a bit of a Capella-sized gap on the showroom floor. Looks like everybody was glad to have the Capella back on board.
But it had never completely left anyway. The Cronos had replaced the old Capella in almost every niche except one: the wagon. So the Capella GV Wagon was given a thorough facelift, including a lot of cladding, and was kept on in the range. When the Capella saloon reappeared in 1994, it was reunited with the wagon, which was now completely unrelated to it.
Even the wagon’s interior looked ten years older than the saloon’s. Which it essentially was. This is another case of a wagon’s arrested development, as seen with the likes of the Toyota Mark II X70 or the Nissan Cedric/Gloria Y30. Guess it’s more common than I thought.
The facelift was pretty successful in hiding the GV Capella’s older bodyshell. In fact, thanks to the CG saloon’s slightly edgier and conservative look, it wasn’t immediately clear which car was the older one of the two. Just like the other Capellas and the Cronos, this car was available through Autorama dealers as the Ford Telstar, which means there were three cars sharing that name in the mid-‘90s. No wonder Ford gave up on the JDM eventually.
The Capella wagon was especially popular in AWD form – I’m not sure whether this particular one has that feature, but most of the ones I’ve seen up to now have a massive front bumper guard typical of 4×4 vehicles. It also had a decent career as a stripped-down van up to the autumn of 1997, when production was halted.
The same thing happened to the JDM Capella saloon: just barely making it to its third birthday, the last-minute cobbled-together right-sized four-door that helped in saving Mazda’s bacon, albeit marginally (ultimately, Ford played the central role in that rescue, of course), was given the boot in October 1997. To replace it and the failed Cronos, a new global GF/GW Capella/626/Telstar saloon and wagon took over, reuniting the JDM and global range as one model with three names. Because that’s as simple as they could do it.
The Capella was not the only case of a narrower JDM version existing in parallel to a global nameplate: Toyota played the same game with the Camry for ages. The difference is Toyota planned it that way, whereas Mazda had to do it on the fly as part of an all-hands-on-deck emergency response to a catastrophe that could have toppled the carmaker, had it not been for an angel investor surrounded by a blue oval halo.