Curbside Classic: 1981-87 Mazda 929 – A Big Tent

(first posted 6/22/2018)    An uninspiring, blocky wagon from the 1970s. A wedgy, sporty-looking coupe with pop-up headlights. A plush, large sedan. All with the same nameplate. Shopping for a Mazda 929 in an Australian Mazda showroom in the early/mid-1980s was a confounding experience. And while we enjoyed such dizzying variety, North Americans missed out on an entire chapter in the history of Mazda’s flagship line.

Much as the Familia became the 323 outside of Japan and the Capella became the 626, the 929 nameplate was an export nameplate. First appearing on exported Luce sedans and wagons in 1973, from 1981 to 1987 it would also be used on the Cosmo sedan and coupe.

This 929 coupe is the export version of the HB-series Cosmo, the successor to the CD-series model that had a short and unsuccessful stint in the North American market wearing its rightful Japanese name.

The irony is the 1975-81 CD-series Cosmo was so distinctly American in its styling and yet sold poorly there. The mechanically-related LA4-series Luce – the successor to what was known as the RX-4 in North America – was even more overtly American-inspired, wearing stacked headlights that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a ’77 Fury or Chevelle. It’s even more ironic that this particular generation of Luce, a 4/5ths-sized clone of an American intermediate if there ever was one, was never sold in North America.

Clockwise from top left: Luce hardtop sedan, Luce sedan, Cosmo hardtop sedan, Cosmo coupe

The following HB-series Cosmo was available as a sedan and coupe while the related Luce was sedan-only. There were two different sedan body styles, one with a more upright roofline and one with frameless glass windows and the “hardtop” moniker. Despite the name, the rakish “hardtop” coupe and sedan bodies both had B-pillars.

The Cosmo and Luce were sold in separate Mazda dealership chains and differed in frontend styling, the Cosmo having the sleeker, sloped frontend with hidden headlights and an exemplary drag coefficient of 0.32 for the coupe and 0.35 for the hardtop sedan. Even the regular sedan had a cD of 0.39, up from the old Luce’s 0.46.

It wasn’t just the exterior that was transformed. The new HB-series 929 was thoroughly modern, with four-wheel independent suspension (with semi-trailing arms at the rear), four-wheel disc brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering. There were also electronically adjustable dampers available, technology that was becoming increasingly popular in premium Japanese cars. This was a big leap from the old 929 (and the carryover wagon), which used a live rear axle, drum brakes, and recirculating-ball steering. The new 929, however, retained the traditional rear-wheel-drive layout of its predecessors.

The wagon of that generation was given a mild facelift – ditching the passé stacked headlights – and was left to soldier on using the same carbureted 2.0 four-cylinder engine (79 hp, 103 ft-lbs) and three-speed automatic transmission. These 929s were workhorses, utterly reliable and completely forgettable.

In the UK, these wagons were the only cars sold under the 929 nameplate during the 1980s, selling to people who wanted something like a Ford Granada estate but who… I don’t know, lived next door to a Mazda dealership?

Other markets were luckier. In some European markets, the Luce sedan was also sold as the 929. Middle Eastern markets were luckier still, receiving the even more handsome Luce/Cosmo hardtop sedan. Then there was Australia, where we got our hands on both Luce sedan variants and both the Cosmo hardtop sedan and coupe.

The grass is always greener, though. Yes, once again Japan kept the exciting stuff to themselves. Back home, both the Luce and Cosmo were available with a choice of three different Wankel rotary engines.

This included a turbocharged version borrowed from the RX-7 with 160 hp and 167 ft-lbs. But the fuel crises had highlighted the rotaries’ poor fuel economy and Mazda was shifting away from them, the RX models of the 1970s gone but for the RX-7 sports coupe. Between 1973 and 1977, total Mazda rotary production declined by over 80% and so the rotary HB Cosmo and Luce were never to leave Japan. There, the rotary was popular as it provided ample power from a small displacement engine, therefore avoiding high road taxes.

While the 929 was sportier and more stylish than other large Japanese sedans like the Toyota Crown and Nissan Cedric, it lacked their luxury and sophistication. There were no six-cylinder models available, while the cabin was rather cramped for a car in its class—the sedans shared the coupe’s 103-inch wheelbase. Export 929s came with an uninspiring 2.0 four-cylinder engine with 90 hp and 118 ft-lbs from the 626 line. Not enough engine for a well-equipped, larger sedan and coupe weighing 2600 pounds, it wheezed and struggled to haul the car around. It also acquired a reputation for being both fragile and a slug. Fortunately, a newer, more refined 2.0 arrived in 1983 – a longitudinal adaptation of the new, FWD 626 engine – and outputs increased to 94 hp and 116 ft-lbs. Electronic fuel injection was new for ’84, bumping power up once more to 118 hp and 126 ft-lbs. Still, the 929’s resolutely capable chassis cried out for more power.

The Australian 929 range opened with the wagon. A couple of grand more got you the newer sedan, while the hardtop coupe and sedan models cost more still but were available with even more equipment. Top-spec 929s came with full power accessories, digital instrumentation, and even headlight washers, although lesser coupes and sedans were hardly left wanting for features and were priced only slightly higher than cars like the Toyota Celica and Nissan Gazelle (200SX). Even the most luxuriously appointed of 929s came standard with a five-speed manual transmission; a three-speed automatic was optional at first, replaced by a four-speed when the 2.0 gained fuel injection.

The wagon missed out on the mechanical improvements made to the newer HB sedan and coupe. As late as 1987, it was still sitting in Mazda showrooms with the same old powetrain. It wasn’t unusual for Japanese automakers to keep an older generation of wagon around – for example, the Toyota Crown – but it was unusual in markets like Australia and the UK.

Photo courtesy of Dub 929

As the HB-series 929 entered its twilight years, Australian consumers could finally get a 929 with the power to back up its sporty styling. Mazda introduced a turbocharged 2.0 four in 1986 and offered it in both coupe and hardtop sedan body styles, both with the aggressive, hidden headlight frontend. The boosted four produced 116 hp and 147 ft-lbs but was available only with a five-speed manual transmission and only in top-spec Luxury trim.

The 929 was Mazda’s flagship and stood in stark contrast to the stodgy Nissan 300C (Cedric) and Toyota Crown, Nissan and Toyota’s flagship offerings in Australia. These sedans were ungainly, both to behold and to drive. Although the 929 lacked their pace and space, it was a much more dynamic car and its elegantly tailored styling better concealed the typical, taxation-driven narrow width inflicted on all of these cars. Despite its flagship status, however, the 929 was sized and priced closer to the spiritually similar Nissan Skyline and Toyota Cressida.

It beggars belief why Nissan and Toyota would offer the slow-selling Crown and Cedric well into the 1980s in Australia when they had more international-flavored sedans to choose from, such as the Nissan Leopard and Laurel. But, to be fair, the 929 didn’t burn up the sales charts in Australia much more than the 300C and Crown. In significantly worse news for Mazda, those cars outsold the Luce and Cosmo in the home market as they better met Japanese luxury car buyers’ desires.

Mazda seemed to be still finding its feet in the luxury car game and would continue to stumble throughout the 1980s and 1990s before finally withdrawing at the end of the century. Alas, even when Mazda made a desirable or at least intriguing flagship, it seemed to miss the mark in terms of market appeal – witness the CD Cosmo, ’91 929/Sentia, and the Millenia. The Luce/929 also followed a bizarre pattern of oscillating between cutting-edge style and stodgy conservatism.

The following generation of 929 came with Mazda’s first V6 engine and a more spacious cabin. The Cosmo and Luce diverged, the Cosmo becoming an even posher, rotary-powered coupe for the home market while the Luce continued to be exported from Japan under the 929 nameplate. Unfortunately, the new, more dynamically polished and luxurious Luce/929 lacked the style of its predecessors, looking as unassuming and forgettable as the finally defunct, 1970s-vintage wagon.

Mazda’s over-reliance on rotary engines in the 1970s left the HB models with poor-to-mediocre four-cylinder engines in export markets. This probably explains why they were never offered in North America as they lacked the kind of powertrains required in their segment. It’s a pity, as the 929 had a thoroughly modern and capable chassis and voguish styling.

Oh and, umm, there was an old wagon, too.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1986-1991 Mazda 929/Luce – Aren’t You Supposed To Dress For Success?

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

Vintage Reviews: 1987 Acura Legend, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Cressida – Wouldn’t You Really Rather Have A Buick From Japan?

Curbside Classic: 1985 Toyota Cressida – The Proto Lexus