Curbside Classic: 1991 Autozam Carol – Queen Of Keis

We don’t see enough kei cars on this website. And if this year has shown us anything, it’s that small and space-efficient cars will never go out of style – even, depending on the price of dinosaur juice, in places like North America. So let us forego the gas-guzzling Nissans, over-trimmed Toyotas and space-hogging Mitsubishis and investigate one of the best keis of the ‘90s, the Autozam Carol.

The lack of kei cars on CC is chiefly due to the fact that I like to find classics (by which I usually mean any vehicle over 20 years old), and not many make it that far. Kei cars represent about 30% of traffic on Japanese roads today. But when we talk about older cars, that share drops dramatically: being cheap to buy and run, keis are generally seen as disposable and some were pretty flimsy to begin with.

As a result, few make it beyond the ten years that the Japanese authorities allow for keis to be financially viable. After that, the Shaken (the equivalent of the MoT, or roadworthiness certificate) becomes more stringent and costs accumulate very quickly, pushing the overwhelming majority of folks to trade their car in for a new one, which will be exempt from inspection for a couple of years and cost very little for the first two-three rounds of Shaken.

Luckily, someone obviously has a deep affection for this top-of-the-line Autozam Carol and, aftermarket wheels aside, it is an absolute time-warp. From a styling point of view, this design was extremely influential on the kei car segment. Prior to the Autozam Carol, kei cars made by Daihatsu, Mitsubishi or Suzuki were quite squarish and rather bland (the Honda Today being the one true counter-example). After 1989, things changed in the miniature world of the little cars: big round headlights became the in thing, bodies became a lot more rounded and attention to detail turned into an obsession for clever touches.

This was of course concurrent with the Nissan Pike cars and the whole retro craze – nothing happens in a vacuum. But Nissan were not competing in the kei car field and the Autozam really coincided with the likes of the Be-1 and the Pao – there was something in the air.

The Carol seemed to catch the zeitgeist and became a hit, especially for women, who were increasingly becoming financially independent and preferred the Autozam take on the kei car over anybody else’s. That vital segment of the buying public was now calling the shots, at least in part, and they clearly called for an end to the straight-edged designs, black plastic-trimmed everything and square lamps in favour of softer contours, manga-style round lights and a touch of chrome and colour, here and there.

The Autozam was clearly made for Japanese women and they responded by purchasing these in droves, making this one of the most successful kei cars of the early 660cc era. At least, that’s what the word is on the Internets – they also warn that we have zero production data from Mazda about this car. Let’s examine the historical background a bit, though.

Mazda’s 360cc era products – above: 1962-70 Carol (also available in 2-door); below: 1972-76 Chantez

The Carol name was resurrected for the Autozam marque, but it had been used by Mazda for their first kei car, a cleverly-styled rear-engined number launched back in 1962. This was when keis could only measure less than 300cm in length and 360cc in displacement – in the Carol’s case, a 358cc water-cooled 4-cyl., one of the smallest fours ever made. When that first Carol went out of production, Mazda switched to the front-engine / RWD Chantez (with a 359cc 2-stroke parallel twin), but then abandoned the passenger kei segment, keeping only their Porter van/pickup in production for nearly all the 550cc era (1976-90) using Mitsubishi engines.

So for their grand return to the small world of keis, Mazda decided to go back to the Carol name, but change everything else. The car would now be FWD, the marque would be one dedicated small cars and, to keep costs low, the technology would come from Suzuki – one of Japan’s undisputed kei car masters. The Carol went on sale in October 1989 as a 550cc model, but the word was that rules were about to change. And indeed, they did: starting in January 1990, the kei class was to be set at 660cc maximum displacement, 64hp maximum power and 330cm maximum length.

This meant that the Autozam Carol was immediately obsolete. But Mazda acted quickly, providing slightly bigger bumpers now that there was more length allowed. For their part, the Suzuki Alto underpinnings were upgraded from a 40hp 547cc to a 52hp 657cc 3-cyl. (61hp for turbo models, which joined the fray in 1991).

The new Carol was available in three trim levels (e, f and g), with the “f” being the AWD variant and the “g” being the deluxe variant with the optional canvas top. All models were available with a 3-speed automatic transmission; AWD and turbo cars came with a 5-speed manual as standard.

Rear seating is rather minimal, as expected in this type of car, even nowadays. The generous amount of glass area in this car is really what dates it to the previous century. Terrific for visibility, but it must turn the cabin into a sauna in summer. Not sure what the A/C situation is like in keis of this era – but luckily, our feature car has the canvas top, which would be a big help.

The Autozam Carol was a rare ray of sunshine in the fledgling marque’s range. Some of the other models they tried to peddle, such as the AZ-1 sports kei or the Clef saloon, were complete market bombs and were cancelled pretty rapidly, but the second-gen Carol was allowed to be produced for over six years before a new generation replaced it in October 1995.

The “new” 1995 Carol was pretty much an extensive facelift: the doors, the cowl and windscreen, the interior and the headlight bezels were carried over. This third generation Carol only made it to 1998, losing the Autozam badge in the interim as the marque was retired.

Since 1998, Mazda have kept on making generation after generation of “Carol,” but they are now completely identical, both inside and out, to the Alto they were hitherto merely based on. It doesn’t take a genius (or even a beancounter) to figure that re-bodying a perfectly serviceable Suzuki makes for a smaller ROI than just rebadging the cars. So that’s what the five subsequent generations of Carol have been, i.e. rebadged Altos, right up to the present day. Profit margins on kei cars are thin enough without adding more costs.

Mazda had to swallow their pride ultimately and retrench, but the 1990-95 Autozam Carol represents a time when the Japanese carmaker was deploying a thoroughly ambitious strategy that combined branding, exciting new products and rapid expansion to cover as many segments and niches as possible. This effort was doomed to fail and Mazda almost sank as a result, but if any models should be saved from the wreckage, the Carol should certainly be one.