Last week, we had a look at the unfortunate situation Mazda put themselves in by fielding the overly portly Cronos (marketed as the Mazda 626 abroad) to take over from the Capella, which ended in disaster. That was the second disaster of 1991, though. The other one was ɛ̃fini, the marque that nobody needed, perfectly symbolized by the MS-9, the badge-engineered top-of-the-range that nobody bought.
Let’s start with the MS-9 itself. You might know it as the Mazda 929; it was also marketed as the Mazda Sentia HD in Japan. The Mazda version debuted in early 1991, replacing the long-serving Luce as the large RWD saloon atop the Hiroshima carmaker’s range. The ɛ̃fini version, which only differed in its emblems, grille and name, arrived in October 1991.
Unlike the Luce, the Sentia/MS-9 never included a Wankel engine option – a shame, since this was the time when Mazda’s rotary had reached its apex (seals, har har) with the 20B triple-rotor used in the Eunos Cosmo, as well as the Le Mans win that took everyone by surprise. Instead, the Sentia/MS-9 made do with a couple of the Luce HC’s piston engines: a 2.5 and a 3-litre DOHC V6.
The wood on the centre console seems to make our feature car a 3-litre – either a “30 Type III” grade or a 30 Type IV without the leather, as those came with a cowhide interior as standard. But Japanese customers were never keen on the stuff, so perhaps the person who shelled out ¥4.1m for this car back in 1993 was allowed to specify cloth upholstery. The 3-litre V6 provides 200hp, using a 4-speed auto to send power to the independently-sprung rear wheels. These MS-9s also came with speed-sensitive four-wheel steering.
One optional extra that shows Mazda’s dedication to technological innovation in the service of passenger comfort was the solar-paneled sunroof. The purpose of this setup was to independently power a pair of fans at the rear of the cabin that extracts hot air when the outside temperature rises above 15°C, keeping the interior much cooler than it would be otherwise. Pity our feature car doesn’t have that gizmo – but the doilies, oh they’re here all right. Cool indeed.
The Mazda Luces of the ‘70s and ‘80s were all rather angular cars. With the Sentia/MS-9, Mazda went full jelly bean. It was the style at the time, to be sure, and a rather sad style it was, too. However, the Sentia/MS-9 managed to avoid the blob-like bodies that befell so many car designs that followed this trend. The infamous “pillared hardtop” frameless windows play a part in adding lightness to this design, but that is not sufficient on its own to succeed in making a car look good – see the Toyota Ceres or the Nissan Presea, for a counter-example.
So all in all, the Sentia/MS-9 seems to be a very decent car, a handsome design with a competent engine and enough toys to warrant a considerable asking price. The issue, it seems, was that its rivals (Nissan Cedric/Gloria, Toyota Crown, Toyota Celsior, Mitsubishi Diamante, Honda Vigor/Inspire) were all pretty good as well. The Mazda/ɛ̃fini effort, while eminently suitable, did not stand out as particularly daring, well-built or stylish compared to any of its peers. This is unlike the RX-7, for instance, which had a cult following and a turbocharged Wankel, or the Eunos Roadster (a.k.a. Mazda Miata), which became the default mid-life crisis mobile for thousands of happy people the world over.
Yes, it was a Eunos in Japan, that Miata. I guess we should get into the whole Eunos/Autozam/ɛ̃fini F-up. In the late ‘80s, Mazda tried to ape GM and divide their sales networks by creating car brands. In 1989, they launched Autozam, which focused on kei cars and compacts, as well as Lancia and Autobianchi. That same year, the Eunos marque (and “store”) was created. That one’s mission statement was less obvious, but the Roadster/Miata and the final Cosmo ended up being sold under that brand, alongside several Mazda near-clones and re-badges. There were another three networks to cater to. One was Mazda pure and simple (Mazda Motors store); another one was Ford, who co-owned Autorama and used it to peddle their badge-engineered Mazdas, as well as the odd European or US Ford import.
This left the Mazda Auto stores as the fifth wheel, literally. But they were actually one of the oldest networks of the company, going back to Mazda’s first four-wheeled products in 1959. So in 1991, Mazda Auto stores all over the country started their metamorphosis into ɛ̃fini. The term, which is pronounced An-fee-nee (French for “infinite”), uses a stupid tilde-topped Greek epsilon to symbolize how impossibly sophisticated the whole affair is. Leave it to the Japanese to devise an alphabetic combo so unnatural as to be impossible to type on any computer keyboard. Besides, the proximity to Nissan’s Infiniti should have been cause enough to create a different name. Hubris much, Matsuda-san?
The ɛ̃fini range contained, aside from the MS-9, the Cronos-based MS-6 (1991-94; bottom right) and MS-8 (1992-98; top left), both ɛ̃fini exclusives, as well as a badge-engineered version of the Mazda MPV (1991-97; top right) and the third-gen RX-7 (1991-97; bottom left), which was also distributed by Mazda dealers. Other Mazdas (e.g. Bongo, Familia, Roadster) were also handled by the network, but not badged as ɛ̃fini. Furthermore, ɛ̃fini also carried the Citroën Xantia and XM until 1998. The “MS” acronym, by the way (and I swear I am not making this up), stands for the English(-ish) term “Megalo Spirits” which, in Mazda’s Concise Engrish Dictionary, is supposed to translate into “great thoughts.” Mind officially blown.
The whole multi-marque experiment was deemed a failure by about 1993. The Lexus-like luxury foreign brand Amati was killed in the crib and Mazda started to chop down the excess car lines. The MS-9 was thus killed off midway through 1994, just over a year before the Sentia HE took over. The Autozam Clef and AZ-1 were also axed at this time, though the marque and network was spared for the time being. Eunos was seen as the weakest of the new brands, so the network was merged with ɛ̃fini and the marque was killed off in 1996. Autozam and ɛ̃fini never really caught on either, so they were disposed of as car marques by 1998, the networks being gradually rebranded as Mazda over the next couple of years. Autorama switched to plain Ford in 1994; Mazda sold their share of the network to Ford in 1999, which ended up exiting the Japanese market altogether in 2016.
I’ve searched and re-searched, but the Internet seems not to know how many Sentia HDs were made in five years, let alone their ɛ̃fini-badged clone. Given the era, the amount of cars currently advertised for sale online and the fact that I’ve only seen one in three years, I’d say anything between a few hundred to a couple thousand MS-9s were made from late 1991 to mid-1994.
It’s hard to find anything positive to say about ɛ̃fini and Mazda’s whole clustermarque fiasco, but at least some of the cars were objectively interesting. The Autozam AZ-1 (to be featured very soon) was one, the Eunos Cosmo was another. And the ɛ̃fini MS-9, though a mere badge-engineering exercise, was at least a well-designed luxury “hardtop.” Pity the Megalo Spirits were not quite powerful enough to entice more folks to purchase one.