The Japanese auto industry isn't what it was 20 years ago. The ridiculous performance cars of the 1990s have, with a few exceptions, yielded to staid and respectable sedans and crossovers. Even Mazda, makers of the Miata and some of the most fun normal cars around, doesn't come close to their Bubble Era madness.
One of the craziest cars from that time was this: the Autozam AZ-1. It's a gull-winged, mid-engined Kei car. Why did Mazda make a gull-winged, mid-engined Kei car, you ask? The same reason they made a giant three-rotor luxury coupe like the Eunos Cosmo: Why the hell not?
Only 4,300 AZ-1s were ever built, which puts it among the rarest and most performance-oriented Kei cars in history. It was never sold in the U.S., for fairly obvious reasons.
Nonetheless, at least one example — maybe two, depending on who you ask, hence the asterisk in my headline — made it to our shores. This is a wonderful thing, and even more wonderful is the fact that Giant-American Matt Farah drove for the latest /DRIVE+ video.
This particular example of the AZ-1 is owned by Seth Rosenberg of ExoticsRally in New York. He said he's into small cars in general, and was drawn to the AZ-1 for its gullwing doors and three-cylinder, 650cc turbo DOHC engine.
This one is a bit customized. It has Lotus Exige seats and no center console, perhaps to accommodate for a larger demographic of people than it was intended for. Getting parts are tricky, but the car's nimble, kart-like handling and shock value make it worth it, Rosenberg said.
I'm not sure how Matt Farah squeezed into one because he's a pretty tall dude, but he did, and he found it to be ridiculous fun. The car weighs just over 1,500 pounds and can buzz its way up to 10,000 RPM, so it can move when you want it to. I'm sure it also does that thing where you feel like you're going 20 mph faster than normal because it's so tiny.
And with the extremely quick steering rack, you can change lanes and the flick of a finger. Oddly enough, the city-oriented suspension is too soft to keep up with the rest of it.
Farah walks away thinking it's pretty special, and he's a guy who has seen just about everything. All I know is I'm jealous. I've always wanted to drive this thing.