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Mazda 121 - Carsguide Car of the Week

All manufacturers have their ‘foundation’ or defining cars that establish the overall personae of a company and their focus on a particular segment.

The 121 is the car that established Mazda globally as a leading player in the small or sub-compact segment. Previous to the 121, Mazda's small cars were rear-wheel drives such as the 1300 and RX-3, both of which had quite a sporty feel and were not as targeted at the mainstream buyer.

The introduction of the 121 came at a time when Mazda split their small car range in two, essentially providing a sub-compact hatch with the 121 and a compact hatch and later a sedan, with the 323. Both have been very successful for Mazda with the 121 evolving into the current Mazda2 and the 323 into the Mazda3.

The 121 was a result of Ford asking Mazda to design a new small car shared platform to be marketed by Ford as the Festiva (Fiesta in some markets) and the 121 by Mazda. The original 121, built between 1987 and 1990 was a very boxy utilitarian version of the Festiva and is quite a forgettable car. The second series however, affectionately known to some as ‘the bubble’ was somewhat ahead of its time with its attention grabbing styling and bold colours. It has a cuteness that every so often another manufacturer will introduce into their model line, the most recent example being the current Nissan Micra.

While reviews of the design initially split opinions, as is the case with good design, it grew on the vast majority of buyers. And what was hidden under the bubble was a very practical package. The tall roof, door and boot lines offered a great deal of internal space. Boot capacity especially was amazing for the emerging sub-compact class. For such a small car the long wheelbase and very limited front and rear overhang delivered very good road handling, in many ways the layout of the New Mini has replicated that of the 121.

From 1996 the third generation 121 was introduced with a return to the previous boxy utilitarian style. It was marketed here in Australia as the 121 Metro with the most popular version being the ‘Shades’. While it was a sales success in Japan, here in Australia many buyers and journalists saw the new design as a step in the wrong direction. Local sales slumped and Mazda did not recover in this segment until 2002 with the introduction of the Mazda2.

While now 15-20 years old, a good example of 121 Bubble still represents a good purchase for the cost-conscious and first-time buyer. Mazda has always been renowned for build quality and safety and a well maintained and regularly serviced example delivers an economy rate not too far off current comparable vehicles.

Mazda 121 - Sub Compact 1987 - 2002

First Series - 121

Production 1987–1990

Class subcompact car

Body style(s) 5-door Hatch


* Inline 4-cylinders, SOHC 16V, SPFI, 1323 cc

* Power 54 kW/5600 rpm

* Torque 103 N•m /3600 rpm


* Length: 3475 mm

* Width: 1655 mm

* Height: 1450 mm

* Wheelbase: 2295 mm

Fuel consumption (city) 7.4 km/litre

Fuel consumption (highway) 5.4 km/litre

Second Series 121 (Bubble)

Production 1990–1998

Class subcompact car

Body style(s) 4-door sedan


Inline 4-cylinders, SOHC 16V, SPFI

* 1.3 L B3-ME I4 - 54 kW /5600 rpm - 103 N•m; /3600 rpm

* 1.5 L B5-ME I4 - 74 kw - 127 N•m


* * Length: 3800 mm

* * Width: 1655 mm

* * Height: 1470 mm

* * Wheelbase: 2390 mm

Fuel consumption (city) 7.2 km/litre

Fuel consumption (highway) 5.4 km/litre

Third Series - 121 Metro

Production 1998–2002

Class subcompact car

Body style 5-door Hatch


* 1.3 L B3E I4, 61 kW / 108 N•m

* 1.5 L B5E I4, 74 kw 127 N•m


* Length: 3800 mm

* Width: 1670 mm

* Height: 1500 mm

* Wheelbase: 2390 mm

Fuel consumption (city) - 8 km/litre

Fuel consumption (highway) - 6.4 km/litre

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