March 4, 2010
Mazda caused quite a stir when it unveiled its bubbly little 121 in 1990. The new model wasn't a classical beauty in any sense, but it was certainly an eye-catching little car and everyone fell madly in love with it at first glance. With its extravagant curves it was instantly dubbed the 'bubble' top and became an overnight sensation in the small car world. Even today, when you see one on the road, and there are lots of them still in use, it's hard to stop yourself from smiling. It was that sort of a car.
After the 'Plain Jane' car that preceded it the new 121 was a breath of fresh air when it was launched in 1990. Available only as a four-door sedan the new 121 was a head-turner from the moment it set four tyres on our roads. With its soft, rounded shape it stood out from the rather bland angular cars that filled small car shopping baskets of the day.
The 121 designer, Toshihiro Hashimoto, claimed the four-door sedan was more expensive to produce than a hatch would have been, but was more practical, quieter, more rigid, and offered better comfort. While it looked small, it was in fact larger than its predecessor. According to the tape it was substantially taller, wider and longer, and had a longer wheelbase and wider track.
Inside, four adults could be accommodated in quite decent comfort in a roomy and airy cabin. They sat in a rather upright position, which liberated quite a bit of room fore-aft, and with the high roof line there was quite good headroom. The boot was also a good size, aided by the use of a space-saver spare, while the 50/50 split/fold rear seat made it even more flexible.
There was just the one engine available at launch, which was a 1.3- litre single overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine with throttle body fuel injection. At its best it put out 54 kW at 6000 revs and 106 Nm at 3700 revs, enough to give it nippy performance around town.
A little more zip was injected in 1994 when Mazda added the choice of a 1.5-litre engine, which offered eight kilowatts more power and 14 Nm of extra torque. Buyers could choose between a five-speed manual and four-speed auto at first, until the auto was dropped in 1993 leaving the manual the sole option. The suspension was conventional, MacPherson Struts at the front with a torsion beam at the rear, and coil springs all round.
Being tall, roll could have been an unsettling trait in the 121, but Mazda kept a fairly tight rein on it to keep it riding flat. That, coupled with the stiff body, meant the 121 was quite a fun little car to drive.
There were precious few frills. The windows cranked by hand, the mirrors were hand-adjusted, but there was a decent radio-cassette sound system. Power steering was standard with the 1.5-litre engine, and also standard with the 1.3 between 1991 and 1994, after which it became optional.
IN THE SHOP
Cars as old as the 121 'bubble' vary enormously in condition, from unroadworthy wrecks that shouldn't be on the road to pristine, well cared for cars with plenty of life left in them. Shopping around is important to find those that have been well looked after; don't fall under the spell of the first car you see.
Paint can be a problem; it's quite common to find faded paint, particularly on the darker colours. It looks ugly, but it's not the end of the world. Check the body for rust, lift the carpets and boot mat to look at the floorpan, and check around the windows. Generally there won't be any significant rust to be found.
Listen for rattles coming from the engine, remove the oil filler and look for sludge, and watch for smoke from the exhaust. Make sure the auto transmission selects gears smoothly and without hesitation; on the manual observe for any reluctance to engage when shifting gears.
Check for a service record, regular oil changes are crucial to keeping the engine alive, and cars of this age are often neglected because they're approaching the end of the road.
ON THE ROAD
It looked bright and bubbly and the 121 drove that way as well. Its compact dimensions, tight body, and stiff suspension made it quite sporty in nature, even though that wasn't the intention of its designers. Nicely balanced on the road it was accomplished on all types of roads. While its rather large frontal area limited its ultimate speed somewhat, it accelerated well, which made it zippy in traffic.
IN A CRASH
A small car and no airbags is not a great recipe for safety in today's crash and bash world. As they are often bought for starter drivers, parents should consider the relative lack of safety of the 121 before putting their kids into one.
AT THE PUMP
Small and compact, the 121 was an economical little car. At its launch Mazda claimed it would do around 7.0 L/100 km around town and 5.5 L/100 km on the open road.
Dante Rossie bought a 1.3-litre auto Mazda 121 'bubble' for his mother in 1991. In 2007 it was replaced with a Toyota Yaris YRX, after which he was going to sell the Mazda, but he was so impressed with it that he sold his larger, newer and much more expensive car and kept the 121. It is still his daily driver and he reckons it's a better drive than many cars half its age. It's now done 190,000 km and the engine has some tappet noise, but other than that it is in good mechanical condition. The body is free of rust, but the paint on the roof, boot and bonnet is shot.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A cute and cuddly little sedan that, in good condition, can make a good first car.
THE RATING 65/100