Used Mazda 121 review: 1996-2001
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Mazda became a trendsetter seven years ago when it replaced the curvy 121 with a boxy, upright 121 Metro. Mazda burst the small-car bubble with a bang in 1996 when it replaced the "jelly bean" 121 with the innovative, but rather bland, 121 Metro.
In one swipe it changed the perception of small cars from cute little sedans and hatches to more practical wagon-like hatches. The change was dramatic. Mazda had enjoyed considerable success with the bubbly 121 so the switch to the plainly-styled, boxy wagon couldn't have been more extreme.
At the time the company claimed it was breaking the mould with a totally new type of small car that would become the prototype for small-car design. Looking back now, it seems it was right, with a range of upright, wagon-style hatches now on offer from most manufacturers, all of which offer the flexibility to carry passengers and packages in a wide range of combinations.
After Mazda introduced the 121 "bubble" a strong demand for hatches developed and, without a hatch in the range, Mazda faced a major redesign.
Instead of simply doing a hatch version of the bubble body the company did a comprehensive make-over on the 121 platform and produced the Metro. It was a hatch, a wagon, and even a mini van, all rolled into one.
Based on the well-proven 121 front-drive platform, the Metro had the same length and wheelbase as the bubble, but was higher and wider.
In the wake of the cute and curvy bubble, the Metro's styling was rather bland with just enough rounded edges to soften what is an otherwise severe boxy shape.
The upright shape meant there was lots of headroom for adult occupants, but the real appeal was the way the interior could be readily switched around.
It could comfortably carry four adults, and still have plenty of space for carrying packages or other items. And the seats could be folded and laid flat to accommodate quite a load of larger and more awkwardly shaped items.
Front-seat occupants had comfortable bucket seats with plenty of support, which could also be adjusted for height on up-spec models. But the rear seat was the real key to the Metro's flexibility.
A 50/50 split-fold bench, the rear seat had fore-aft and rake adjustment which meant comfort and generous legroom for those in the rear.
If you lay all seats flat you had makeshift overnight accommodation. With the rear seat flat together with one front seat there was space for a long slim package, and with the rear seat down and you had a large load space capable of swallowing a pair of mountain bikes.
The upright styling also meant good visibility, of the sort that made soft-roaders so popular with city dwellers, and getting in and out was a snap for the elderly and less flexible.
The Metro's base power source was a 1.3-litre fuel-injected four-valve, four-cylinder engine which boasted 55kW, sufficient around town without ever threatening to take your breath away. On the top models the power source was a more powerful 1.5-litre which, with 64kW, was nippier.
Transmission choices were a five-speed manual with a precise floor shift or a smooth three-speed auto. You could choose between the five-speed and a four-speed auto if you bought the 1.5-litre engine.
The suspension was by MacPherson Strut at the front and torsion beam at the rear, which allowed the flat floor which was the key to the roomy interior. Brakes were a combination of disc front and drum rear, while steering was power-assisted.
All models had a driver's airbag, numerous storage bins, cupholders and a sound system, but airconditioning was an additional $1870 on top of the base price of $16,650 for the entry-level model.
Mazda also released a number of Shades packs which included airconditioning as standard along with other features.
On the road the 121 Metro had ample performance for around-town zip and on-highway hauling. Its ride was comfortable, handling reassuring, and brakes secure.
Interior noise levels were criticised when the 121 was first launched, which suggests cutting costs on insulation material in an effort to compete in the ultra-competitive baby-car market. The lack of remote-control mirrors was also criticised.
In the shop
Like all Mazdas, the 121 was a quality-built car so they stand up well, provided they are serviced regularly and are not abused.
The 121 Metro was a little more expensive than the Korean cars that boomed in the baby segment with their $13,990 drive-away pricing, and that meant the Mazdas were typically bought by people who were prepared to take care of them.
Generally the 121 is well kept and you'll find few dings and dents on the body. If you happen across a car which has some body damage, check the rest of the car carefully for signs of abuse.
The engines are robust and give little trouble, but check the owners books for a service record that supports the cars overall condition and odometer reading. Lift the dipstick and check the colour of the oil. If it's black it's probably old, and also check inside the oil filler cap for signs of sludge which could mean a lack of servicing.
Interior trim is hard-wearing if a little plain on the 121 Metro, with quality plastics and trim fabrics, though the trim on earlier bubble 121s was prone to discoloration and distortion after sun exposure.
On the downside, Mazda parts prices are typically higher than other Japanese-sourced cars.
Well kept: Metros usually have few dings or dents.
Taut and trim: The interiors feature good quality plastics and fabrics.
By the book: Check that the service record supports the car's condition.
Robust: The engines give little trouble.
Black Gold:Lift the dipstick and check the colour of the oil.
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