Mazda 121 (1990-97)

words - Joe Kenwright
The Mazda 121 "bubble" redefined the budget small car with cute lines, high quality and spacious cabin. Under siege from the Koreans, Mazda was later forced to strip $2,000 out of the car

HISTORY
On its November 1990 launch, the new Mazda 121 was lifted well clear of its budget predecessor with an obvious link to the MX-5 that took the market by storm only a year earlier. Its efficient 1.3-litre engine was a 16 valve development of proven 323 and Laser B-series powerplants while its curved, high cabin matched the space of more expensive small cars.

Initially presented as a top shelf model only with painted bumpers, large 14 inch wheels with premium Astina-style wheelcovers and lavish cabin trim and equipment, it was not cheap as it nudged $20,000 when specified with 4 speed auto, power steering and air-cond. As Mazda took the high ground, Ford plugged the gap with the Korean version of the previous model badged as the Festiva.

A premium Mazda 121 Funtop with folding canvas roof arrived in January 1993. These early examples were bought by well-heeled buyers who looked after them. Mazda split the range into a stripped-out 1.3 model in January 1994 while the top of the range version continued with a new 1.5-litre engine. The stripped-out 1.3 model felt noisier and cruder on the road.

A Mazda 121 Shades extra-value pack based on an upgraded version of the 1.3 sold well into 1997 as the final model of this series and ran for almost a year alongside its 121 Metro replacement.

MODEL TIMELINE
Mazda sold this 121 in Australia from Dec 1990 to August 1997.

  • Nov 1990: Top of the range 1.3 launched with 4 speed auto and power steering options.

  • Jul 1991: Power steering standard. Australian 7 spoke wheelcovers replace imported items.

  • Jan 1993: Shades extra value pack released. Limited edition 300 Fun Top with alloys, folding roof, rear spoiler, upgraded trim, central locking released.

  • Jan 1994: Auto option deleted and power steering optional for new 1.3 poverty model which has smaller 13 inch wheels, no hubcaps, grey bumpers, cheaper trim and no tacho. New 1.5 introduced with 14 inch wheels, painted bumpers, tacho, power steering standard and auto option.

  • Jan 1996: Four spoke steering wheel. 1.5 auto loses tacho.

  • Nov 1996: 121 Metro hatch launched. 1.5 and base 1.3 sedan withdrawn but some stocks continue into 1997. Shades 1.3 sedan launched with upgraded Metro engine, painted bumpers, wheelcovers, air-cond.

  • Aug 1997: Shades 1.3 sedan withdrawn.

CHECKLIST:

Engine
Engine is normally long-lived but on some examples, it can lose compression on one or two cylinders before 100,000 km so compression check is essential.

Multi-valve head is susceptible to valve stem damage if oil changes are skipped or if engine is cooked for increased oil consumption. Check all oil seals, coolant hoses and radiator for leaks. Fresh, clean coolant is essential to avoid head gasket failure.

Cost-cutting combined coil and distributor which makes the coil prone to heat damage and failure for massive repair bill to replace combined unit. Check out alternatives with auto electrician before replacement.

Cam belt must be replaced at specified intervals. Simple early single-point injection is reliable but fresh plug leads, clean air and fuel filters are essential. Last cars had more efficient multi-point injection.

Check air-conditioning operation as early systems may require expensive conversion if not working.

Suspension & Brakes
Rear drum brakes susceptible to seal failure if fluid changes are overlooked and can be leaking badly. Check that front rotors meet minimum thickness standards.

Premium models with 14 inch wheels require quality 60 series replacement tyres. Skipped tyre pressure checks with these low profile tyres can leave some examples with damaged or buckled wheel rims.

Body
Early imported Astina-style plastic wheel covers initially cost up to $300 each forcing Mazda to source local replacements to end ongoing theft as they were prone to kerb damage. Other owners have simply sourced ugly aftermarket items which can cheapen the whole car.

Painted bumpers and front indicators susceptible to ongoing damage. Check quality of repairs and hidden damage. Neglected darker colours on earlier examples may already have faded beyond the point of no return and could need a respray.

Cloth trim and carpet can show signs of wear in unprotected examples and are not easily replaced. Check operation of all accessories.

Short tail and relatively light construction can leave some examples with major hidden damage so check boot floor and other panels for distortion. Low ground clearance can generate scrapes and gouges in the underbody so check for damage.

Side panels came with no protection so the worst examples are pock-marked with dings and chips. Some can be eased out by dent removers but the worst will need panel beating and a respray.

 

 

 

Published : Saturday, 1 January 2005
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