Mazda at 100 — A history of the MX models

When people hear the names “Mazda” and “MX,” visions of the universally adored Mazda MX-5 (a.k.a. Miata) always come to mind. But did you know that the model prefix “MX” was first used by the Hiroshima-based company a full five years before the first MX-5 was born? And it wasn’t even for a top-down sports car?

Well, a look back through Mazda’s history highlights that the MX name pre-dates the world’s bestselling roadster and in fact has been used more than a dozen times across a broad spread of production, concept and racing Mazdas.

The MX prefix is given to a car that takes on a challenge to create and deliver new values without being confined by convention regardless of vehicle type. When it was revealed in 1989 the Mazda MX-5 was exactly this kind of car, as the automotive industry as a whole moved away from the affordable sports car, Mazda defied convention to create a perfect modern reinterpretation of the classic rear-wheel drive roadster.

More than three decades later the MX-5 needs no introduction, but the first car to wear the MX badge is less famous. Revealed in 1981, the Mazda MX-81 Aria concept car was created by Italian styling house Bertone, which used Mazda 323 running gear to create a futuristic wedge-shaped hatchback. With its gold paint, huge glasshouse and pop-up lights it stood out at the Tokyo Motor Show, but with its recessed square steering wheel, TV screen cockpit and side swinging front seats, it was arguably the interior that was the most radical. A one-off concept that certainly met the defy-convention ethos of MX models, it led to styling details like the high-mounted taillights and pop-up headlamps that appeared in future Mazda production cars later in the 80s.  

The very first MX–Mazda’s MX-81 Aria concept designed by Italy’s Bertone design house

Next in the MX lineage was the 1983 MX-02 concept car, a big flat-sided five-door hatch with large windows, aerodynamic rear wheel covers and flared in door mirrors. Unique features included rear wheel steering and a windscreen head-up display. The one-off theme continued with the 1985 Mazda MX-03, which again was a radical looking concept car, but this time it was a convention-defying sports car powered by a triple-rotor 315ps engine. Conceived purely as a concept, this low-slung coupe, was pure futuristic exuberance, with a cabin that featured an aircraft style yoke rather than a wheel, plus digital displays and a head-up display, its technology tally also including four-wheel steering and all-wheel drive, while the long low body delivered an aerodynamic Cd figure of just 0.25.

The 1987 Mazda MX-04 concept predated the current MX-5 RF’s retractable hardtop by having a removable glass dome.

While the MX-02 and MX-03 shared some of the same futuristic design cues, the MX-04 was completely different. Revealed at the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show, the MX-04 was a front-engine rear-wheel drive sports car chassis that had removable fiberglass panels, but not just one, but two different sets, allowing the car to switch from a glass dome roofed coupe to a beach buggy style open sided roadster. Powered by a rotary engine, this shape-shifting sports car was never a serious contender for production, but little did outsiders know that Mazda was already developing the MX-5, and just two-years later, the most famous car to wear a MX badge arrived.

Four generations of the most famous MX of all–the Mazda MX-5/Miata

The next cars to wear the MX badge were also production models, both built on the MX-5’s success and offering very different coupe styles. Sold from 1992 to 1993, the Mazda MX-3 was a four-seat coupe hatchback that disregarded the convention for normal hatchbacks to offer buyers something far more stylish and sportier, while it further earned its MX badge by being available with the world’s smallest mass-produced V6 engine. The larger MX-6 coupe conveyed big premium coupe style for family saloon money, but in the 1990s arguably the most radical car to wear the MX badge was the Mazda MXR-01.

The Mazda MXR-01 racecar could’ve followed the footsteps of its history-making sibling, the Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B

After the rotary powered Mazda 787B took victory in the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, the FIA promptly banned rotary-powered cars, leaving Mazda looking for a new car for the 1992 World Sportscar Championship at very short notice. A solution arrived in the shape of the incredible Mazda MXR-01 prototype racecar. Based on the previous season’s Jaguar XJR-14, the British firms’ withdrawal from sportscar racing allowed Mazda to adapt this radical Ross Brawn-designed prototype and fit a Mazda-badged V10 Judd engine. Famed for its incredible grip and downforce, just five examples where built, but sadly the collapse of the World Sportscar Championship at the end of 1992 spelt the end of Mazda’s world racing program and denied the MXR-01 the chance to repeat the 787B’s success.

Into the 21st century the MX moniker returned to adorn concept cars, all of which stayed true to the MX ethos of delivering something new by challenging convention: the 2001 MX-Sport Tourer concept was a radical MPV concept with freestyle doors and sweeping body design, that highlighted the fact an MPVs did not have to be boxy or dull, something the resulting Mazda5 proved. In fact, the 2004 Mazda MX-Flexa was a concept that was even closer to the final ground-breaking Mazda5 production car, sharing its popular sliding rear doors.

The MX Crossport spawned the CX-7 and a whole host of fun-to-drive CX crossovers.
The Mazda MX Sportif concept became the first-generation Mazda3, which also marked the departure from its predecessors’ 323 nomenclature.

The 2002 MX-Sport Runabout concept previewed the modern look of the second-generation Mazda2, while the 2003 MX-Sportif was the concept that previewed the first generation Mazda3, which was a big step forward from the outgoing Mazda 323. But the MX concept that really started Mazda on the road to another success story that set it apart from other brands, was the 2005 MX-Crossport. Inspired by the Mazda RX-8 sportscar, this was a sporty looking SUV concept with sculpted wheel arches, slender headlamps and bold shoulder lines that previewed the Mazda CX-7 — a pivotal car that established the fact that Mazda could build a stylish, sporty SUV with car-like dynamics. A car that established a lineage of award-winning SUVs that leads to today’s CX-5 and CX-30, the MX-Crossport sat at the start of this SUV success story.

The newest MX is also Mazda’s latest convention-defying exercise–the all-new MX-30 electric vehicle

And now with the arrival of the ground-breaking MX-30, it’s appropriate that the MX name returns to a production model – as Mazda’s first production electric vehicle, the MX-30 is a car that represents a new chapter in Mazda history.

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