If I say the name “Carol” to the average American and mention a total width of 51 inches and a curb weight of a little over 1200 pounds, they will naturally think I am speaking about a woman who looks like Honey Boo-Boo’s mom. If I say the same thing to the average Japanese person, their mind will flash immediately to the cute little car produced by Mazda. It’s well they should, because when Mazda decided to team up with Suzuki in 1989 to produce a new Kei class car for their just launched youth-oriented “Autozam” brand they cornered the market on “kawaii.”
The Carol name was first hung an a small Mazda in 1962 with the introduction of the company’s first four passenger vehicle. It was a cute car, with a curving roofline and a reverse angled C pillar that sweeps up and back, something that makes me think of French cars of the same era, and it featured a rear mounted water cooled 258cc OHV four cylinder engine. It was highly successful and captured 67% of the Kei market the year it entered production. The design went through several small updates and soldiered on until August of 1970, selling more than 265,000 vehicles over its production run. The name was retired when production stopped and Mazda introduced a new small car, the “Chantez,” two years later.
With the revival of the Kei car class in the late 1980s, Mazda dusted off the Carol name and hung it on a new little car they had co-developed with Suzuki. Unlike the square, almost Yugo-esque design of Suzuki’s Alto, however, Mazda opted to appeal to young women with a rounder, softer approach. Nagare before Nagare was a “thing,” the Mk II and MK III Carol were happy looking little cars, with big round headlights above a wide, smiling grill. The soft lines continued as they flowed up and back into a large greenhouse that ended with a cavernous hatchback door that was sometimes fitted with optional spoiler along its top.
Inside, the Mk II and III Carol is all utility. The rounded roofline makes the interior seem huge but the seats are necessarily close together. The dash is low and features a lot of hard plastics molded into interesting, rounded shapes. The gauges are set into small pods. Overall the effect is cute, but cheap, something that is just right in a little economy car.
The Carol was redesigned 1998, and the Autozam name was eliminated. The kawaii factor was unceremoniously dumped and the new Carol became just another drab little economy car. It was updated in 2001 and received another redesign in 2004. Yet another redsign followed in 2010 and, despite all the refreshes and redesigns, the Carol somehow failed to receive any of the “zoom-zoom” excitement that so many other Mazdas of that era received. Today it looks thoroughly modern but, without its smile, is just another face in the crowd.
Back when we were first dating, my wife’s daily driver was a MKIII Carol and I had the opportunity to drive and ride in it on several occasions. It was a tinny, cheerful little car and I was surprised at how much it reminded me of the old Volkswagen Beetle. It was unrefined and plain, but offered so much utility at such a low price it was easy to see why Mazda sold so many of them. Like some women I know, the Carol’s good looks piqued people’s attention, but there was a lot hiding behind that pretty face and it was those other qualities that made people want to make a comittment.
On the road, the little car was surprisingly spry to drive. Most Kei cars are never used on the expressway, my wife’s car was no exception, and it’s clear to me that Mazda’s designers understood this. Because it had been designed to be a city car, the Carol was light and its gearing was low. That meant that when I hit the gas, the little car scooted away from stoplights with surprising vigor. In fact, I thought then, and still think now, that stoplight to stoplight, my wife’s Carol would have been more than a match for my 2.0 Twin Turbo Supra which was hamstrung with an automatic transmission. Small and nimble, the little Carol handled the duties of daily driving without much fuss and always greeted you with a cheerful smile every morning as you climbed in. It was hard not to like it.
I imagine that, like most newer cars, the new Carols are superior in every way and handle the duties of Japanese city life with just as much skill as the older model I drove, but I am disappointed that Mazda has let the cheerful face of the car go away. While they have continued to hang ever more outrageously grinning grills and swoopy sheet metal on all of their other cars, would it hurt them to let the little Carol, the car with the name that helped Mazda break into the passenger market, join in the fun? Come on Mazda, it doesn’t matter how practical the new Carol is, without a smile on her face she’s just not going to get noticed and will remain just another wallflower on the edge of the dance when she really needs to be out there shaking things up.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.