By on August 29, 2013

carol 2

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.”

mazda_carol_360_white_1965

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.

carol1

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.

carol3

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.

mazda-carol-melady

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.

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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.

MAZDA-CAROL

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.

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32 Comments on “Kei Car Caper: Deep Inside Carol...”


  • avatar
    afflo

    I love your write-ups! As one of the minority of Americans whose passport actually gets some use (hah, as if most Americans have one at all!) I love to read about cars around the world.

    Waiting for a Test Drive report on a Suzuki Jimny!

    • 0 avatar

      No secret Jimney in my past, but how about a Pajero io?

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      Well aren’t you just so special…

      • 0 avatar
        afflo

        Yeah, just oh, so special.

        I still meet people who have never physically left the country. My parents for instance. Mom and Dad were out for a visit, and saw my and my wife’s passports on my dresser. She’d never actually seen a real passport before.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        It is sad that not just a majority, but an overwhelming majority of Americans have never left this continent. We are ALL the way up to 1/3 of Americans from a historical 15%, only because you now have to have a passport to leave the country at all. Well, I suppose technically you need one to get back IN.

        As for the car, THAT is the way to do a smiley face on a car, not that rictus on the front of the Mazda3. Seems like all you would ever need for an urban commuter, completely delightful. Then they ruined it.

        • 0 avatar
          67dodgeman

          Depends on how you look at things. The OVERWHELMING majority of Americans have traveled to other states. Going from Texas to Arkansas is equivalent to going from Germany to France. Going from Texas to New York is equivalent to going clear across Europe. Just because we haven’t traveled to other countries does not necessarily mean we haven’t traveled. I doubt most Europeans have traveled as much as the average middle-class American in terms of miles driven/flown.

          • 0 avatar

            The thing is that international travel takes people out of their comfort zone and throws them into a place with a different language and culture. Europe is small but has a huge amount of diversity packed into a small area.

            The United States is large but because our national identity is so strong and our cultural touchstones are so widepread we are extremely homogonized. You have to really get off the beaten path to find those pockets of people who adhere to old ways. Even then, most of those people will speak perfect native English and will share a lot of our own experiences, cultural opinions and biases. The only exception I can think might be Native Americans who are essentially members of cultures that are held captive inside the United states and kept seperate because of distance, policy and their desire to maintain their own culture.

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            You can step over an imaginary line and go from Germany to France, they share a border. :-)

            I travel all over the US for work CONSTANTLY. In the past 4 weeks, I have been in Maine, Ohio (twice, city and small town), Oregon, California, Georgia, and New York. It’s all the same. Nearly everyone speaks English with minor variations of regional accent. The same restaurants. The same hotels. The same stores. People live pretty much the same way from Maine to California, and everywhere in between. The variation is really quite small, we are a fairly homogenous country – probably much more so than many European countries that have had their borders redrawn by war and conquest (see the former Yugoslavia). Pockets of difference, sure, there are entire towns in Maine where French is more likely to be heard than English, for example, but that is the exception, not the rule.

            Europe as a whole is BIGGER than the United States in area (and has more than twice the population), and going from country to country is to experience fairly radical differences in culture. People don’t speak the same languages (other than many people speak at least some English), or have the same customs. And even in part, it is not as small as people think it is – I drove from Berlin to Stockholm (in one sitting, bar the ferry), that is like driving from Maine to the Carolinas – not exactly a quick jaunt. Yet you pass through three different countries, with three distinct cultures, and three distinct languages. And three sets of traffic laws…

            People think of Europe as a bunch of tiny little countries, but the modern reality is that with the EU, Euro, and Schengen it is really much more like the United States – a political entity made up of states. Note that Schengen alone covers 1/2 the area of the United States and *400* million people.

          • 0 avatar
            afflo

            1. Europeans don’t need passports to drive across Europe.

            2. I’ve lived around the US – it’s really not that different. The difference between the U.K. and Greece is far greater than the difference between any two states… or for that matter, greater than the difference between the US and UK, culturally!

            3. For all the talk of how hard intercontinental travel hits the pocketbook, people still buy 2500 square foot houses and spend $30,000+ on cars. My wife and I live in a modest house and buy cheap cars and pay them off quickly so we can put that money into travel. Your mileage may vary.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Ugh that blue square-face Protege-reject one is horrible, but the green sort of happy looking one is alright!

    I can’t see this name in print without thinking of Horatio Sanz on SNL saying HI, IM CAAAAROL!

  • avatar
    cardood

    Bongo Friendee review please!

  • avatar

    I just came back from Sapporo on Sunday and the expressway is full of kei cars. Moreover I was once overtaken by a tuned Honda Life with a Magnaflo muffler that was doing well above 120 km/h. Of course Hokkaido in the summer is Japan’s driving mecca: cops apparently care zilch about how fast you drive. I saw guys in prev-gen LHD Mustang, M3s, S2000 and the like zipping by.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      In the more remote parts of Japan (everything west of Osaka and East/North of Tokyo) I’d bet the % of kei cars is over 50%. Especially if you factor in the kei trucks from farms/factories/workshops…

  • avatar
    ArBee

    The greenhouse of the Mk. 1 Carol appears to be taken directly from the Ford Anglia 105E. Of course, there was a lot of British influence in the early postwar Japanese industry.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      “there was a lot of British influence in the early postwar Japanese industry”

      German, too, and both were heavily referenced for many realms of Japanese development. It’s a fascinating subtopic for anyone intrigued by how rapidly and well Japan developed prior to WWII.

      Chalmers Johnson in the 90′s called Japan the world’s premier learning culture. Obviously that’s now largely shifted to China and India, but Japan is the sole reason there are today developed economies, and not merely de facto colonies, in East Asia.

      Not that it’s now doing Japan much good.

  • avatar
    nvdw

    The heydays of the kei car are long gone – just like any 90s Japanese excess when it comes to automobiles. For Mazda it’s just a matter of having Suzuki build the things and slap some badges on them, just to have them available in their showrooms.

    But as we say in my neck of the woods: gelukkig hebben we de foto’s nog. I like that Autozam Carol. Then again, my automobile life is full of guilty pleasures.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      “The heydays of the kei car are long gone”

      Wat, heb japan gewoon grote wegen?

      • 0 avatar

        Kei cars face a few pressures, in particular removal of incentives. But even now there’s a problem with developing them for one market. India is not enough to offset the burden. That’s why Nissan and Mitsubishi had to co-develop the next kei platform. What to say about Subaru and Suzuki!

        Note that although the death of kei cars was predicted for a while, they continued growing market share until very recently. I heard they take astonishing 35-40% (by various sources), although fleet ratio is lower, of course. So in this sense the heydays are not long gone at all!

        What seems to be gone is the diversity of designs. Nowadays (essentially) all keis are boxy and fill out the permissible dimensions. So the heiday of quirky design has passed long ago indeed. They still sit on a variety of platforms (e.g. some still have solid rear axles), but as per above, that is going to pass.

        • 0 avatar
          nvdw

          Only four manufacturers in Japan (Honda, Suzuki, Daihatsu and Mitsubishi) still produce their own designs. With the exception of Honda’s keis, these are badge-engineered and sold by other brands. Like Bertel Schmitt noted some time ago, the market for keis is so small (virtually limited to Japan) it is very difficult getting some money back on developing the things.

          Mitsubishi for instance sells some of its keis to Nissan, while Suzuki ships its Solio kei van to Mitsubishi et cetera. Of every kei car Mazda sells nowadays, only the badge is Mazda. Honda’s new N-series is developed to build every possible variety of kei car off a single platform.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Cute little car ! .

    Too bad Americans have forgotten the fun we had for a while with tiny little cheap but oh so fun to drive cars .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar

      Nate, I really appreciate the fact that you take the time to read everything and then post thoughtful comments. It’s always a pleasure to see your name pop up in the comments – THOM

      I was really imporessed with my wife’s little car. It was all kinds of cute but really so practical and perfectly suited for the job it had to do. I think people are right when they write that economic reality and development costs have won out over design, but I hope that is a cyclical thing. Sooner or later, some manufucturer is going to realize that style still sells in this segment and then look out.

      • 0 avatar
        juicy sushi

        I was in Japan for a few weeks this summer, and it seemed a lot of people felt the Honda N-One was that kei. Easily the most common new kei car that I could see.

        • 0 avatar

          The whole Kei market has changed a lot over the past decade. They used to be something that people used for second cars most of the time but today they are actually alternatives that many people use all the time, hence Pete’s comments about seeing them on the freeway these days.

          I haven’t seen the N-one but I know that some companies are pursuing the girl and young mom market with cars like the Lapin and the Porte. The Porte is a good idea, I think, and I suppose it is cute enough but nothing comes close to how cute the Carol was IMO.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            I think the kei market has realyl shifted away from just being cute. They’ve been having tv tads touting the driver aids as being helpful for elderly parents/grandparents, and they seem to be advertising most kei cars as general family cars for people who don’t want to spend the cash on a proper car.

            I don’t know how successful that will be long-term though, since the cost difference between a kei car and something like the Fit or Prius C isn’t too much, and the experience is a lot better in the real cars.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Thomas ;

        _Anything_ I see with your name on it will be read , even if it’s about icky new cars I don’t think I’d like .(whatever Kei Cars are I think I’d like them very much)

        My comments are just my thoughts , I read many others here who actually know a thing or two , I’m just a die hard GearHead who’d prolly run right out and buy a Carol 360 like the white one in the first picture because , well _you_ understand why .

        I consider pretty much ALL cars to be ” real ” and yes , I’d of course drive any Carol I got my hands on to Death Valley and back again because every vehicle I own , has to be able to do that else down the road it goes bye-bye .

        FWIW , you’re not the only TTAC writer I’ll read every article of , just my current favorite as you’ve been there & done it and have the gift to explain .

        I wish I could write like you as the Moto Ride I took in 1976 on my 1937 EL (61″) Harley – Davidson from Guatemala City to El Salvador was epic in mnay ways , foolhardy and stupid in more ways but I made it alive and had a good time . All those niggly little details you incude , would make my story fun I think .

        -Nate

  • avatar

    Great article, Thomas! The original Carol looks like an Anglia. Agree with the original comment on that. See very little French in it. Maybe, just a whiff of Peugeot in the front.

    Honestly, the keis from way back then are much more interesting. Have seen some very nice designs. Sadly, the modern keis are just too Asian in their design to appeal to me.

    Except for the new Honda. Maybe that’s because it’s sort of retro. Honestly, the first good lookin Honda since the late 90s Civic hatchback. If it were available in Brazil, I could possibly take a break from my car buying history and actually include a Honda in my considerations for the first time in my life.

  • avatar
    shaker

    OK, I searched the whole page, and did Google “Goo” (Which is kind of an amusing phrase in itself).

    So what is the meaning of “Goo” exactly?

    No, not the wet, sticky stuff, either! :-)


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