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It’s not hyperbolic to say that in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Japan transformed car culture in ways we still feel today. Riding high on a wave of unprecedented economic success, the country’s automakers changed the game with luxury brands like Lexus and Acura and cars that remain highly in demand today, like the Nissan Skyline GT-R or the fourth-generation Toyota Supra. But not all of those projects saw success, or even the light of day at all. Some 30 years later, one in particular makes us wonder: What if? Amati, the aborted attempt by tiny Mazda to take on the luxury market the same way Toyota did with Lexus. 

You don’t need to be a car expert to know that didn’t happen. But the story of Amati remains a fascinating one today, and it ended up being more of a precursor to our present than we may realize.

Its latest telling comes to us from Wheelhouse, the explainer series from our new corporate cousins at Donut. Mazda, reeling from the shame of Amati’s failure, doesn’t really talk about the Amati project or its planned cars today. Photos, videos, and information from that time are extremely hard to find online, and good luck looking for any evidence it ever existed on Mazda’s various websites. Your best bet without going to a library is searching for old news clips.

But Amati was real and almost a thing. As Donut’s Nolan Sykes explains in the video, a booming Japanese real estate market, import tariffs, and rising sales in the U.S. led Toyota, Honda, and then Nissan to launch their own luxury brands that could take on Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and the rest. Mazda wanted in on the action, too. 

Several models were planned, and perhaps the most notable one was the Amati 1000 sedan with a 12-cylinder engine much like BMW, Mercedes, or Audi would eventually offer. It was billed as a W12 with three cylinder banks, but legendary Mazda engineer Bob Hall later disputed this to Jalopnik and said it was actually a V12. As you can tell, definitive facts about Amati are hard to nail down today. 

What is certain, however, is that Amati didn’t pan out. For starters, then as now, Mazda was always a smaller, scrappier competitor to Honda and Toyota; it simply didn’t have the budgets to do what they were doing. Then came a global recession in the early ’90s that popped the Japanese bubble, and yet more economic woes across that entire decade. Eventually, Mazda shelved the entire Amati project, and the 12-cylinder sedan and other planned models never saw the light of day. Versions of a few others survived as models like the Mazda Millenia and Xedos 6. Considering this company brought us the Miata, the RX-7, the Eunos Cosmo, and a ton of other exciting models on a good day, we missed out on something truly exciting with Amati. Though, there remains doubt as to whether Mazda, largely seen as an economy car brand in the U.S. at the time and with a comparatively tiny dealer network, could’ve actually pulled this off.

In the end, my theory is that Mazda sort of became Amati, in a way. Or it’s starting to. Realizing that it may never be able to compete with Honda and Toyota at scale, this low-volume sporty brand is moving upmarket. On the whole, Modern Mazdas are pretty luxurious cars with powerful turbocharged engines, and inline-six crossovers and sedans with rear-wheel drive are in the pipeline. It’s almost turning into a Japanese BMW. Isn’t that what Amati was trying to do all along?

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