The Mazda Lantis Is the Best Mazda You've Never Heard Of
Since the release of the first Nissan Skyline GTR, the American JDM import market has fully matured into a huge business. At any point in time, there are dozens of Skylines, Supras, Chasers, Land Cruisers, etc. for sale all around the country. What was once forbidden fruit is now accessible, just a couple of phone calls away. But there's so much more available from '90s Japan than the usual pack of traditional sports cars, off-roaders and novelty kei cars.
The Mazda Lantis is a 5-door hatchback and sedan sold from 1993-1997 in both Europe and Japan under a few various names. Although the car was marketed as relative to the compact 323 (sold as the 323F in Europe), the chassis actually had much more in common with the larger C-platform cars such as the US Mazda 626. The resulting car was nice hybrid of compact size with midsize interior space.
Making a case for the Lantis as a car to import to the US isn't hard. Base models were equipped with the venerable B6, a popular 4-cylinder for Mazda, with variants in the Mazda 323, Mercury Tracer and Mazda Miata. Pairing the Lantis with a Miata would make for an awesome daily driver, keeping maintenance simple, but still keeping Mazda enthusiasm high.
If you wanted your Lantis to be a bit a more of an experience, the 2.0L V6 would be the motor to get. This tiny six cylinder produced a respectable 147 hp, more than enough to have fun with in a '90s hatchback. Beating Honda by a few years, The JDM-only Lantis Type R came to bat with 170hp and 140 ft-lbs of torque. A limited-slip differential and available aero pieces made for a very appealing package.
Performance pedigree didn't stop at the Type R badge though. The Lantis, and European 323F, became a popular car for Mazda FF racers. The KF-ZE was wildly over-engineered for a passenger car V6, featuring a large bottom end and forged internals. Paired with the down-sized platform, the car found its way into many race circuits, including the JTCC. The 1994 Castrol JTCC Lantis even appeared in the popular Gran-Turismo games, cementing its reputation as a legit JDM performer for a whole different crowd.
This particular example was imported by Nippon Imports earlier this year after Josh, the owner, found the car in the auctions and was struck by both how well preserved it was, and by the fact that he was completely unfamiliar with the model. Although this example is powered by the smaller four cylinder, the 5 speed transmission makes for an engaging drive. It wears a set of Miata NB wheels covered in Nitto Neogens, that give it a period-correct update. The interior is nearly flawless, and with a perfectly functioning A/C, a Mazda enthusiast would be hard pressed to find a more interesting grocery-getter.
Although it's certainly understandable for enthusiasts to seek out the JDM heroes they dreamed about, there were a lot of interesting and capable cars that came out of Japan's golden era of design. From distinctive bodies, to overbuilt engines, to factory options that rival the best tuning houses of the era, digging deeper can unearth some serious contenders. Want more wacky JDM? Don't miss our coverage of some cars off the beaten path at Mooneyes Japan. For additional pictures of Nippon Import's Mazda Lantis, check out the gallery below.