Concept Car of the Week: Mazda Senku (2005)

06 November 2015 | by Karl Smith

The Tokyo Motor Show is renowned as the place where Japanese domestic brands show concepts that showcase their creativity. Sadly, a good deal of this work isn't appreciated, frequently referred to as 'wacky,' 'oddball' or 'quirky' from the mainstream automotive media unwilling to understand these show cars in context. However, some cars are deliberately created with mass appeal in mind, and are breakout hits right around the world.

This year, some felt that the Mazda RX-Vision concept achieved that stature, thanks in part to the fact that it had the look of a classic mid-front engined sports car, albeit one with a rotary engine. Interestingly, it's not the first time that Mazda has created a car more understandable to American or European observers to excellent effect.

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A decade ago, Mazda showed the Senku, a sports-coupe designed to preview forthcoming generations of the RX-8. Senku means pioneer in Japanese, and was an exploration of a sports car for people who, after years of toiling and saving, finally had the wherewithal to buy one, only to find such a car to be the wrong size for their middle-aged frame.

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To this end, the Senku was relatively tall, with a higher stance and wide 'flying wing' sliding doors. But the shape and presence of Senku was anything but geriatric. It had a graceful, poised stance on its large wheels, with the hood sloping up to a very fast windscreen that leapt over the passenger compartment in a single arc that curved down to a near–Kamm tail.

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Its exterior was defined by a series of sweeping lines in profile: the upper edge of the DLO was highlighted with a thin chrome strip, two convex creases defined the shoulder and rocker and sandwiched a straight concave crease between them. The grille area incorporated hidden lights for a simpler DRG, just as the glazed hatch hid the rear lights.

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On the inside, a certain elegant simplicity was seen in the two-level IP with screens showing views around the car on the top level, and climate and audio controls on the lower.

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The instrumentation was all gathered within the steering wheel, and additional controls mounted along its edge, where a mere movement of a finger could control much of the car.

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Given the size of the car, the Mazda was officially a 2+2 GT, but even Mazda admitted the focus was on the front seats. All seats were constructed of ribbon-like curved leather surfaces stretched over metal frames. The rear seats were more of an afterthought, with their surfaces flowing under the front ones, leaving nowhere to put your legs.

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The Senku pioneered a number of technology advances, too. It contained a new rotary hybrid system using a direct-injection, two-rotor engine, combined with an electric motor, a generator, and a battery. The battery's location between the engine and the firewall, combined with the compact rotary engine's front-midship layout, helped create 50-50 weight distribution.

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The car also used a new type of multi-frame body construction, supporting the engine and front suspension, while virtual B-pillars were fitted inside the backs of the sliding doors to help maintain appropriate body rigidity despite the large door openings.

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A number of reports at the time speculated that the Senku previewed a future generation of RX- series, and a future design language as well. However, the Senku would stand alone as an elegant, singular design that still stands up very well. Indeed, from certain angles it looks like, with some minor updating, it could be a sportier cousin to the Mercedes F015 Luxury Vision concept.

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As for the concept of a sports-coupe for the mature buyer, Mazda was prescient in designing for buyers 'of a certain age', and if anything, the opportunities for this kind of vehicle have grown in the last decade. But how to market it? No one wants to be sold a car that says, “Congratulations! You’re fifty (or sixty)! Here is your car.”

No one would object, however, to a car that makes you look younger, sexier, and richer. After all, the car is a time machine, and the dial is always set to “youth”.