Mazda aimed to shake up the sports car establishment with its rotary-engine RX-7 but ultimately failed. The car makes less sense than ever in 2021, yet somehow its appeal has never been greater. Kotto Williams gets to grips with a legend. Photography by Alex Salway.
Some behind the wheel of RUSH are old enough to remember the FD RX-7 the first time around. Those with greying stubble and wisdom around their eyes talk of a sleek coupe from the golden era of the Japanese sports car, when the yen was strong and the engineering was bold and creative. It was a car that took the fight directly to the Porsche 968 and often came away with the spoils thanks to a Chapman-like commitment to lightness. Whippersnappers like me grew up in the era of the RX-7’s second coming - in a pixelated form in Gran Turismo. One or two might even sheepishly admit to idolising a pouting Vin Diesel stirring million ratio gearbox as he outran both Paul Walker and LA’s finest.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I hail from the latter camp. Gran Turismo was my hook. It provided an education of and admiration for Japanese machinery from the early to mid-nineties that still lingers to this day. The Toyota Supra, Nissan Skyline R33 GTR, Mazda MX-5 NA, Suzuki Pike’s Peak Escudo, Subaru Impreza 22b and Mitsubishi Evo. Each one had brilliantly rendered graphics and drove differently, sparking curiosity as to why. Each one responded to modifications in its own unique manner, forcing me to seek an explanation.
One of the cars that responded best was the Mazda RX-7, and every game reset involved acquiring one as quickly as possible. It was agile, just as quick as the other monsters in a straight line and looked great drifting through to turns of Trial Mountain on the replay. Then Need for Speed came along which allowed me to indulge in my darkest Toretto fantasies at will. Now, as I stand with the keys to an imported 1994 FD3S RX-7 in my hands - not a PlayStation controller - is it going to prove to be a case of never meet your heroes or will the RX-7 live up to the praise heaped upon it by the old sages?
First impressions revolve around just how low this car is, and dainty. It’s a very pretty car and if it's possible much better looking in real life than on my bedroom wall. Apparently, Japanese customers had to pay a special tax due to the width of the car, but I think you’ll agree it was worth the penalty. Any thoughts of nostalgia instantly evaporate with the tailpipe vapours, however, for this thing is loud with a capital L.
True to JDM grey import form we have ourselves a modified RX-7 here, but the changes are minor – a naughty exhaust, a sharp set of alloy wheels and an aftermarket radiator. Importantly, the 1.3-litre twin-turbo engine is as it left the factory, as is the suspension. The 252bhp Japanese model is slightly more powerful than the UK version by a whopping 10bhp but the advantage wasn’t reflected in the recorded performance figures – sixty takes around 5.2 seconds whilst the top speed is limited to a Germany pipping 156 mph. Talk about literal one-upmanship.
Such strong performance comes from that lightweight philosophy religiously applied to the RX-7 – it weighs less than 1,300kg. The UK version was also inflicted with an ugly rear bumper to add in reflectors, fog lights and a wider number-plate recess. It came with leather seats as standard but honestly, I prefer fabric over leather as it’s nicer to live with.
Some of those kilos have definitely been saved elsewhere in the interior, which looks and feels like any other Japanese car of its time – meaning a mass of black plastic and black vinyl. What makes the RX-7 stand out however is a dashboard that’s as curvy as the exterior and slightly canted towards the driver in the best BMW tradition. The dials are crisp and clear whilst the switchgear is robust, again like most Japanese cars it does its job with no fuss or unnecessary frivolity. It makes the somewhat comparable MR2 Turbo look dated and boring as if they lifted the dashboard out of a Corolla. You may notice it has air conditioning but it’s rare to find one with a working setup as the condenser needs replacing every 3-4 years to be effective. It’s somewhat common to simply rip out the plumbing and save a few extra pounds - like the one I’m driving.
The driving position is as good as you can ask for, feet straight out in front of you on God’s own pedal setup’s clutch, brake and accelerator. A tall centre console keeps you in place on the left and a sculpted door card on the right prevents you from falling out of the window, which is open because of the sheer amount of heat generated by the engine. Right in front of you centre stage is a rev counter that tops out at 9,000rpm, on its right a speedometer that reads in kilometres per hour (cue a big panic when I thought I was doing 130 mph) and then oil management intake flow rate, fuel and coolant temperature in three sub-dials on the left. The instrumentation is basic as expected but clear and accurate day or night. AJ, the car’s owner has replaced the speaker at the top of the dashboard with an OEM-style dial pod - oil temperature and boost - a good enough fitment to pass off as Mazda’s own.
Apparently, a standard car requires an audible buzzer as the redline approaches, such is the smoothness of the rotary engine, but there is little danger of that today, for this RX-7’s staccato bark quickly fills the valleys of the Brecon Beacons. A BMW m240i or a Golf R is certainly much faster, but the experience of launching the RX-7 feels like a Rocketship in comparison. The combination of the wall of noise, low-slung driving position, widescreen view out and old-fashioned boost heavy delivery creates the image of trying to hang onto Saturn IV.
"The MX-5 just has that extra bit of road feel whereas the RX-7 concentrates on meatier weighting, however, its responsive lock-to-lock taking direction changes and sharp turns in its stride"
Despite the sequential turbos, the acceleration is somewhat sluggish until about 4,000 rpm. Actually no, that’s unfair, it’s still respectable at low revs with the initial turbo but the secondary turbo kicks in with such violence it catches you off guard. It’s a massive rush and by no means a flaw, it’s just unusual because of the turbine smoothness of the rotary engine and a relatively benign on-paper torque peak of 217 lb-ft. Perhaps it’s because that peak is delivered at a lofty 5,000rpm, or perhaps it’s down to Mazda being an early adopter of the technology, but such a sudden spike isn’t what you’d anticipate.
Unfortunately, the steering isn’t as communicative as I expected, I’ll refer to an MX-5 as the datum point because of the shared parentage and also because the RX-7 is so unique compared to its traditional rivals. The MX-5 just has that extra bit of road feel whereas the RX-7 concentrates on meatier weighting, however, its responsive lock-to-lock taking direction changes and sharp turns in its stride. Turn-in itself is what I can best describe as obedient - to make the car understeer you have to be driving very aggressively indeed. And it’s best to stay on the safer side as the brakes are fairly weak, especially as this car has the smaller early brakes – just under 300mm on the front which are a good size but you really need to work them to compensate for the aged brake servo.
The five-speed gearbox has fairly tall gears to complement the tremendous rev range on offer. A four-speed automatic was available but I can’t think of a more appropriate miscarriage of justice. The ‘box itself, like the MX-5 sister car, is spot-on, very direct and notchy in a precise, mechanical way. Curiously the shifter was also very hot after a spirited drive. Luckily, it’s November and I welcomed the heated gear knob but in the summer it’s apparently unbearable. It’s the shortened distance between the engine block and gear stick because of the compact rotary engine which sits practically under the dashboard.
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Luckily this means the weight distribution is pretty much 50/50, giving a fantastically balanced ride and maintaining great composure in corners. As promised by Gran Turismo the RX-7 is a joy to drive quickly, even in damp conditions the backend never felt skittish or threatened to snap into oversteer so long as you didn’t push it beyond anything necessary to go as fast as conditions allow. I mentioned it’s November and when your confidence grows, so does the tendency for unintentional oversteer… Too much throttle and the fast-revving rotary will break traction very easily, especially at 5,000 rpm when the booster rocket kicks in.
Once dialled into the intimidation factor, the RX-7 FD fulfils the drift machine brief better than any MX-5 thanks to its stabilising long wheelbase and surplus of power to overcome any tendency to wash wide. Similar to the little roadster the RX-7 sports double-wishbone suspension front and rear, but the RX-7’s rear control arm is a lot more complicated. Instead of two points of contact with wishbones, it has three - two control arms and a main lower wishbone - or five in total if you include the shock absorber and control link which attaches to a control arm connected to the hub.
"drop into second gear, bury the throttle and you’re pushed forward briskly at first and then by a violent sense of urgency as the rev needle passes into the kill zone."
And before you jump up and down mentioning weak rotary engines, this one is on nearly 46,000 miles and it’s yet to receive an engine rebuild or any real mechanical work. But the RX-7’s reputation still requires me to touch wood after writing that sentence. In very simple terms, the rotary engine as invented by Doctor Wankel is a triangular central shaft spinning within an oval chamber and each ‘face’ of the triangle handles the compression, ignition and exhaust phases of combustion as it cycles. However, heat doesn’t dissipate from a rotary engine as efficiently as a piston one, which can lead to the infamous seal failure due to the extreme temperatures involved.
Fortunately, RX-7s tend to be well looked after by a committed bunch - unlike the RX-8. Frequent oil changes – as often as 3,000 miles – can help maintain the engine while following a strict warming-up protocol. I must point out, however, in this example on 46,000 miles the clutch was poor with a very high biting point - I’m talking inches and sitting at lights with the clutch in quickly becomes tiresome. But I’ve been spoiled by driving mainly new cars recently with feather-light pedals and millimetric travel.
Another thing, the cooling system, particularly when it reaches twenty years old becomes a weak point so don’t be afraid of an aftermarket radiator or entire system swap as it's pretty common, even welcome. The setup is, as expected, complicated and a nightmare to work on and is known as the rat’s nest by specialists because of a complex labyrinth of cooling and vacuum piping and two locations to top up. Fortunately, there are many different setups to choose from that eliminate a lot of old pipework and simplify servicing requirements. In summary, an RX-7 isn’t as bad as rumour would have you believe, but certainly go into ownership with your eyes open.
As a sports car, the RX-7 sits in the middle of my imaginary table of Japanese offerings. At the bottom of the scale, you have the Suzuki Cappuccino Kei car and the Mazda MX-5 before graduating to the likes of the Nissan Skyline GTR, the Toyota Supra and Honda NSX. Right at the top sits a Lexus LFA. The RX-7 occupies the space between the MX-5 and Supra, bridging the gap with the lightness of touch and purity of focus of the former whilst offering the hardcore power and punch of the latter. It’s the BMW M3 as interpreted by Lotus, with added lightness. It flows easily from light to severe corners with a talkative grace you won’t find in new sportscars, and once you’re clear you drop into second gear, bury the throttle and you’re pushed forward briskly at first and then by a violent sense of urgency as the rev needle passes into the kill zone.
Yet it’s surprisingly comfortable and quiet off the throttle - it’s by no means a GT car because of a very shallow boot and a relatively snug interior - but it’ll do a good day trip… It might even achieve 25 mpg if you have sufficient willpower. But exercise the car as Mazda’s engineers intended and you’re more likely to log a fifteen mile per gallon average.
The RX-7 is a credit to Mazda’s non-conformity and I’m grateful to have experienced one in real life and can happily report it far surpasses any pixel-infused wet dreams. It’s left-field and utterly engaging to drive. I love the way there’s a puff of blue flame on every full-throttle upshift, I love the vocal bang and burst of orange flame on downshifts, and I love throwing it into a corner with a sense of apprehension that’s quickly dismissed by a stunning chassis balance and thoroughbred engineering.
It grabs you by your heart, raises the hairs on your neck and at the end lets you go with your hands trembling. And then you look back, and a wave of heat hits you from the engine bay. It’s truly one of the most beautiful Japanese cars ever made, and it has pop-up headlights. What more do you want?
Mazda RX-7 FD facts & figures
Engine - 1,300 cc twin-turbocharged dual rotary, max 8,000 rpm
Output - 252 bhp @ 6,500 rpm, 217 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Weight - 1,284 kg, bhp/tonne 196, lb-ft/tonne 169
Transmission - 5sp manual, RWD, LSD
Performance - 0.60 – 5.5s, 1/4m – 14.0 @ 94 mph, max – 156 mph (lim)
Value - from £17,000-£50,000 (June 2022)