In the spirit of social distancing and stay-at-home isolation, here’s a look at a nearly forgotten classic and one of my favourite cars. One that got away from me and I really wish I’d kept: the third-generation Mazda RX-7.
In the 1990s, sales were brisk for this Japanese company. Its motor sports division was basking in the glow of winning the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in 1991, not to mention various other contests, including Pikes Peak in the same year, and the American GTU championship.
It was all thanks to the RX-7 and its Wankel-inspired rotary engine, which could pump out enormous amounts of power with comparatively small displacement.
Despite having a rather hefty price tag for the time, the third generation RX-7 in particular was something of a cult car right out of the gate. It was a big favourite with amateur motor sport enthusiasts, especially autocross aficionados, who loved its tossability and almost instant power delivery.
The fact that it had a ‘happy’ rear end and substandard fuel economy wasn’t much of a deterrent to the faithful. Among its fans was Napster co-founder and Facebook partner Shawn Fanning, who apparently owned three.
It still makes a superb drift car.
With twin sequential turbochargers, the 1993 edition of the RX-7 has a 1.308-cc twin-rotor engine that pumps out a healthy 255 horsepower and 217 foot-pounds of torque.
Transmission is either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
It’s strictly a two-seater hatchback, with a pair of storage bins where the back seats could have been, and a somewhat large rear hatchback that opens manually.
It originally came in five colours and my favourite still is “competition yellow mica.”
Standard equipment include things like a driver’s side airbag, power windows and door locks, an engine oil cooler, anti-locking brakes, air conditioning and cruise control. And you could order options like leather interior, upgraded Bose sound system and a power sunroof.
But by today’s standards, the RX-7 is pretty basic. You’d look in vain for things like a vehicle stability control system, climate control, navigation system, ventilated seats, adjustable suspension or traction control (although it did come with a Torsen locking differential). It didn’t even have tilt/telescoping steering.
Depending on your point of view, this either adds to its overall appeal or makes it just too crude to drive on a day-to-day basis.
Behind the wheel, a few things are apparent right away. First, the car’s performance is intoxicating. Bury the pedal and it leaps away from a dead start like a startled cheetah and you can light up the rear wheels in a heartbeat.
In the rain, however, the rear wheels tend to hop when they break traction and all that power and lightweight body construction make this iteration of the RX-7 kind of a handful in wet weather.
It will do zero to 100 km/h in about five seconds, revs to 8,000 rpm and has a top speed in the 260 km/h neighbourhood, so this is no lightweight in the performance department.
It also features a notchy transmission, with weak synchromesh in all the lower gears, and you can grind ’em very easily if you aren’t paying attention.
This generation of the rotary engine is remarkably quiet in operation. It offers hell-for-leather performance, yet idles like a purring cat at stoplights and is perfectly civilized on the highway.
Interestingly, as I recall, the oversize rear glass hatchback could pop up randomly if you drove at high speed with the windows down.
And let’s not forget the pop-up headlights. I still chuckle when I remember how they flipped up like oversize bunny ears.
Alas, even all those years ago, the RX-7 was getting up there in price and started at $42,545 in 1993, with another grand for the autobox and $4,000 for the optional touring package. That was a lot of money then, a lot of money now and, coincidentally, about the same price as the RX-8 that followed the RX-7 from Mazda.
The RX-8, made from 2002 to 2012, was positively bland in comparison to the RX-7, but still more interesting than just about everything being made these days.
They definitely don’t make ’em like they used to.
Ted Laturnus writes for Troy Media’s Driver Seat Associate website. An automotive journalist since 1976, he has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist of the Year twice and is past-president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).