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With newly imposed emissions controls strangling engine output and new bumper regulations mandating massive bricks of metal hanging fore and aft, many cars of the mid- to late-1970s were some of the least desirable in the history of the automobile. But by the end of the decade, a few glimmers of hope appeared — small indicators that driving would once again be fun and that some new cars weren't all that bad. One of the most prominent of those glimmers was the original Mazda RX-7.
Keep in mind that by the time the first RX-7 appeared, both the Wankel rotary engine and Mazda itself were on the verge of being thoroughly discredited in the United States.
When Mazda entered the American market back in 1970, it did so with the Wankel as its technological reason for being. Mazda sold its R-100, RX-2, RX-3 and RX-4 series of rotary-powered coupes, sedans and wagons as (according to the ads) the small cars that went "hmmmmmm," while all the piston-powered others sounded like bed springs being churned in a blender. The company even sold a rotary-powered pickup for a few years. And the rotary engine did a great job of introducing Mazda to America.
But the rotary engine's thirst for fuel relative to its output soon made its very smooth operation a secondary consideration to a buying public rattled by the successive OPEC-imposed fuel shortages of the mid-'70s. Why buy a small Mazda that got mediocre mileage while a small Honda was amazingly stingy with fuel?
Mazda sold its last RX-3s and RX-4s in 1978 just as the RX-7 was introduced. Save for the RX-7 and the current-day RX-8, every car and truck that Mazda has sold since then has been piston-powered.
The rotary engine gave Mazda a good start over here, but it was the RX-7 that saved the Wankel from disappearing altogether. And the RX-8 brought it forward into the 21st century.
During the 1970s, MG and Triumph were still selling sports cars in the U.S., but those were either archaic (MG's MGB and Midget) or atrocious (Triumph's wedge-shaped TR7 and TR8). Even Porsche's lackluster 924 was getting expensive, Nissan's Z-car was sagging with age, and the Corvette was noted more for indicating a midlife crisis than delivering true performance. There was a gaping hole in the market for an affordable and contemporary sports car, and the RX-7 is what drove right into it.
The RX-7 (called the "Savana RX-7" in Japan) went on sale in mid-1978 (as a 1979 model) and was an instant sensation. "Dreary days are over for the rotary engine," the Car and Driver editors wrote on their first encounter with the car. "After eight years of yeoman service pulling around frumpy sedans and mini pickup trucks, Felix Wankel's wondermotor has earned a special reward. Mazda has promoted its fine-tuned rotary to sports car duty . The bright new hope is the RX-7. This two-place rotary rocket has more sex appeal than Charlie's Angels, and yet purists will surely flinch over the chassis layout."
A front-engine car with recirculating ball steering, an unsophisticated MacPherson strut front suspension and a solid axle in the rear didn't sound particularly sporty to late-'70s enthusiasts still in thrall to midengine exotics like the Lamborghini Countach or enamored with the complex "Weissach axle" independent rear suspension under Porsche's 928. But the RX-7's engineering was full of subtleties that enabled its ordinary parts to deliver an extraordinary driving experience for the price.
First Mazda took advantage of its "12A" twin-rotor engine's small physical size by placing it rearward in the chassis behind the front wheels' centerline to produce a "front midengine" layout. By putting the mass of the engine and its five-speed manual transmission back in the chassis, Mazda wound up with a 50/50 front-to-rear weight balance. Compared to an RX-3 (which used the same engine), the 12A was located a vast 9.4 inches further back in the chassis.
There wasn't anything really trick about those struts in the front suspension, but that solid rear axle was located by four trailing links on either side while a complex three-piece "Watt's" linkage kept it in place laterally. Coil springs were mounted directly above the axle as far outboard as possible (and just inboard of — gasp! — rear drum brakes) and a rear anti-sway bar was an option. Nothing can make a solid axle seem like advanced rocketry, but this well-located, well-supported and well-sprung one worked spectacularly well within the context of its time.
It also helped that the RX-7 used a relatively long 95.3-inch wheelbase (it was sold as a 2+2 in Japan with an incredibly tiny rear seat), that the lightweight unibody structure was also quite rigid, and that total weight came in at just 2,390 pounds for the example Car and Driver first tested in the United States. And the magazine was absolutely enchanted. "There's a whoosh from the exhaust and a whir from under the hood," they wrote, "but none of the cacophony you have to contend with in a 280Z squeezed for acceleration. Mazda's rotor motor feels like a speed vending machine. The longer you hold the right pedal down, the more you get. Heavy flywheel action damps the thrill of acceleration somewhat, but the engine keeps on winding higher and higher up a horsepower curve that seems straight-edge linear. The rush feels as though it will last forever, until the overrev alarm goes off at 6,500 rpm to remind you to pull the shift lever at the 7,000-rpm redline."
Despite getting just 100 horsepower from the tiny 1146cc Wankel, the RX-7's 8.5-second 0-to-60-mph time and 16.9-second at 84.3 mph quarter-mile performance were impressive to Car and Driver. "This Mazda can easily knock off Triumph's TR7 and Porsche's 924," it reported, "but that venerable old pro, the Datsun Z-car, is a quicker ride to both 60 mph (by 0.5 second) and the end of the quarter-mile (by 0.3 second). The RX-7 does, however, redeem itself by registering a touch more velocity at the end of the quarter-mile (84.3 mph versus the 280Z's 83.8). And flat out, the RX-7, at 124 mph, is also slightly faster with 3 more mph in top speed than the 280Z."
But it wasn't just the numbers the RX-7 generated that impressed observers and testers of the era. The cleanly styled interior was universally praised, the precise operation of most controls noted, and the chassis was simply beloved. "Entering a turn," wrote Car and Driver, "you set the RX-7 loose with a light toss of the wheel, followed smartly by a heavy stomp on the gas. So prompted, the Mazda RX-7 starts sliding like a Porsche 935 running second. All you have to do is center the steering wheel, hang on until it's time to lift to straighten things out, and have fun . "It's reasonable to expect great handling in a sports car, and the RX-7 delivers full satisfaction in this regard. A great ride, however, is almost too much to ask for in an aggressive two-seater. Here again, the Mazda makers have gone way beyond their obligations and built the finest sports car $6,450 can buy." That $6,450 got a base "S" model RX-7, while the "GS" Car and Driver tested started at $6,995 before adding another $425 for aluminum wheels (in the same 13-inch diameter and 5.5-inch width as the stock steel wheels) or $250 for the fiendishly complex removable sunroof.
Such comprehensive goodness didn't go unnoticed in the marketplace and with initial production slow to ramp up, Mazda dealers were known to mark up RX-7 prices to $10,000 or beyond. But eventually supply caught up with demand and Mazda built, for worldwide consumption, an amazing 72,692 RX-7s during the 1978 calendar year and another 71,617 during 1979.
With such startling initial success, Mazda changed virtually nothing about the RX-7 for 1980 except for new paint colors and new interior fabrics. The company built another 56,317 of the two-seaters for the planet that year.
Leather seats, power windows, cruise control, alloy wheels, a limited-slip differential and four-wheel disc brakes were all part of a new RX-7 "GSL" for 1981. There were a few minor revisions to the nose and tail, too, but the glow of the car's launch was still fresh and Mazda wasn't going to mess with it too much. That philosophy held true for 1982 as well when the car carried through pretty much unchanged.
A flurry of minor tweaks were scattered across the RX-7 range for 1983, including such appreciated changes as additional padding in the reshaped seats and a standard rear anti-sway bar for the base "S" model. At the top of the range was a new "Limited" model that featured all the GSL equipment plus "Chateau Silver" paint and 14-inch diameter alloy wheels inside appropriate Bridgestone radial tires. Buyers paid dearly for the added luxury, as Mazda priced the Limited at a staggering $12,320 — these were, after all, inflationary times.
The Limited disappeared from the RX-7 lineup for 1984 to be replaced by the new GSL-SE featuring Mazda's larger "13B" version of the two-rotor Wankel engine. Displacing 1308cc and equipped with fuel injection, the 13B delivered a full 135 hp in the comprehensively equipped GSL-SE and produced scintillating performance. The 0-60 clocking dropped to just 7.8 seconds for Car and Driver, while the quarter-mile now whipped by in 15.9 seconds at 86 mph. But that wasn't the only change, as the SE also got larger brakes and all '84 RX-7s were treated to slightly revised rear suspension geometry and a quicker steering ratio.
Again, Car and Driver was impressed. "The strong engine lets you kick the tail out at will," the editors noted, "and the linear throttle response and the predictable chassis behavior let you hold any desired attitude without trauma. On wet pavement the SE can make quite a scene, lighting up its tires in the first three gears if you so desire. Entire blocks can be covered sideways."
Of course, all that goodness came at a price, as the lowliest RX-7 S now started at $10,195 while the GSL-SE carried a thick $15,095 base sticker. Nonetheless sales raged forward with Mazda building 63,959 RX-7s to sate the world's appetite during '84. With essentially no changes for 1985, Mazda built another 63,105 RX-7s that year.
Seven years is a long production run for any car, even one so essentially right at its inception and so well developed during its life as the RX-7. It was time for a new two-seater from Mazda.
Mazda could have played it safe with the second-generation RX-7 by stretching a new skin over the familiar chassis, tweaking the engine for a bit more power and throwing in a more stylish interior. But instead the company threw away just about everything except the engine and started over.
Starting with an all-new unibody structure, including doors with thick rims around the windows that produced satisfying thunks whenever they were shut, Mazda built a far more contemporary vehicle. Overall length actually dropped 1.2 inches (to 168.9) compared to the previous RX-7, but the wheelbase grew 0.4 inch to 95.7 while the width and track both increased by about an inch. That slight increase in wheelbase was enough, however, for Mazda to offer a 2+2 version in the United States for the first time. But the rear seat (effectively a $500 option) was so tiny that the "+2" portion of that equation was more like an ironic comment than a promise of human accommodation.
The big change, though, came under the car where the 1986 RX-7 gained an independent rear suspension. Basically, it was a semitrailing arm system with various components designed to tame such a design's natural tendency toward oversteer. The front suspension was a slightly modified MacPherson strut arrangement and the steering was now rack and pinion. On the upper trim levels, the shock absorbers were electronically adjustable by the driver for three different settings. Four-wheel disc brakes were part of every second-generation RX-7, which was initially available as a base car (no "S" or other designation) and in GXL trim. The base RX-7 got 14-inch wheels and 185/70HR14 tires, while the GXL wore 15s with 205/60VR15 radials.
In appearance, the second-generation RX-7 didn't have the groundbreaking presence of the first, having a somewhat generic style with Porsche 944-like blistered fenders along with a one-piece glass hatch that resembled that of a Chevrolet Camaro. Perhaps the most distinctive element in the new RX-7's styling was the clear plastic slits in the front bumper that allowed the retracted headlights to flash through when signaling the intent to pass. The interior was similarly typical '80s with red-on-black instrumentation residing in a pod directly in front of the driver, significantly improved seats and a none-too-sporty two-spoke steering wheel.
The 12A engine was gone, and all RX-7s were now powered by a revised version of the fuel-injected 13B twin-rotor Wankel engine producing 146 hp at 6,500 rpm and 138 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission was standard with a four-speed automatic optional. Put it all together and the new RX-7 GXL weighed in about 150 pounds heavier than the outgoing GSL-SE.
"On the road," wrote Car and Driver of the 1986 RX-7, "today's two-rotor, normally aspirated rotary feels quite lively, quicker to respond than its predecessor, perhaps because the former howling exhaust hum has been muted. The fifth wheel (test equipment) freezes the swift-moving RX-7 at 7.7 seconds from zero to 60 mph and 16.0 seconds at 86 mph (in the quarter-mile). Mazda claims a top speed of 128 mph. All in all, the new and heavier car is about as quick as a 1985 GSL-SE, so it's clear that the more potent engine and the cleaner aerodynamics are working in your favor."
However, the big news came midway through the model year with the introduction of the first turbocharged RX-7. The RX-7 Turbo came only as a two-seater and was easily identified by the hood scoop feeding its intercooler and 16-inch wheels inside 205/55VR16 Goodyear Eagle VR55 tires. But the real treat was in the engine bay where a Hitachi HT18S-2S variable geometry, dual-scroll turbocharger was now heaving into the 13B rotary. Thanks to that injection of boost, output leapt to 182 hp at 6,500 rpm while peak torque rose to 183 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm. Beyond that, there was more torque available at virtually every engine speed than in the normally aspirated 13B, making the Turbo a more pleasant car to drive even around town.
"You can forget everything you've heard about turbos and rotaries being gutless in the lower part of the rev range," wrote Car and Driver. "Boost lag is minimal. In addition the 13B turbo engine makes 22-percent more torque at 1,500 rpm than the normally aspirated 13B, and the curve stays nearly flat through the entire range. Punch the throttle in any gear and the thing just lifts off and flies. When you approach the 7,000-rpm redline, the overrev chime warns you to shift up and do it again.
"On the freeways you feel positively invincible. Let's face it: there isn't a whole lot out there that can stay with you. The first time you double the suggested off-ramp speed, you wonder if the car comes from the same people who made the old RX-7. Where the previous model took a heartbeat or three to settle into a corner, this monster dives in with fearless abandon. The steering is absolutely linear, and the effort grows proportionately with cornering force. There's virtually no body roll as the massive 16-inch Goodyear Eagles sink their talons into the pavement."
Car and Driver measured the first RX-7 Turbo scooting to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds with a 94-mph trap speed. This was a seriously quick car and the magazine appreciated that. "Sports car fans should be grateful to the good guys at Mazda as much for what they haven't done as for what they have," writer Tony Assenza concluded. "They could have turned the RX-7 into a precious, overweight gigolo. Instead, like good guys everywhere, they have kept the faith. The result is a fast and furious street fighter with the legs and lungs to stick it in the face of much of the expensive iron trolling the avenues."
Prices for the '86 RX-7 started at $12,895 for the cheapest version and topped out past $20K for a turbo carrying all the bells, whistles and performance paraphernalia. Mazda made 72,760 of them during the year for the whole world.
Antilock brakes became an option for 1987 on GXL and Turbo models, and a new interlock on manual transmission models meant that the clutch pedal had to be depressed in order for the engine to start. Otherwise, the status quo was maintained.
A convertible version of the RX-7 was introduced for 1988 with a top that could be closed completely, opened completely or opened halfway to create a Porsche Targa-like effect. Available only as a two-seater, and only with the naturally aspirated 146-hp engine and five-speed manual transmission, the convertible was slightly less expensive than the Turbo and instantly popular.
Engine refinements brought 14 more horsepower to naturally aspirated RX-7s for 1989 (for a total of 160), while an updated version of the turbo engine now cranked out a full 200 hp (an 18-hp boost). Beyond that, the convertible was now available with the four-speed automatic transmission. With those changes coming relatively late in the '89 model year, it was no surprise that the RX-7 carried over intact into 1990 with the exception of sprouting a new driver-side airbag.
Now accompanied by the smaller, piston-powered Miata in Mazda's lineup, the RX-7 continued through 1991 and 1992 pretty much unchanged. And with the Miata around covering the lower end of the sports car market, Mazda was emboldened to do something radical with the next RX-7.
As good as the previous RX-7s were as sports cars, they were complete wimps compared to the third-generation 1993 car. This wasn't a hard-edged car so much as it was an all-edge car. Well, all-edge and twin turbochargers.
"Clarity of purpose," wrote Road & Track upon its first encounter with the latest RX-7. "It's something one senses in Mazda's new RX-7, whether through the bear hug of its thickly bolstered sports seats, the cat-quick reaction of the oil pressure needle when the throttle is blipped, or the feel of the perforated leather wrapped around the steering wheel's especially thick rim."
The third RX-7 was 1.4 inches shorter than its immediate predecessor overall and rode on a 95.5-inch wheelbase which neatly slotted it between its first- and second-generation forefathers. It was also slightly wider with a slightly wider track and a full 200 pounds lighter. The traditional unibody structure had been modified into something called a "space monocoque" that mixed some unibody structure with other elements from a traditional space frame to produce something both light and strong. The suspension was also all new with the front MacPherson struts finally dumped in favor of a suppler double A-arm setup, and the jury-rigged semitrailing arms of the previous car's rear suspension giving way to a sophisticated multilink arrangement. The guiding design philosophy of the car was reduced mass and that was apparent in how the car's skin seemed to be shrink-wrapped around the pared-down structure.
But the thing that separated the third-generation RX-7 from its previous namesakes most clearly was that it only came turbocharged. Underneath all the turbo plumbing was the same basic 13B two-rotor Wankel engine, but the two small turbos boosting it were arranged in a sophisticated sequential manner. This design minimized lag by initially having just one turbo spool up quickly, followed by the second one to further pump up the power. As complex as all that sounds, it worked seamlessly and every third-generation RX-7 had a full 255 hp available at 6,500 rpm and 217 lb-ft of peak torque at 5,000 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission was standard and a four-speed automatic remained an option.
The new RX-7 was not, however, beyond criticism. That taut-skinned body covered a cockpit that was narrow in the hips and slight in just about every other dimension. The interior looked fine with the chrome-ringed instrumentation wrapped around the driver and the shifter sitting high in the driver's hand where it could be operated by the slightest wrist movement, but there just wasn't a lot of room. And the doors to get in and out of it were tiny, too.
But the biggest problem with the RX-7 was its incredibly stiff ride (particularly the sportier "R1" version) — run over a stick of gum in the car and the 225/50ZR16 Bridgestones would report back whether it was Wrigley's Doublemint or Juicy Fruit. It was the sort of ride that would have a driver on a first-name basis with his chiropractor and keenly aware of what it means to bruise his coccyx. Finally, this car wasn't cheap with prices starting at $32,500 — just about five times what that very first RX-7 cost. "The RX-7 is like driving a Formula car with a three-year/50,000-mile warranty," wrote Motor Trend. "With such enormous, nimble performance, hustling the RX-7 up a sinewy mountain road makes you feel like Rudolf Caracciola on the old Nurburgring or, perhaps, Jim Clark at Spa-Francorchamps. And it's such a willing and polite dance partner, it almost never compares your performance to those racing legends." The third RX-7 did generate some astounding numbers. Road & Track had an R1 blitzing from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds with the quarter being consumed in 14.0 seconds at 98.5 mph. Motor Trend had it doing those same tricks in 5.3 seconds and 13.9 seconds at 99.7 mph. This was one seriously fast car. But rough-riding, high-performance, close-coupled two-seaters (even the less brutal "Touring" model was still ultrastiff) weren't big sellers in the '90s as insurance rates on such vehicles went up and the market's preference for SUVs became obvious. "Pound for pound, dollar for dollar," wrote Road & Track, "the new RX-7 shines with some of the brightest sports cars in the world. Mazda is sticking its corporate neck out here, coming to market with a more specialized, higher-priced car at a time when two-seater sales — not to mention automotive sales in general — are feeble. Let's hope this lightweight rotary rocket can send that trend packing." Well, the world didn't start beating down Mazda dealers' doors to try and get a third-generation RX-7, even though the car was developing an intense (and continuing) cult of worshippers around it. For 1994, Mazda softened up the suspension of the Touring model a bit and replaced the intense R1 with a slightly less brutal R2 model, but the car still didn't catch fire in sales. More suspension revisions came for 1995, but the writing was on the wall and the RX-7 was withdrawn from the U.S. market after this model year. It would continue to be produced and developed for Japanese consumption through 2002 — with some variants gaining even more power and dropping further in weight — but the rotary engine would need a new vessel for the new century.
The 2004 RX-8 is both a return to the RX-7's roots and a completely different sort of sports car. "It would be easy to simply think of the RX-8 as the latest version of Mazda's halo car — an heir to the sports car throne left vacant since the last U.S.-spec RX-7 was sold here almost a decade ago," Karl Brauer wrote after Edmunds.com's first encounter with the new RX-8. "While the RX-8 will be all of those things, its redesigned rotary engine, reverse-opening rear doors and room for four adults make it far more."
A key element in the RX-8's mix is the newly designed, naturally aspirated "Renesis" version of the good, old 13B rotary. "The most important Renesis change relates to the location of the intake and exhaust ports," Brauer reported. "Because a rotary engine has no valvetrain, the location of these ports is crucial to the engine's performance. In the previous engine, these ports were located on the outer edge of the rotary housing, but in Renesis they are on the side of the rotary chamber. Unlike the previous design, this location allows engineers to completely close the exhaust port before the intake port opens, and vice versa. It also allows them to use 30-percent larger intake ports than before, along with a variable intake system that optimizes air flow." What that all means is that, even without a turbo or any other forced induction scheme, the Renesis 13B in the RX-8 makes a stellar 238 hp at 8,500 rpm when mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and 197 hp at 7,200 rpm when ahead of a four-speed automatic transmission. The redline was now up at a stratospheric 9,000 rpm.But just as important as the newly optimized engine, the RX-8 is a true four-seater with access to the rearward accommodations through a set of rear-hinged doors. And it's a four-seater that still has a sports car's balance thanks to 50/50 weight distribution (the Renesis engine sits back in its chassis just like the 12A did in the first RX-7) and a supple chassis with double-wishbones up front and a multilink independent system in the rear. It feels, in many ways, like a civilized and livable version of the chassis in the last RX-7. Naturally, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and rack and pinion steering are also part of the package. And beyond all that, the RX-8 weighs in at just 3,029 pounds in manual transmission form."There is nothing like the RX-8 currently available," Brauer concluded on its introduction, "so when they say competitive we aren't sure where to look (which, going back to the idea of creating a unique and compelling vehicle, is great for Mazda). We'll assume that the new Nissan 350Z is among the car's potential competitors simply because Mazda's own people were quoting curb weight comparisons."Naturally, at the first opportunity we pitted the RX-8 against the new 350Z in a comparison test late in 2003. "Whether our conclusion meshes with your idea of the perfect sports car depends on what you're looking for," wrote Ed Hellwig in that test, "but rest assured that either car delivers outstanding performance, eye-catching looks and enough features to keep you comfortable. We may have picked a winner, but when you have a choice of two sports cars this good at these prices, nobody loses."That "nobody loses" may be true, but Edmunds.com picked the RX-8 as the winner. "Generating 238 horsepower from a measly 1.3 liters, the RX-8's rotary engine is a marvel of efficiency and smoothness," Hellwig reported. "Its small size and minimal weight allow a more advantageous placement within the car, giving it an almost midengined feel. Its power peaks at a lofty 8,500 rpm (redline is 9,000), but the real surge begins around 5 grand so you're not completely left out in the cold at midrange speeds. As you might expect, low-end power is notably absent, a trait that's magnified after a drive in the torque-rich 350Z that never exhibits a weak spot."Track testing yielded a best 0-to-60-mph time of 6.6 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 15.1 seconds. Without much off-the-line torque, the RX isn't much of a stoplight king, but once underway it makes up ground quickly. Its quarter-mile speed of just over 92 mph puts the Mazda about 5 miles per hour behind the Nissan. The numbers don't lie, if you're looking to dust off local high schoolers, the RX-8 isn't the car to do it with."But the car's compensating virtues were manifest. "Unlike the Z that hammers its way through bends," we said then, "the RX-8 glides through them in a manner that's far less intimidating. Its moderate body roll gives you a better sense of how hard the car is working compared to the ultrastiff 350Z, and when the grip does finally run out, it does so in a more progressive and controllable fashion. Midcorner bumps are soaked up without a hitch, and even the stability control system stays out of the way until absolutely necessary. And all this despite the fact that it has none of the teeth-rattling tendencies of the Nissan."Despite being separated by a full quarter century, what we wrote about the RX-8 isn't that much different than what Car and Driver concluded about the first RX-7. That old RX-7 and the new RX-8 may be different in every detail, but they're really just two expressions of one idea. And it's still a very good idea.