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Inside Mazda

Mazda RX-7 Heaven

We drive the three generations of Mazda’s legendary rotary RX-7 sports car back-to-back

Any search for the soul of the Mazda brand leads you directly back to the RX-7 coupe. Launched in 1978, just as punk rock shockers the Sex Pistols began their final U.S. tour, the RX-7 had a similarly robust disregard for established principles. Instead of powering its brand new two-door coupe by any conventional in-line or V-shaped engine, Mazda’s management decided that a Wankel rotary engine was the most interesting and efficient way to achieve the swift performance and deft handling it wanted.

It wasn’t the company’s first rotary-engined car—that was the Cosmo Sport, which had been launched more than a decade earlier—but it was destined to be its best. At the center of this rotary engine development was development chief, Kenichi Yamamoto, who, demonstrating Mazda’s core belief that engineering and design innovation are the very essence of the brand, later served as president and then chairman of the company.

He was one reason the Mazda RX-7 survived and thrived through three generations. But the main reason over 800,000 RX-7s were sold worldwide was that it was a great performing and handling car. Designed by Matasaburo Maeda, whose son Ikuo later designed the RX-7’s successor, the RX-8, and who now leads Mazda’s global design team, the RX-7 was an instant classic. Inspired by the Lotus Elan, a British two-door coupe famed for its rapier looks and deft performance, the first-generation RX-7, known by enthusiasts as the SA22C, cast the mold.

RX-7 Mazda Rotary

RX-7 FB, first generation, 1978

The purest incarnation of the three generations

Even though it was inspired by the British Lotus design of 1967, the first RX-7 carries its own design DNA that would become the model’s trademark silhouette for years to come. There’s that long hood, the curved glass rear hatch, and a lightness to the proportions that suggest this FB car—the letters reflect the first gen RX-7’s VIN numbers—is accessible and fun.

The twin-rotor rotary engine was mounted just behind the front axle, coining the phrase “front mid-engined.” This imbued the RX-7 with near-perfect 50/50 front/rear weight balance and a low center of gravity, making the car handle more sweetly and faithfully. Allied to this balance were rear drive and a manual gearbox, plus compact dimensions so it was a true driver’s car. A 1978 road test in Motor Trend described the styling as “slippery looking, pleasing to the eye,” and noted the very low drag coefficient (0.36), which rises only when pop-up headlights—another trademark RX-7 feature—are raised. Let’s see what this original GSL model feels like on the road today.

RX-7 Mazda Rotary

Settling in behind the thin steering wheel onto the cloth upholstery, there’s nothing surprising or unnecessary. Even the steering column is completely unadjustable, set in the optimum position, racecar style. All-around vision is excellent. Firing up the naturally aspirated 1,146 cc 101 hp twin-rotor 12A rotary engine, and there is a small rustle of activity under the hood before it settles down into its trademark quiet thrum. This engine still uses a carburetor—fuel injection debuted on the GSL-SE model—but response is still immediate and smooth, as is the still remarkably composed suspension.

You wouldn’t think a car with just 100 hp to play with would be able to get out of its own way. But threading a route onto a packed California freeway, the GSL, helped by its meager 2,500 lbs curb weight, still manages to sprint easily up through its five gears to cruising speed and keep pace with the traffic. This run out in the first RX-7 feels just as fun today as it must have done way back then.

RX-7 Mazda Rotary

RX-7 FC, the second generation, 1989

With more power, the RX-7 goes after its German rivals

Buoyed by the success of the first gen RX-7, the second version, known as the FC, was an altogether more serious proposition. Mazda was now openly targeting the Porsche 924/944. This second gen RX-7 didn’t come to play—it came to win.

Which is immediately obvious when you have a look at the specs of this car. A 1989 10th Anniversary model with the 1,308cc Turbo II 13B engine—all non-turbo RX-7 engines are 12A and turbocharged ones 13Bs—it features almost double the power of the first model at 185 hp allied to a modest weight gain of around 350 lbs, so it is power-to-weight ratio is excellent. On top of that, the car is fitted with independent rear suspension featuring super-trick, for the day, passive rear steering, more precise rack-and-pinion steering, and disc brakes all around.

RX-7 Mazda Rotary

The FC was an altogether more serious player. But it is also still remarkably faithful to the original car’s design and philosophy. The steering column is still unadjustable, the instrument and controls layout almost identical to the previous FB, with a simple, clear set of orange on black dials. Then there’s that slick five-speed manual gearshift and the same tiny rearview mirrors. The belt line is higher, so it feels like you’re slightly more enclosed, but all-around vision is just as good. Its performance on the road, though, is in a different league. Push the throttle to the floor in this car and, when the turbo spools up around 3500 rpm, it lunges forward on a proper old-school wave of power and torque—and turbo noise—that is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face.

The FC’s handling does this, too. Now riding on three-inch bigger diameter wheels, steering responses are much crisper, sharper, and more precise. Cornering speeds are much higher and lateral loads greater. It all adds up to a car that, even on its original 29-year-old tires, is definitely faster but perhaps even more fun and linear to drive than the FB. It’s also more practical to own, too. Adding the new layer of technology didn’t just improve the performance of the RX-7. It also made it a better GT car, one which suited and encouraged longer journeys. The cabin is quieter, the seats better upholstered in leather. It feels in every way the successor to the FB. Can the next iteration FD RX-7 really be as big a jump forward as this?

RX-7 Mazda Rotary

RX-7 FD, third generation, 1991

The ultimate expression of Mazda’s rotary prowess

Yes, in a word—the last chapter in the RX-7 saga to date, the FD was also the best by far. Now transformed from a GT into a no-compromise sports car, the FD looks as timelessly modern today as it did when it was first shown to the world back in 1991. With a stunningly fluid design language that is all its own, this RX-7 didn’t even attempt to challenge the competition. It offered such a unique blend of style and performance that it was in its own niche from the start.

That doesn’t mean it deserted any of the original car’s concept of balance, precision, and efficiency in all areas. The cabin is still the same basic layout as the original FC car with, yes, the fixed steering column, just the instruments you need, and a manual gearbox/rear-drive drivetrain.

But it does mean the FD was seriously upgraded in every other area important to making the car go and handle more quickly. The twin-rotor 13B-REW rotary engine was now turbocharged by not one, but two turbos arranged in sequence specifically to boost low-end torque and top-end thrust. This boosted max power to 255 hp, which was on a par with similar-sized sports cars of the day. But the FD’s greatest strength was still its balance and lack of weight.

RX-7 Mazda Rotary

At just 2,850 lbs, this car was still significantly lighter, giving it performance figures and handling characteristics even the German factories envied. Tests done on the car around its launch claimed it was one of the best handling cars of all time—a fact that is still hard to deny today.

Slashing through the southern Californian canyons in this white car, you still thrill at its instant responses to all the controls. Sequences of corners are dispatched with mere flicks of the wrist and the subtlest changes in pedal pressures. The tactile three-spoke wheel telegraphs the car’s light and playful character, the almost spookily smooth engine softly sings its siren song.

This is a car at the very top of its game, a no-compromise sports machine for people who wanted that and nothing more. There are no buttons on the steering wheel, no unnecessary knobs or switches anywhere else. Just the distilled purity of an innovative machine designed for the passionate driving enthusiast. You could question what isn’t there, but you can only love what is.