Clarity of purpose. It's something one senses right off from 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 perforated leather wrapped around the steering wheel’s especially thick rim.
Or something one sees when looking at its shape— a skin pulled taut over mechanical componentry, yet still fetchingly curvaceous in the way of an AC Cobra or a Sixties’ Ferrari. Minimal overhang at the front and 16-in. wheels and tires pushed out nearly flush with their openings give it an aggressive stance without appearing clumsy.
This story originally appeared in the April 1992 issue of Road & Track.
These sensory inputs echo what Mazda has strived to create with its third-generation rotary-powered sports car—a no-compromise enthusiast’s machine with a mandate against gadgetry and a maximum of what development chief Takaharu Kobayakawa terms “emotional fulfillment.” No active 4-wheel steer, no variable exhaust note, no movable spoilers taking orders from a computer chip—just a twin-turbo 2-rotor Wankel set front-midships in a sure-footed, lightweight chassis cloaked in an evocative shape. Oh, and a power-to-weight ratio better than that of the twice-as-pricey Acura NSX.
Dimensionally, the new RX-7 is just a mite shorter (1.4 in.) than the car it replaces, with a nearly identical wheelbase, a slightly wider track and 2.4 in. more overall width. More important, some 200 lb. have been shaved from the curb weight, not through use of exotic materials but through thoughtful engineering. For example, better airflow to the radiator has allowed engineers to reduce its size, saving 3 lb. A smaller greenhouse eliminates nearly 20 lb. of glass. Seats, which use a base pan made of fiberglass-reinforced polypropylene, weigh in at just 33 lb. each, some of the lightest in the industry. The chassis is what Kobayakawa calls a “space monocoque,” combining elements of a traditional unit body with longitudinal members analogous to those in a space frame, for a stiff yet light structure. Again, materials are conventional; the only panel not pressed from steel is the aluminum hood, which, at 18 lb., is about half the weight of a conventional steel lid.
More pounds were saved in the drivetrain, which uses a laminated, stamped steel Power Plant Frame (PPF) to rigidly link the engine and transmission to the differential. The PPF was first used in the Miata and allows the entire powertrain to be bolted to the chassis at just two sets of mounting points separated by more than 7 ft. With this long lever arm, wind-up of the final-drive unit under load is greatly reduced, consequently increasing traction. Even including the PPF, total powertrain weight was reduced by 20 lb. through measures such as a single-tube exhaust, single muffler and a thin-wall casting for the final drive housing (which, by the way, contains a Torsen differential chosen for its linearity of torque transmission).
Suspension is all-new, the last version’s MacPherson strut/semi-trailing-arm setup mothballed and replaced with double A-arms up front and a multilink arrangement in back. What it does retain from its predecessor is passive steering ability; through an arrangement of liquid-filled, sliding and rigid rubber bushings pressed into the attachment points of lovely aluminum links, the new RX-7 underpinnings toe-in the rear wheels and toe-out the fronts under cornering and braking loads. Translation: no nasty handling surprises for the uninitiated ... or the over-exuberant. Yet the fine edge of response hasn’t been dulled in the name of handling stability.
With more than 200 lb. excised from last year’s model, a person might have thought the RX-7 team would be content with the 200 bhp of the existing turbocharged 2-rotor Wankel. Hah!
It now makes 255 bhp at 6500 rpm, and peak torque is up 21 lb.-ft. to 217, generated at 5000 rpm. Key to these impressive increases is a sequential twin-turbo system, used on the Porsche 959 and more recently on Mazda’s Japan-market 3-rotor Cosmo. With this arrangement, the primary turbo receives the benefit of the exhaust gases from both rotor chamber ports for good low-rpm response; the secondary turbo receives a whiff of the gases and spins at up to 140,000 rpm in its “pre-operational” state, with its compressor’s output circulating in a low-restriction closed loop. When more boost is called for at higher rpm, valves open to redirect exhaust to both turbos and rechannel more than 10 psi of compressed air into the intake tract.Do a reasonable job working the throttle, clutch and gear lever while all this is happening, and 60 mph hurdles up in a mere 5.5 seconds; with an 8000-rpm redline to fool with, you're there in 2nd gear. Grab 3rd, then 4th and the safety cone marking the quarter mile is reduces to a fleeting orange smear: 14.0 sec. at 98.5 mph, firmly in the stomping grounds of Corvette LT1s and Acura NSXs. Surprising acceleration, on tap from this little beer-keg-size engine.
While we journalists are wont to rhapsodize about the mechanical noises of say, Ferrari's flat-12, a 2-rotor Wankel's sonic signature — part jungle cat, part sewing machine, part Mercury outboard— doesn’t truly inspire, but then it doesn’t offend, either. A sore point, however, is jumpy throttle response at low revs in 1st and 2nd gears; the primary turbo is a bit too anxious to get into the act. Fortunately, what’s jumpy at low speeds is downright responsive at higher ones— this sequential setup is nearly impossible to catch off guard and off boost, even in tall-gear situations.
Inside, the snug cockpit is as serious as the car’s acceleration potential, with those body-gripping seats (a tight squeeze for non-beanpoles), large chrome-bezeled gauges and clusters of tightly grouped controls on the dash, center console and door, all mounted in panels canted toward the driver. There’s noticeable asymmetry; air vents are all of different shapes and are scattered all over the interior, and the heavily scooped-out passenger’s- and driver’s-side door panels differ considerably. Feel of the steering wheel and the Miata-like shifter is sturdy and substantial, and the brake and clutch pedal faces are of bare die-cast metal— covering them with squishy rubber pads would be giving up control feel, says the design team.
Over the road and on the track, the RX-7 has few peers. During our March 1992 best-handling cars’ track test, Danny Sullivan was quickest in the RX-7, lapping the Streets of Willow circuit in 1 minute 05.64 sec., just clipping his own time in the second-quickest car, Porsche’s 911 Turbo (1:05.73).
Even if you’re not Danny Sullivan (and that includes just about all of us),the RX-7 is an easy car to drive quickly. It feels well-balanced, lithe, with a virtual absence of pitch or body roll under the most violent acceleration and braking maneuvers. The rush of power is steady, the grip is tremendous and the tires’ slip angles seem negligible; it’s just a matter of pointing the nose where you want it to go. Apexes seem to have a magnetic attraction, pulling the car through in an even, stable arc.
Standard anti-lock brakes live up to the athleticism of the chassis, with aluminum 4-piston calipers up front clamping around vented 11.6-in. rotors; the rear discs are also vented and of identical diameter, but with single-piston calipers. Each front brake has its own dedicated cooling inlet in the air dam. What’s more, exhaust air from the nose-mounted oil cooler is ducted up and over the wheel well and out the body vent in front of the door. This prevents hot air from cooking the brake and shock absorber, a neat trick that no doubt contributes to the RX-7’s extremely short stopping distances and fade resistance.
My experience at Streets of Willow was with the R1 model, which is set apart from the Touring model by stiffer shocks, a front suspension-tower brace, Z-rated 225/50-16 tires (versus the Touring’s V-rated tires of the same size), and heavy-handed front and rear spoilers that positively muck up the clean lines of the basic car.
Descending the Antelope Valley Freeway back to Los Angeles, I felt the compromise of this R1 package, in the general region of my kidneys. This is a seriously stiff-riding car, even to gung-ho enthusiasts with a soft spot for hard suspensions. Enter the Touring version, the car shown in the photos. With its softer shocks, softer suspension bushings and more compliant V-rated tires, it’s an RX-7 suitable for, well, touring. Both versions follow the lay of the road like a cruise missile with terrain-sensing radar, but the Touring car is the kinder, gentler weapon.
Slightly less crisp reactions are the tradeoff here. Slalom speed drops from the R l’s world-class 66.4 mph (bested only by the 4-wheeI-steer Mitsubishi 3000 GT VR-4 at 66.8 mph) to a merely great 64.9 mph; and skidpad performance drop only a hundredth of a g, from .095 to .094g. In the day-to-day world of challenging transition roads, cloverleaf assaults and stoplight Grands Prix, the difference is hardly noticed; they’re both fantastic-handling cars, with limits that will be exceeded on the street only by the foolhardy.
Mazda has yet to release prices, but a spokesman says that the base model (mechanically identical to the Touring model, but with less equipment) will sell for “slightly more” than last year’s top-line Turbo, so figure it’ll be nearing $30,000. For a Touring model with a tilt-and-slide power sunroof, leather, air conditioning, 4-speed automatic and the excellent if space-inefficient “Acoustic Wave” sound system, perhaps $35,000. The R1 version will fall somewhere in between.
Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, 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 2-seater sales— not to mention automotive sales in general— are feeble. Let’s hope this lightweight rotary rocket can send that trend packing.