Among the plethora of super-sophisticated Japanese sports cars that spawned from the 1990s—the Nissan 300ZX, Acura NSX, Toyota Supra, Mitsubishi 3000GT and so on—the third-generation Mazda RX-7 (chassis code FD) was by far the most focused machine available. Fast, expensive, unreliable, and not all that practical, this curvaceous coupe managed to spank its rivals on the track and on the street not using pistons, cylinders, or camshafts. It did it using spinning triangles and turbos.
Today, the FD RX-7 is a JDM legend. I took one out to get a feel of how it drives 25 years later, and I can confirm it remains intense.
(Full disclosure: the opportunity to drive a stock 1993 Mazda RX-7 came from Mazda Canada who took one out of its private collection. Mazda wanted me to drive this rare example so badly, the car was delivered clean with a full tank of gas and a glove box crammed with period correct media brochures and magazines. That all happened on the day of my birthday.)
What Is It?
The Mazda RX-7 doesn’t really need an introduction, but I’ll be happy to run down some important historical facts. After years of various Mazda rotary cars, the model appeared in 1978 to compete with the Datsun/Nissan Z and the Toyota Celica and Supra. The former, at the time, kept getting bigger and heavier and more luxurious, so it was ripe for a small and pure upstart competitor, and the RX-7 was that car.
It was also the only car left in Mazda’s lineup, along with the Cosmo, to be powered by a Wankel rotary engine after the death of the RX-3. If you still don’t know what a Wankel is, it’s essentially a triangular(ish) rotor that spins really fast inside a pinched oval.
Not a lot of displacement is needed in those rotors to make a lot of power, so you end up with something powerful, compact, and (for the value-minded out there) surprisingly un-economical for its size.
By the early 1990s, the RX-7 had morphed into a legitimate (and very good looking) contender to the best performance machines the world had to offer. Its Wankel engine now featured two rotors and twin, sequential turbochargers, meaning they kicked in at different RPM. The car had a multi-link suspension setup, ABS brakes, a Torsen rear differential, near 50/50 weight distribution, and at roughly 2,800 pounds, it was light as hell.
When it was launched in 1993, Mazda claimed its heavily boosted 1.3-liter pumped out a healthy 255 horsepower and 217 lb-ft of torque. With the five-speed manual gearbox (a four-speed automatic was available if you were drunk), Mazda promised a 0-60 mph time of about five seconds.
A V10-powered Dodge Viper of the same era pulled the stunt in about 4.6 seconds, so at the time the little Mazda was up there with the best of them.
Why Does It Matter?
These days, anything from the 1990s, especially Japanese, is witnessing a spike in popularity among car enthusiasts, and the RX-7 sits right smack in the middle of it for being unique.
Also, the fact that we only got this model for three years—from 1993 to 1995—and because the few examples that were sold in our market were either modded to shit or wrapped around a telephone pole makes the North American, left-hand drive FD RX-7 one hell of a unicorn to chase.
Today, no carmaker has the guts to manufacture something so insane. Sure, we’ve been teased with an RX replacement for years now, but even Mazda knows it’ll need to sell a shitload of CX-5s if it wants to cover the warranty claims related to blown apex seals and overcooked vacuum lines.
Running In The ’90s
The car you see here, painted in the super rare Competition Yellow paint job, is a pre-production model that was used for special media events by Mazda Canada in 1992, just before the car’s launch.
It’s essentially a press car that’s been sitting in a secret hangar for 25 years, occasionally being driven by company executives on vacation.
Fitted with no options and a five-speed manual gearbox, its odometer currently reads 30,000 km (about 18,000 miles). The car’s been maintained by Mazda mechanics up in Canada ever since its arrival. Suffice it to say, this is one of the best examples of this car in North America.
Climbing inside any sports car of that era after exiting something modern feels cavernous, sketchy and very smelly. Back in its heyday, the RX-7 had a reputation for being raw and very straightforward and that sensation is now amplified by ten.
As I slipped my large frame inside one of my childhood automotive heroes, I banged my head on the low, bulging roof, attempting to squeeze my wide self inside the slim bucket seat. I had to pull it back to the max to find a comfortable seating position. Also, it’s not height adjustable, but it is comfortable once you’re strapped in.
An RX-7’s cabin isn’t much roomier than the one of a current Mazda MX-5, and everything is black, functional, no-nonsense, and filled with flimsy Japanese plastics of the era. The steering wheel can’t be adjusted, so it sits on your lap, forcing you to operate the pedals with your legs spread out on each side.
I fired up the rotary engine with a physical key. The old starter coughed until the triangles putted to life, spitting out a few misfires along the way. Immediately, the car smelled of things. Oil? Gas?
Is that an emergency button in case the car overheats?
Somewhat scared and immensely excited, I released the super hard clutch as I stabbed the throttle. The chrome-ringed rpm gauge spun its needle up with urgency the way a rotary should.
Since we are talking about an FD RX-7, not many. But I was disappointed by the build quality of this car. Granted, it’s a 1990s pre-production vehicle, but the doors felt flimsy when slammed shut, and the cabin is filled with annoying rattles you don’t hear in an Acura NSX or a BMW of the same year. The RX-7 feels fragile.
Then there’s the enormous amount of heat coming out from everywhere, more specifically from the transmission tunnel. That can quickly get annoying when driving this thing around town during a super sticky Canadian summer’s day.
The car does have air conditioning, but the system isn’t all that strong by today’s standards. Add to that a very cramped interior, and a coolant temperature gauge that leans towards the H position, and you end up with a machine that constantly worries you once you’ve thrown it into the wild.
The suspension is also very stiff. Fine, it’s a sports car, but every crack, bump, and pothole feels like your fifth vertebrae just disintegrated.
On paper, there isn’t much going in favor of the RX-7 as far as daily driving it goes. I mean, these things aren’t all that reliable to begin with. They’re known for overheating and destroying the vacuum lines.
It’s also a matter of time before an apex seal, the thing that insures proper compression, goes south.
Then, there’s the fact that it’s a two-seater with very limited cargo space. Sure, like a Miata, you could take it out for a weekend getaway with your spouse. Throw a few bags back there, head out into the countryside, like I did. But the trunk isn’t all that deep so it won’t fit much.
Finally, there’s the awful fuel consumption. When new, these things pulled 22 mpg at best. On average, it’ll do 18 mpg. It also consumes a significant amount of oil, so you’ll need to check that stuff on a regular basis.
So no, daily driving your RX-7 isn’t the best idea you’ve had this week.
Here’s what you came for, and what I came for.
Obviously, aggressive driving is what the RX-7 does best, and yes, it does live up to its reputation. This is still a properly quick car, even by today’s standards, and it feels great to get back into a machine that doesn’t beep at you violently the moment you attempt something a little stupid.
Fine, the RX-7 does beep at you. But only when you’ve hit the eight thousand(!) rpm redline.
That’s fun. What’s also immensely addictive about the way this car makes power is the way those sequential turbos kick in. The first is there at 1,800 rpm, so you’ve got plenty of low-end torque to play with. The second snail joins the party at around 4,500 RPM.
There’s a short delay before that happens, like an awkward dead spot in the powerband, and then all hell breaks loose.
Intense, but never brutal, per se. The engine is smooth the entire way, emitting a comfortable zing and whoosh, sounding a bit like a tiny plane as it zooms down the road, feeling light as a feather, sticking to the pavement like bubble gum, gobbling up corners like the Cookie Monster, and only kicking its rear out if you really commit to punching it in the gut.
The brakes also impressed me for a car of this age. Of course, they’ve been kept intact by the heroes up at Mazda Canada, but while I was flying down an Eastern Township country road, at speeds I won’t disclose here, I could always rely on their firm bite to prevent my very rare and presumably, very expensive classic sports car to hit a moose.
And while many of the original bushings have since dried up like raisins, causing the car to be easily unsettled when driven over road imperfections (which possibly explains the rattles mentioned earlier) the RX-7 is still a spot-on handler in the twisties. It’s nimble, feels small and let’s you drive it hard with ease.
In other words, it’s never intimidating.
In many ways, the RX-7 is a lot like a Miata, actually. Simple, down to earth, confidence-inspiring and free of electronic nannies. The hydraulic steering is well-weighted. The manual gearbox is a tad notchy, but it has a pleasant mechanical feel to it, and the pedals are well spaced to have a bit of heel-and-toe fun.
There’s just an overall sensation of ultimate freedom behind the wheel of an RX-7. Even if you’re melting from the excessive heat the car generates, and losing your hair from the stress of being stranded on the side of the road, this is still one of the best performance recipes ever produced.
FD RX-7 prices are a bit all over the place because of its reputation for being unreliable with a limited amount of available spare parts. But the clean ones, the ones that have been well taken cared of with low mileage are still worth quite a lofty sum.
Essentially, the 1993 to 1995 Mazda RX-7 is going through the same value surge as the rest of the Japanese sports cars of its era. It’s now considered a classic, so if you get your hands on a cheap one, even if you need to inject some money in it, its value is bound to appreciate quickly over the next five or 10 years. So you shouldn’t lose too much on your investment.
Besides, these cars deserve to be saved for what they are. We’re probably never going to see such a machine again.
Automotive journalists quickly get carried away with the modern, technology-filled cars and trucks we have the luxury of driving on a regular basis. Getting back in a car from an entirely different era, in such good shape, feels like a time capsule from a time when things were honest, uncensored, and little rough around the edges.
The Mazda RX-7 was a car that refused to compromise. It was a weirdo of a car that was engineered to go fast and do incredible things on a racetrack using technology no other carmaker had the nerve to explore. And the only reason the car had an interior at all was because it needed a driver, or else it would be nothing more than a curvy wedge with pop-up headlights.
As I’m writing this, I’m driving a 2018 BMW M5 press car with a 600 HP, twin-turbo V8. It sprints to 60 mph from a standstill in 2.8 seconds and does the quarter mile in under 11 seconds. It’s one of the fastest production cars currently available—yet I feel nothing behind the wheel.
All I want is to get back inside that super yellow Wankel-powered coupe. I miss the time when I was sweating from a steaming hot center console, working hard to extract all the performance its spinning rotors could muster, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, driving the car.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada who works for Le Guide de l’auto / The Car Guide and contributes to Jalopnik. He used to run claveyscorner.com, and he’ll be happy to drive and review your cool old car if you let him.