If you’re going to miss an exit and get stuck on a rural highway for an extra 30 minutes, there are far worse things to do it in than your high school dream car.
For me, that was a pristine, unmodified 1994 Toyota Supra Turbo, I car I spent much of my younger years lusting after but was somewhat reluctant to actually drive. So much of the fourth-generation Supra’s legend is wrapped up in its potential as a tuner car, rather than how it actually performed when stock. I had a feeling I’d be let down if I got a taste of what it was like new.
Turns out I wasn’t. The more I drove the Supra, the more I wandered down the highway looking for a turnaround, the more the car grew on me—its obvious 1990s Toyota over-engineered quality, its surprisingly great manual gearbox, its better-than-expected handling, the subtle but more-than-adequate power. It didn’t wow me at first, but it won me over eventually.
But driving one of its direct competitors, the FD Mazda RX-7, was a different story. Mazda’s twin-turbo rotary powerhouse will kick a lot of modern cars’ asses today. Maybe even yours.
(Full Disclosure: Our friends at Duncan Imports invited us to their shop in Virginia for a week to drive some of their finest wares. They’re extremely good folks with a mind-blowing selection of import cars, so check them out if you’re in the market.)
Welcome back to our new video series Bubble Cars! Let’s Go!, where we test some of the finest and weirdest cars of Japan’s automotive golden age.
Our goal with this series was to really get deep into the weird, wild, overbuilt era of cars from before Japan’s economy imploded. We did the strange kei cars and Nissan’s stylish Pike Cars and even a Eunos Cosmo, which you’ll see later. We didn’t really want to get into the stuff that we Americans could’ve bought back in the day.
But my colleague Raphael Orlove and I decided that if we really had access to a stock Supra and a stock RX-7—and we did, thanks to Gary’s extensive collection—we couldn’t pass up driving them. Cynically, we knew those cars would bring in the clicks, but there was more to it than that.
After all, both the ’90s Supra and RX-7 are perfect examples of Bubble Era excess. The former started life as a nicer Toyota Celica with a six-cylinder engine; after about a decade it grew into a 320 horsepower twin-turbo beast packing one of the best engines ever produced.
The RX-7 had a similar trajectory. Back in the 1970s, an RX-7 was kind of like the Miata of its time; a cheap, simple sports car with more of an emphasis on handling than outright power, aimed at taking the market the Datsun Z once had and left behind as it got fat and heavy and expensive. Over time, the RX-7 too grew in power and price until it became probably the greatest rotary engine car of all time.
They’re rolling symbols of what Japan was putting out back then, and their decline mirrored that of the country as well: they were expensive, niche sports cars meant to compete with the world’s very best, and when the global economy tanked they struggled in sales before being phased out of America entirely.
Nowadays, sports cars are almost inherent loss leaders for car companies. There’s a new Toyota Supra out this year, but it’s got BMW internals. Mazda’s rotary sports cars are completely dead, as is the engine itself. There’s the Miata, and even that’s part of a joint venture with Fiat. That market isn’t what it used to be, and it’ll probably never be what it was.
Still, none of that takes away from what great cars these two were, when they were new.
I came away from my time in the Supra thinking I’d be happy if I could drive it, stock, the rest of my life. It handles better than I expected. It doesn’t feel as big as it looks. It won’t light your hair on fire, but it’s got more than ample power for daily use. It’s even got a half-decent back seat. I’d take it to the track, the autocross course, the grocery store. And it’s a Toyota so you know it’ll last.
There’s an alternate universe out there where The Fast and the Furious never happened, and where a 1990s Supra is still super affordable used—maybe a nice one will run you $15,000 or so. (I mean, have you seen how cheap Z32s are?) But that’s not the world we live in. And sadly, since most surviving clean Supras are six-figure auction queens now, few people will know how good they were stock.
But as chill and quietly competent as the Supra is, the RX-7 is the real screamer here. It blew me and Raph away with how good it was to drive, even today. It’s like a bigger, smoother, more powerful NA or NB Miata—the family DNA is readily apparent there.
It’s a real live wire to drive today, small and tight and genuinely athletic. It’s rare that today’s turbocharged cars let you rev this much. For the most part, flat, immediate torque curves and lower redlines are the norm now. (See also, the turbocharged Honda Civic Si.) The RX-7 makes you work to squeeze out all the power. But it doesn’t ever feel like work because it’s so fun.
Even though it “only” put out about 250 HP new, it’s so light and so agile, and with such a screamingly high redline, that it can match a ton of modern cars with its performance.
I could put a clean RX-7 up against the BRZ, some of the Mustangs, the WRX, various hot hatchbacks and other performance cars of today, and I know it’d at least hold its own. That’s a testament to how good these machines really were.