What's It's Like To Drive Mazda's Rotary Greatest Hits On California's Best Roads

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For those of you grew up with Fast dreams and Furious visions filling your world of wheels, I’m about to describe a scene of pure pornography. Imagine yourself surrounded by gorgeous examples of all-time heroes of the Japanese car world. A Mazda RX-2 and RX-3 flanked a Toyota Century. Datsuns gurgled through carbureted R- and L-series engines. Truenos, Skylines, and even a Celica Sunchaser were in hot pursuit.

This wasn’t a dream—it was real life, one brief moment of many on the Touge California.

Touge is a Japanese word. Its most literal translation means “pass.” More specifically, it’s used to describe a winding road, often a mountain one. We have access to touge-style roads here in southern California, and that’s why the brains behind the website Japanese Nostalgic Car and Model Citizen Diecast decided to bring this car rally to life.

2017 was actually the Togue rally’s third running, and at this point it’s gained enough momentum to get official help from Mazda. That’s why I drove down to the rally starting point in a new Miata RF.

Yet as great as the RF is, it’s only real purpose on this day was to connect familiar dots between Mazda’s old and new. There was no rotary under the hood, but the same current car still rocks a center-mounted tachometer. Hell, just the four-wheel disc brakes would be considered technologically advanced compared to some of the “tech” spread throughout this group. The complexity of the fastback roof and its disappearing targa element stands in modern day contrast to the gurgling and simple vehicles that sat with their drivers, eager to get underway.

For this, Mazda graciously plucked a few time capsules from their U.S. museum.

I say museum, but it’s really a parking garage. It just so happens to be a parking garage that would make the average enthusiast’s head start spinning like… well, like a rotary engine, actually. Speaking of the rotary, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary for Mazda and its oil-loving powerplant. So it makes sense that Mazda would grab the keys to an FC RX-7, FD RX-7, Rotary-Engined Pickup, and a Eunos Cosmo.

It was nice, my RF, but I had some of its more interesting family members standing by that I needed quality time with.

1993 Mazda RX-7

This specific FD RX-7 had been driven just 27,000 miles. The steering was tight, the seats comfortable, and the overall experience… quiet? I’d never driven an RX-7 and I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to find here with the FD. I do know I expected a bit more noise. Yet I shouldn’t be that surprised; the drive down in the RF was also a quiet one. Both cars prove that quiet doesn’t have to mean boring.

The twin-turbocharged 13B-REW rotary under the hood was originally rated at just over 250 horsepower. Not a lot, but the entire car weighs a bit under 3,000 pounds. It’s not Miata slim, but it also didn’t feel heavy like the average modern car manages to do. I think that’s because there’s less stuff to deal with on a constant basis. You’re not surrounded by sensors, cameras, monitors, alerts, screens, all of the many other myriad standard bits and pieces nearly every new car has stuffed under their ever-growing skins.

I was immediately impressed with this 24-year-old machine’s tightness and directness. There was no slop relayed through the steering wheel, nor was there any found in the gearbox. Simply spot the next corner, dial in the amount of steering clearly prescribed and communicated from the tires, and add in more power as required. You’re never going to be blown away by that power though, which you might’ve already expected. Cars today simply pack way too much heat for a proper comparison to the sports cars only a pair of decades and some change removed.

Your average entry-level luxury car would pull on the RX-7 from a dig. It wouldn’t be as much fun in the canyons though. This aging Mazda allows for a two-way conversation between driver and car, and as far as driving satisfaction, that’s more valuable than a pair of heated seats and the perceived increase in your bottom line by wealth-conscious neighbors.

After hustling the RX-7 for 40 or so miles, it was time for a pit stop and a vehicle change. I handed over the keys to the “old car” for a set of keys to something really old.


For about three years back in the 1970s, Mazda decided to stuff its Wankel engine between the front fenders of a pickup truck. That’s how we got the REPU, the Rotary Engine PickUp, which proved to be one of the most entertaining vehicles in this whole JDM train.

The 1978 REPU’s steering is vague, the cabin is small, and the brakes work just enough so that you can tell they’re doing something. That something gives you enough time to ponder how up to date your will is currently and if you’ve said “I love you” to your wife and daughter this morning.

Where the alternating sweeping corners and tight technical sections would be dispatched with tremendous ease in the RF, the opposite is true from behind the wheel of this old truck. I drive an old truck of my own, but even my 1965 Ford F100 manages to provide some semblance that I’ll be able to slow down enough for the next corner.

There is no carefree, smiling piloting to be had here. It requires a laser focus to the task at hand. There’s no white mocha latte sitting calmly in a cupholder, balanced through the corners. There’s white knuckles wringing a thin-rimmed steering wheel.

So how was it entertaining? Mazda fitted this truck with a five-speed manual gearbox from one of its racing cars and they’ve also slapped on a hilariously shouty exhaust system. While the FD was quiet, the REPU is not. It sang a song like a chorus of angry bees, and it wanted the world to know the lyrics. Also, that gearbox shifts crisply and allows me to extract every ounce of power from the 1.3-liter 13B engine.

The shifter in the rotary truck is even better than what you might find in a car like the MX-5 RF that brought me here, since it’s competition-car sharp. It’s a wonderful, if slightly odd, mash-up of new giving life to old. You can laugh about the superb shifts while trying not to cry about the scarcity of braking ability.

It’s possible for a car to be terrifying and entertaining, and I’ve received a crystal clear lesson in this theory from the REPU. While there’s not much in terms of on-center stability, once you crank the wheel in the direction of the corner and the steering bits figure out that’s where you want to go, the truck starts to move through the turns quickly. I was smiling my largest smiles of the day in an old truck with a weird engine, no brakes, and an exhaust that would annoy most of my neighbors.

1988 Mazda RX-7

After that trip to the ’70s, another time machine is on hand and we’re off to the ’80s. The second-generation 1988 Mazda RX-7 is known to many as simply by its chassis code FC. This is a car that could be a poster child for automotive design elements and features of the period.

There’s amber lighting throughout. Pop-up headlights are still fun to flick up and down as you’re driving. Most notable, though, has to be the audio system’s physical equalizer switches. Yeah, man.

While modern LED lighting that swivels as you take small turns is a nice-to-have in current new cars, there’s something delightful about pop-up headlights. You don’t see them anymore. No one is using them on a modern car. Instead, you have folks eager to swap out their perfectly good fixed headlamp bulbs with eye-searing aftermarket HIDs that are aimed to expertly melt the backs of your corneas. Production-grade new car lighting is excellent today, as you’ll find with almost any LED-equipped vehicle going down the road. But almost none of it looks as entertaining as a set of good ol’ pop ups.

This is a 10th-Anniversary Edition RX-7, and it had even fewer miles than the later FD. It’s not as tight of a driver, though. The steering feels a bit sloppier. You also need to drive it well up into its rev range, as the turbo needs that boost if you want any power flowing to the rear wheels. It’s also as quiet as its little brother from 1993. There is some noise to be had though, and it arrives in the form of a mild turbo whoosh.

I expected more of a punch than I received, both aurally and physically. Folks have fallen in love with the idea that an older sports car will deliver on the dreams you had when you were a younger person. The FC RX-7 would have wowed me with its power when I was 8 back in ’88. At 37 though, I’d like my power and I’d like it now please.

What the younger me wouldn’t have know to care for would be the raggedly enjoyable handling. Where the FD enjoys kind of steering feel car journalists write love songs about, the FC alerts you that though it’s dead in the center it still wants to party on the corners. It’s not tight, but similarly to the REPU providing visceral thrills through inherent danger, the FC delivers smiles. It’s not as loose as the truck, mind you, it just manages to draw a family line from the pickup to the newer FD.

I’d have to imagine that both the FC and FD start to get properly angry once you’ve freed up a bit of the noise. Automakers have worked hard to make cars quiet, and now they’re figuring out how to make them loud again. Usually it involves a hidden speaker and some coding. Here on the RX-7s, it would just take a sawzall. Let the turbo muffle things a bit while the remaining plumbing carries the rest of the tune.

So far we’ve been traveling on the inland mountain roads outside of San Diego. The Julian Pie Company isn’t far away, and Alpine Beer Company is less than an hour in the rearview mirror if we wanted to ditch the group. But I don’t, because the car I’m most interested in driving is waiting at the next pit stop. When forbidden fruit starts falling, you stick around under tree.

Eunos Cosmo

Eunos, as a brand extension of Mazda, didn’t last very long. Towards the end of the ’80s, Mazda decided to create different dealership chains for its vehicles in Japan, and Eunos sold some of the more sporty and upscale ones. The Eunos brand in the States never happened—nor did a planned competitor to Lexus and the like—yet Mazda is going steadily upscale these days to beat the field with profits over volume. (Have you seen the inside of a loaded CX-9 lately?)

But no Mazda ever has been as opulent as the Eunos Cosmo.

For six years, the Eunos Cosmo was produced as a grand touring premium offering. You can think of it as a uniquely Japanese BMW 8-Series, or even a Porsche 928. When new, this specific Cosmo would’ve cost around $35,000. Adjust that number for inflation, and that’s nearly $60,000 in 2017. That potentially high price tag gets you a hefty boast though, as the Cosmo was fitted with the largest rotary engine ever placed into a production street car.

I have to remind myself to get into the “wrong” side of the car whenever it’s my turn to drive. This 1992 Eunos Cosmo is right-hand drive and it’s from that seat where I get to experience the magic that is the 20B-REW. Taking up just two-liters of space and breathing through a pair of turbochargers, the 20B produces 300 HP and nearly 300 lb-ft of torque. This car is smooth yet powerful, and it’s a perfect example of how you hope any proper grand touring coupe will drive.

Actually, it’s perfect example of the concept of a grand tourer. Mazda engineers managed to blend interior comfort with surprisingly lively driving dynamics. Turn in and the Cosmo responds with a flat, composed body. Punch the throttle and the triple rotor action introduces the back of your head to the seat material. The Cosmo remains equally poised and confident when cruising or when cracking off successive successful corners.

The seats are supremely comfortable, and it’s easy to see out of the thing. It’s also pretty quick. The rumor is that when these are freed of the shackles of Japanese speed limiting regulations, they’ll get up to around 160 miles per hour. Oh, and there’s a vent that aims right at your nether regions, which is perfect on a day spent pressing throttle to carpet on a hot California day.

Long Live The Togue

Besides the Mazda machines we’ve been talking about, the Touge California was attended by some truly fantastic Japanese cars from Datsun and Nissan, Toyota, and more Mazdas as well. Equally as entertaining as the cars were the people, bursting at the seams with passion for wacky old Japanese cars you’d be lucky to see stateside once in your life.

The owner of the V8 Toyota Century had a V12, too. A Savanna RX-7 had drove in from Arizona and a the 1972 Cosmo Sport’s owner flew in all the way from Ohio.

There’s nothing like a day spent driving old cars to remind you of just how good the average new car really is. Every modern machine seems to coddle, calm and keep you safe at higher speeds than performance cars could have dreamed of when the first RX-7 came out.

But the thrill of driving isn’t the destination but the journey, and an older car adds personality, demands deeper engagement to the here-and-now. New cars are good. Old cars are awesome.

The organizers of the Touge California have created a road rally that celebrates their beloved corner of the car universe. If you have something that fits the requirements for entry, you should keep your eyes peeled for the next Touge California.