BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Generally held to be the most beautiful car ever to hail from the Land Of The Rising Sun, the Mazda RX7 could delight and frustrate in equal measures. Here is a car that is stunning to look at, electrifying to drive, agreeably rare, relatively affordable to buy, yet is horrendously thirsty and fiendishly complex mechanically. As the final custodians of the rotary engine concept, the Mazda RX series had its highs and lows. This last RX to be sold here was Mazda's way of going out with a bang. Unless you want similar pyrotechnics from your used RX7, pay close attention.
Models Covered: (3dr coupe, 2.6 petrol)
The formula for new car development goes something like this. Successive generations get bigger, heavier and more upmarket until somebody stands up and has the courage to tell the emperor that he's up for an indecency charge. At Mazda that man was Takahura Kobayakawa, who demonstrated his disgust at the way Mazda's 2nd generation RX7 had developed by lapping the Miyoshi test track quicker in a 14bhp kids go-kart. Mazda's senior management finally saw the error of their ways and gave Kobayakawa license to work on the 3rd generation car, with a philosophy of light weight and keen handling. Smaller, lighter and more powerful than the outgoing generation, the 3rd generation Mazda RX7 first arrived in the UK in July 1992, priced at £33,999, within a hairs breadth of its chief rival, the Porsche 968. The Weissach company was about to spring a rude surprise on the boys from Hiroshima though, soon afterwards introducing the now almost legendary Porsche 968 Club Sport for just £28,975. In early 1993, Mazda's response to weak UK sales was to slash £1,500 from the list price and boost the spec with the fitment of an airbag, but still sales were haemorrhaging. It was then that Mazda decided on an extraordinary course of action, knocking £6,500 off the list price. The £25,950 RX7 was something of a bargain, but any goodwill Mazda hoped to accrue was drowned beneath the howls of anguish from the owners who had thought that £1,500 off was a good deal. Resale values fell through the floor and Mazda ended up paying compensation to disgruntled owners who felt that Mazda had deliberately misled them over pricing. The price crept steadily back up to £35,950 at the time of the car's withdrawal from sale due to increasingly stringent emission and noise regulations in 1995. Development of the RX7 continued apace in Japan, with the Type RS version still finding customers in 2002. The RX-8 replaced the much loved RX-7 range in early 2003.
What You Get
Were it not for Porsche's 968 Club Sport, the Mazda RX7 would be remembered as the best handling sports coupe of its generation. Little since is able to touch it as a driver's car. As an ownership proposition, the Mazda was uncompromising and high maintenance. Buoyed by the success of Johnny Herbert in a Mazda at Le Mans in 1991, the UK-spec RX7 was designed as a sports car with the emphasis on driving thrills, but many were sold purely on the strength of their looks. With concealed door handles long before the Alfa 156 ever hit the drawing board, voluptuous curves, that elegant sweep of the door line and a cab-back profile that emphasised bonnet without looking overtly 'chestwig', the RX7 was, and is, a dazzler. The bodywork appears to have melted over the car, its fluidity punctuated with scoops, dams and spoilers with just the right amount of aggression. Aftermarket 'specials' show just how right Mazda got it. The other key talking point was, of course, that rotary engine. Few customers either understood or trusted the Wankel unit, bearing as it did a reputation both for rotor tip wear and prodigious thirst. Mated to twin sequential turbochargers (as seen in the Porsche 959) the Mazda was a sophisticated piece of kit. This deterred many buyers who saw the big, honest four-cylinder engine of the Porsche 968 as something that would be less of a worry. By and large they were right. The interior of the RX7 fails to match the visual drama of the bodywork, but it nevertheless feels like a great place to drive quickly. The driver is faced by an old-school fascia with chrome bezels lifting the otherwise unremitting black theme. Other clues to the RX7's sporting intent are the tiny gear lever, the drilled aluminium pedal set and the lightweight sports seats. Visibility is pretty good and this helps reduce the intimidation factor, making the RX7 a truly useable sports car.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Three words that will have Mazda RX7 owners quaking in their boots. Rotor tip wear. It comes to everyone who signs up at this particular rotary club, being caused by carbon build-ups lodging at the tip of the rotors themselves. Normal use will see rotors start to drop in compression and lose power at around 75,000 miles, necessitating an engine rebuild, itself in the region of £2,000. Check to see whether the work has been carried out if you're considering a higher mileage example. Aftermarket parts stores also stock a wide range of auxiliary cooling and heat shielding equipment for the RX7 that tells you that it's not a car that particular likes being run in hot weather. Although not too much of a problem in this country, should you run your RX7 hard in during a hot spell, keep an eye on that temperature gauge. You won't want to lose all your water from the radiator or reservoir. If you're buying an import RX7 check that the exhaust is legal. Standard Mazda items are fiendishly expensive for a complete system, boasting as they do two catalytic converters, so they are often replace with freer flowing aftermarket items. The other thing you may have to take into account is that some Mazda dealers will lock themselves in the service bay toilets should you turn up with an RX7, so find out in advance how far you'll need to go to get your Rex serviced.
(approx based on a 1994 RX7 ex Vat) A rear exhaust box and tail pipe come to about £250, although a full system with both catalysts amounts to an eye-watering £2,000. Front brake pads weigh in at around £100 a pair, with rears retailing at around £90. A new windscreen is £150 whilst a new starter motor will cost you around £315. A clutch won't leave a great deal of change from £400. If this strikes you as expensive, the incredible moving fuel gauge needle will give you a whole new perspective.
On the Road
So long as you can afford to keep pouring in the unleaded at a rate of around 15mpg, you're going to have some serious fun with the RX7. A good used example should still feel lithe, taut and eager in a way that so many contemporary rivals seem to have forgotten. Performance is predictably punchy, the 237bhp rotary engine only having to shift 2888lbs plus you, making the RX7 some 285lbs lighter than a Honda NSX. Performance is impressive, the RX7 making 60mph in around 5.4 seconds before topping out at 156mph. The uncanny smoothness of the RX7's engine is countered by the liveliness of its ride, and it never makes going quickly the strangely anaesthetised experience it is in, say, a Mitsubishi 3000GT. Handling is also designed to appeal to the hardcore enthusiast. With all that power going to the rear wheels the Mazda serves up huge entertainment for those who enjoy driving their cars at only vague approximations of straight ahead. Especially in the wet, a heavy right boot can lead to some quite outrageous tail-out antics. If you're sensible, the first time you approach the handling limits, the nose will push wide benignly, and can be tucked in with a gentle lift of the throttle. It all feels like an MX-5 on steroids. The gearshift and brakes are both correspondingly excellent, and for those who like this sort of car, the RX7 approaches ten out of ten status.
If you're a keen, knowledgeable driver who revels in nods of appreciation from like-minded souls, the RX7 could be just the ticket. Expensive to run but jaw-droppingly beautiful, the Mazda is not recommended for those who merely want a car to look good in. To cruise in an RX7 is to waste it. It's best to try to find an honest UK model, use it as a second car, treat it to heaps of TLC and stretch its legs on a racetrack occasionally. If you know what you're getting yourself in to, get into one.