So when Mazda called me up and asked if I’d like to sample a little of their driving heritage in a blatant PR move, I huffily told them that I could not in good conscience be complicit in helping further burnish their brand image as a manufacturer of sporting products. I reminded them that I thought the Mazda2 too slow, the Mazda3 too ugly, the Mazdaspeed3 possessed of worse torque steer than a one-legged unicyclist, the cabin of the MX-5 designed for people with short legs and prehensile elbows, and that they didn’t even build a rotary engine any more, so what was the point?
Naturally, I said all these things in my internal voice during the 3.7 nanosecond pause before, “OohyespleaseWhencanIpickitupHowaboutnow?”
Who’s ready for some yellow journalism?
I was fifteen when the RX-7 bowed. Fifteen and land-locked up in the hills of Ryder Lake, a good half-hour drive from most of my friends. I’d been technically capable of driving for years, just not legally allowed to, and the prospect of my learner’s license danced on the horizon, as tantalizing as the ladies in Playboy Magazine- bzzt. Victoria’s Secret- bzzt. Sears catalog- ding!
Meanwhile, the industrious people of Nippon were building some of the hottest machinery ever to come out of that country: the last Samurai of the twilight of the Japanese automotive empire.
The NSX put Ferrari on notice. The 300ZX twin-turbo wanted to play hide and seek with the Corvette. The Twin-Turbo MKIV Supra strode the land like a colossus, and – were you a fan of Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” – there was always the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4.
The Japanese had all gone completely supercar-bonkers: name a manufacturer and they had a heavyweight in the ring. And then along came Mazda and a slight *pop* was heard as my fifteen-year-old brain exploded.
Even now, even in this somewhat garish hue, this car is beautifully-proportioned. It’s old enough to drink (at least, in this country it is), and yet if the sheets had come off the first FT-86 concept to reveal this shape, everyone would have cheered lustily. After my couldn’t-care-less-about-cars wife followed it through traffic as I dropped it off, she remarked, “I can’t believe it’s not a new car!”
Me either, although this one shows evidence of being repainted. No surprise to ’90s Mazda owners, the paint on my old MX-6 certainly faded from Testarossa to General Lee.
Aside from the paint, it’s factory-fresh in basic trim, with the original lightweight 16” alloys and pop-up headlights. This car sat somnolent in the lobby of Mazda’s head offices in Ontario for some time and has just 20,000kms on the clock. Let’s show it some coastal hospitality.
Forget the modern exterior – the interior of this machine is pure 90s – it’s Ace of Basic, if you will. Cloth seats, cramped quarters and a dearth of amenities: the steering wheel doesn’t adjust and you only get the simplest of gauges. Luckily, I was easily able to install satellite navigation, and internet connectivity…
Everything’s operational! Apart from the mirror adjustment controller. And one of the speakers. And if you go around a corner too quickly, the radio head-unit resets itself and fills the cabin with raspy static. “The air-conditioning works!” as I was proudly told when I picked up the car – it does, but only in a Neville Chamberlain sort of way. Still, these are merely the flesh wounds of time.
And nothing compared to what might not be working on this gorgeous, somewhat temperamental machine. The explosive potential of what lies underhood is legendary: the twin-turbo rotary engine’s fragility makes Royal Doulton look like depleted uranium. I certainly hope whoever had this thing before me didn’t cheap out and fill it with regular.
I coddle the car through the first few miles, letting her get up to operating temperature. It really does smell like the ’90s in here – an unidentifiable plastic miasma that’s exactly like my old Mazda. It’s a whiff of the past, a techno variant of the horse-hair and vinyl that always gets the old codgers all misty.
The needle on the temperature gauge reads 3/4s from “H” – operating temperature as per instructions. It’s fifty klicks to my house, I gotta full tank of gas, half a working stereo, it’s sunny out and I forgot my sunglasses.
Listen kids, don’t meet your heroes.*
*- Unless your heroes happen to kick all 31 flavours of ass.
There’s an old Monty Python sketch which has John Cleese teaching a class called something like, Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit. At one point, Cleese shouts, “Come at me with that banana!” I come at Vancouver with that banana.
The FD-chassis RX-7’s brittle, sequentially-turbocharged 13b has 255hp (at least it did when new) and the car weighs just 2800lbs. It has a suspension designed with the help of 1990s supercomputers (wow!), a limited slip differential, four-channel anti-lock brakes and traction control in the form of four round black things called “tires” that provide traction. When they’re not too busy screaming.
The low-end power from the smaller turbo provides slingshot torque that has me questioning whether I should bother dipping into the big boost. Oh, go on then. The rotary noticeably pauses before the bigger blower comes online – somewhat alarming given the reputation and the questionable provenance of the fuel, but she pulls strongly, blitzing the onramp and howling through a tile-walled tunnel.
I sit low, snugged in tight by the bolstered seats and fixed steering wheel. It feels very much like a long-nosed Miata with a weirdly satisfying motor (the startup whirr is absurdly sci-fi), and it can and will pitch sideways if flung at a corner in a manner that’d have the entire Initial-D cast eating their improbable hairdos in envy.
It’s raw and elemental and whoopsy-daisy fast, and everything I’d hoped it would be. Every chance I get, I’m out there behind the wheel of Unmellow Yellow, attacking the undulating tarmac with- dear Christ in Heaven, am I out of gas AGAIN?
What killed the RX-7? Well, yes, the tendency to go through apex seals didn’t help, and neither did the astronomical price (this one cost about $45K new, which in 1990s money is approximately one hundred million billion dollars). What kills driving one around today is the fuel economy. Actually scratch that: you can argue that the RX-7 gets oil economy, but when it comes to its gasoline usage, you can’t really use the word “economy”. It gets fuel uneconomy.
In the short week I had it, this thing was costing me about $20 worth of 94 octane gas for every thirty miles of driving I did. The ‘vette I currently have is doing considerably better. Solution: swap in an LS7 for fuel-savings – that’s the kinda hybrid I can get behind!
Even so, the RX-7 provided a brief glimpse of a lost time. While the GT-R can be said to be carrying that world-beating torch for Japan, it’s the antithesis of the RX in many ways. It’s a different kind of dream to a different set of engineers – you might as well compare a katana to a cruise missile.
Expensive to buy, unreliable to own, costly to keep on the road and borderline dangerous in the wet.
In other words: utterly fantastic. I miss it.
Mazda provided the vehicle tested and insurance.