Retro Rewind: Driving Mazda’s RX-7 FD rotary wunderkind

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The early ’90s were an exciting time to be a Japanese sports car designer. The yen was up—waaaaaay up—and as a result, the domestic market was thirsty for the latest and greatest go-fast tech wrapped in alluring sheet metal and glass. It was the tail end of Japan’s infamous bubble economy, but no one knew that yet, and the result was a phalanx of the finest near-supercars to ever simultaneously emerge from the island nation.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this era was just how different of an approach each of the country’s major automakers took. Mitsubishi went full-out with gadgets and gizmos, stuffing all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, active aero, and twin turbos into the heavy 3000GT (also known as the GTO and exported as the Dodge Stealth), while Nissan and Toyota found a middle ground that combined grand touring comfort and turbocharged power with respectably nimble handling in the 300 ZX and Supra, respectively. Honda, meanwhile, went mid-engine exotic with the NSX.

Mazda RX-7 rear 3/4

Mazda, as to be expected, went in its own direction. The third-generation RX-7 (known as the FD), introduced to American shores for the 1993 model year, was lighter, sleeker, and stranger than any of its rivals, thanks in large part to the use of a sequentially-turbocharged 1.3-liter  rotary engine in place of a more traditional piston unit.

How does “strange” hold up today in a world where turbos are now the norm and rotaries have been banished to the dust heap of history by emissions regs and warranty concerns? I spent some quality time with a 1993 Mazda RX-7 R1 borrowed from Mazda Canada’s classic collection to find out if an old favorite can still dance to modern music.

Care and feeding

Mazda RX-7 headlights up front 3/4

As befitting a museum treasure, the FD RX-7 is handed over to me only after I’ve been indoctrinated into the subtle etiquette required to keep it healthy and happy. It’s always best to let it idle for 30 seconds to a minute after a cold start before heading out, I’m told, with at least as long of a wait required between coming to a stop and turning off the ignition—that extra rest is needed to keep the engine and turbos from cooking themselves; a cooling system timer that runs after the car is shut down is a popular modification for that reason. I’m also asked to avoid starting it and stopping it in quick succession, as this can easily flood the rotary and render it frustratingly inoperative for an extended period of time.

Not all of the advice comes across as a rap on the knuckles, however.

“It loves to be above 6000 rpm,” explains Troy Langley, keeper of the flame for Mazda Canada’s retro rotary stable. “Run it up there and you won’t have any problems with it today.” Given that that’s a mere 2000 below redline, it’s a safe bet I’ll be able to satisfy this particular request.

Mazda RX-7 engine

After an appropriate warm-up, the car’s refined idle gives away little of the fire and brimstone lurking underneath the RX-7’s elegantly sculpted hood. I ease the five-speed manual gearbox into first and pull away from the garage. As befitting any Mazda built in the last 30 years, the transmission feels smooth and direct (although later, on the highway, I’ll experience the infamous fifth-gear notchiness that’s common to all FDs).

The operation of the clutch, however, illustrates just how down-in-my-knees the car’s steering wheel is, even though I stand well under six feet tall. The non-adjustable column is the only part of the car’s ergonomics that cramp my style, as the rest of the cockpit feels surprisingly roomy. I’ve always posited that the interior of the RX-7 has aged just as well as its gorgeous exterior lines, with the prominent tach and analog feel across the dashboard avoiding the future-tech faux pas so common to late ’80s/early ’90s design. My kingdom for a boost gauge, however.

8K or bust

Mazda RX-7 profile

Even if you can’t precisely track the exhalations of the Mazda RX-7’s sequential turbochargers from the driver’s seat, full-throttle acceleration offers you a second opportunity to monitor the car’s boost by way of the dip from 10 psi to 8 psi that occurs at 4500 rpm, before the second turbo kicks in to pick up the slack.

It’s the briefest of holes in the car’s otherwise steady powerband, but it’s the first real reminder when driving the car of how far turbo technology has come over the past two decades. Whereas at the time it was built Mazda’s engineers felt the only way to fight low-end lag was to run a pair of snails in sequence, today twin turbochargers manage that smooth delivery in parallel, without the need for the same type of hand-off.

Still, Troy wasn’t lying—small power bump aside, the car loves to stick above 6k, and running it up to redline introduces a wonderful, subdued shriek inside the cabin as the rotors spin and the vanes twirl up front to deliver the advertised 255 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque. I spend a substantial portion of my highway drive backing the car up and down the rev ladder so I can hear the 13B-REW’s unique soprano voice sing to me over and over again.

While a sub-300-hp sports car might sound tame by today’s standards, it helps to keep in mind that the FD RX-7 tips the scales at a mere 2800 pounds, which is close to a thousand pounds less than the current 400-hp club of the Mustang and Camaro. A standing start yields 60 mph in just five seconds, proving that adding lightness is always the answer when asking the question of how to build the perfect performance vehicle.

Mazda RX-7 emergency brake and shifter
Mazda RX-7 door handle

Mazda RX-7 window door controls
Mazda RX-7 backseat

Close encounters during two-lane corners in the FD also proved that the lightness lesson—all but forgotten in today’s world of feature-heavy muscle machines and plus-size platforms—is one we miss the most when driving the current crop of near-exotica. Willing to dive, dip, and pirouette with only the slightest provocation from the well-weighted hydraulic steering, the R1-spec Mazda felt simultaneously planted and lithe, evoking the spirit of a ballerina’s flexibility and strength with each bend in the road.

And yet, lift-off oversteer is present and accounted for when it’s time to get a little ill, easy enough to catch that your heart flutters for only an instant before the rear steps back in line. Credit, too, goes to the rotary’s willingness to build revs almost instantly, offering up fresh power when needed to even out the car’s dynamic balance. It’s a near-perfect meshing of call and response between the lightweight chassis and the eager engine, and it’s been orchestrated in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the RX-7’s perfectly civilized cruising manners.

Living legend

Mazda RX-7 headlights up

My only previous experience driving this generation RX-7 had been on a race track—Mazda’s Mine testing facility just outside of Hiroshima, Japan, in fact. What surprised me the most about my second encounter with the FD was how much more impressive it was on the street compared to the all-out performance environment of a road course.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a shock; few stock cars feel at home in a competitive driving situation, especially when compared to the state of the art a quarter-century later. In the more natural setting of a twisting back road or open highway, however, the third-generation Mazda RX-7 dazzled me with just how balanced and accessible it felt at almost any speed.

The FD is a car that displays a character that’s difficult to find on the current automotive landscape, which prizes insulated, by-the-numbers, for-the-numbers engineering over now quaint concepts like road feel, communication, and driver engagement. Think of it as one of the few remaining near-modern portals back to an era where it was assumed you weren’t interested in handing off half the driving duties to the ECU.

Just make sure you keep it above 6000 rpm for the most authentic experience.

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