By Shari Prymak
It may be hard to believe, but 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Mazda selling cars in Canada. Though a well-known brand today, Mazda operated in near obscurity five decades ago. Back in 1967, the company made its claim to fame by producing one of the first cars to feature a Wankel rotary engine, the Mazda Comso Sport. In 1968, the company landed in Canada with the rotary-powered R100 Coupe, joining a small handful of Japanese automakers to plant their flag on Canadian soil.
Early models like the Cosmo Sport and R100 were proof that the rotary engine was a viable concept. Mazda wasn’t the first to play with triangle-shaped rotors in place of cylinders, but they made it work at a scale unseen before in the industry. The company continued to refine the rotary engine throughout the 1970s, eventually planting it into what is arguably the most famous rotary-powered car of all time: the RX-7 sports car.
The original 1978 Mazda RX-7 wasn’t an especially sophisticated sports car, but with its lightweight rear-drive chassis, 50:50 weight distribution, and charismatic high-revving engine, it offered a huge amount of thrills at a price point that significantly undercut most of its rivals. Sure enough, the RX-7 was a success, and firmly established Mazda as a player in car market.
40 years from its original launch date in July of 1978, I can think of no better model to revisit to celebrate the company’s golden anniversary. The 1993 model tested here, courtesy of Mazda Canada’s heritage collection, represents the model’s third and most glorified generation.
Designed to go head-to-head to with the sports car juggernauts of its day such as the Nissan 300ZX and Toyota Supra, the third generation “FD” RX-7 was Mazda’s take on the Japanese high-performance sports coupe. And like those other highly-acclaimed sports cars, its importance to the enthusiast community cannot be understated.
Compared to its rivals, the RX-7 was lighter, more purebred, more driver focused. The rear-wheel drive chassis continued to boast 50:50 weight distribution, but now with a more sophisticated double-wishbone independent suspension system. Four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with 4-piston calipers up front provided stopping power. The twin-rotor 13B engine used a unique sequential twin-turbo setup, allowing for instant throttle response and strong power throughout the rev range. Naturally, the engine came matched to a short-throw 5-speed manual gearbox and a Torsen limited-slip differential as standard.
As substantive as the RX-7 is, it’s the styling that might just solidify the FD in the running for all-time greatest hits. Even after more than a quarter of a century, the sleek looks are breathtaking and turn heads just about everywhere. The interior too has aged surprisingly well with crisp, clean instrument gauges, comfortable and supportive bucket seats, and suitably high-quality materials throughout. Audio and climate controls are clear and effective. And the stubby, leather-wrapped shifter falls nicely to hand. The lack of adjustability in the steering wheel, a shortage of storage places and no cup holders are really the only noteworthy shortcomings.
With a twist of the key the twin-rotors whir into life with a subtle thrum at idle. Depress the surprisingly heavy clutch pedal and the stubby shifter slots into gear with a stiff, positive feel. On the move, the RX-7 feels amazingly composed and surefooted for a car of its age. Thanks to its precise steering and modest curb weight, the RX-7 feels properly nimble and responsive to inputs. The firm damping has likely rattled more than few bolts loose here and there leading to some creaks and groans even on this minty 29,000km example. Even so, there’s an overwhelming level of connectedness here that modern day sports cars simply cannot match.
With 255 horsepower and 217 lb-ft of torque, the twin-rotor engine allowed for a 0-100km/hr time of around 5 seconds. Fast for its day, and still properly quick by modern standards. The power comes on surprisingly high in the rev range for a sequential twin-turbo setup. Tapping into the boost of that second turbo in the upper rev band unleashes a wave of torque with the engine spinning all the way to a dazzling 8000 rpm. You’d have to go looking at McLarens and Ferraris to find a new turbocharged engine capable of hitting that number. The RX-7, however, manages just fine, even doing so in relative silence with nothing but a smooth engine buzz and the faintest turbo whistle as it reaches its peak.
The RX-7’s success both in sales and in racing helped to solidify Mazda’s sporty reputation and put the company on solid ground. Although they no longer build the RX-7, or any rotary-powered sports car for that matter, Mazda will likely always be synonymous with sport-oriented phrases like “Zoom Zoom” and “Driving Matters.” Taglines which highlight the brand’s commitment to building dynamically gifted cars that are fun and engaging, regardless of whether they are powered by a pair of spinning triangles or not. At the end of the day, that’s what Mazda is all about. Here’s to another 50 years in Canada.
For more details, please visit the Mazda Canada website.