Generation Gap: Ranking each and every Mazda RX-7
Here’s our ranking of the most successful rotary-powered vehicle in history
The Mazda RX-7 is, without a doubt, the most successful rotary-powered vehicle in history. Mazda’s sports car gave the Wankel motor its highest profile, and thanks to the stunning performance offered by later versions of the car, kept the idea of a rotary firmly in the minds of modern enthusiasts long after other automakers had abandoned the technology.
Although the RX-7 was with us for just under 25 years, it was split across only three specific platforms, each of which had their own sub-divisions as development progressed and technology was further refined. Which version of these pioneering Mazdas is nearest and dearest to our hearts, nearly two decades after the final model rolled off the assembly line? Here’s our ranking of the best to least RX-7 generations.
1. 1992-2002 FD
By the time the early ’90s rolled around, the Mazda RX-7 had evolved from spirited sportster to legitimate near-supercar. Produced at the height of the economic bubble that would also bring forth luminaries such as the fourth-generation Toyota Supra, the Nissan GT-R and 300ZX, and the Acura NSX, the RX-7 stood apart from its contemporaries in a number of key ways.
First, there was the focus on providing drivers with a lightweight chassis that checked in at well under 3,000 pounds, which made the Mazda an outlier in a world where all-wheel-drive, large and turbocharged V6 engines, and other exotic technologies added padding on the scales for many of its Japanese rivals.
Next up was, of course, its rotary engine. The third-generation RX-7 was motivated exclusively by a twin-turbocharged 13B-REW that displaced 1.3 litres and delivered roughly 252 horsepower and 217 lb.-ft. of torque with a soaring 8,000 rpm redline. The car’s novel sequential turbochargers kicked in one right after the other in a bid to fight lag and improve throttle response in all areas of the rev range, and it quickly became clear that aftermarket additions could push the 13B well past its factory rating. Later cars were capped at the 272 horsepower ‘gentleman’s agreement’ figure in the RX-7’s native market.
Finally, there was its shape. The RX-7 is perhaps the most beautiful car to ever have emerged from Japan, and its gentle curves and pleasing proportions still hold up today alongside less svelte modern metal. The Mazda offered exotic looks at a much more affordable price, and backed it up with the kind of connected driving experience that has largely disappeared from the current crop of sports cars.
Although North American sales ceased after the 1995 model year, the RX-7 would continue on in Europe and Japan, with the latter prolonging its existence until 2002. Today, a healthy business importing right-hand drive editions of the RX-7 helps top up supply for a vehicle that was only ever offered in limited numbers outside of Asia.
2. 1979-1985 SA/FB
In terms of pure driving enjoyment, the FD RX-7 is trailed closely by the original SA/FB edition of the nameplate. Intended to push the idea of a lightweight, high-revving sports car to the limits of what Mazda was technologically capable of, the 1979 RX-7 weighed in at a mere 2,300 pounds yet boasted a healthy 100 horsepower and 105 lb.-ft. of torque from its tiny 1.1-litre rotary engine.
Those numbers stood tall in an era where muscle machines had been choked out by emissions controls, and without any direct rivals — the Datsun Z had transitioned to its portly grand touring phase, the Toyota Supra was a much larger car, and the Porsche 924 was significantly more expensive. Needless to say, the RX-7 helped Mazda make significant in-roads around the world among enthusiasts.
By 1981, the company had already evolved the RX-7 platform, introducing the FB edition of the car that introduced a five-speed manual gearbox, modernized numerous aspects of its appearance and features (including the availability of four-wheel disc brakes), while only adding 100 pounds to the overall package. Base cars were actually somewhat lighter than the ’79 model.
Despite carrying over its live rear axle setup, the RX-7’s driving experience was further improved by way of a 10-horsepower boost to its 12A engine, a figure which would leap to 160 horses following the introduction of the turbocharged version of the 12A in the Japanese market. North American buyers would have to wait until the 1984 GSL-SE model for a hotter mill under the hood. It would be the first 13B 1.3-litre rotary — though naturally aspirated here, offering 135 horsepower and 133 lb.-ft. of torque.
It’s amazing how little attention the early RX-7 receives, as it’s still available for a pittance on the collector market. With 12A engines offering a simple carbureted experience and the 13B delivering a more impressive helping of fuel-injected power, the first significant Mazda sports car is a steal among classic J-tin.
3. 1985-1992 FC
The second-generation RX-7 is a bit of an outlier. Sandwiched between two sports cars designed to dance on their tiptoes, the portly FC platform was much more of a gran-tourer in the vein of the similarly hefty Toyota Supra and the Nissan 280/300ZX that would be its contemporaries for much of its run.
In order to balance out the added weight, Mazda would give the FC more power across the board. Base models came with a 13B engine good for 146 horsepower, with another 40 horses or so on tap from the Turbo II edition. The twin-scroll turbo was the only version of the car available in Japan, with the standard 13B offered exclusively outside Mazda’s home borders.
There were other big changes in store for the FC, including the production of both a convertible model and a four-seat model (with all other versions of the RX-7 restricted to two passengers. Response from buyers and the media to the car was generally good in its era, but it has been completely overshadowed by the legend of the FC that would follow it, knocking it to the bottom of our ranking. [For a second there, I could’ve sworn you were talking about the NC Miata. — Ed.]
Driving.CA – Benjamin Hunting