REVOLUTIONROAD

With its ex­tra­or­di­nary en­gine and svelte, mod­ern looks, the first gen­er­a­tion Mazda RX-7 was very much a vi­sion of the fu­ture – but does it still stack up to­day? Nick Larkin finds out…

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Mazda UK

Mazda clev­erly mar­keted its ground­break­ing ro­tary-en­gined RX-7 as The Ori­ent Ex­press, but in many re­spects it was more like a Ja­panese bul­let train. Noth­ing com­pares to this car in terms of driv­ing and main­tain­ing. But will any thoughts of RX-7 own­ers com­ing off the rails be ban­ished when we put Mazda’s own stun­ning 1983 ex­am­ple to the test?

With one or two no­table ex­cep­tions, styling was not al­ways the best fea­ture of many early 1980s Ja­panese cars, but to­day the neat-look­ing RX-7 looks very much like it has stood the test of time ex­tremely well. There are el­e­ments of Lo­tus in its styling, to­gether with bits of Porsche 924, Tri­umph TR7 and even Dat­sun 240Z thrown into the cock­tail. Be­guil­ing de­tails abound, from the red strip run­ning through the mid­dle of the bumpers and side mould­ings, to a rear win­dow that looks like a jet fighter canopy, a rear spoiler that’s gen­uinely use­ful rather than just a styling touch – and, of course, those all-im­por­tant and very 1980s pop-up head­lamps.

To be hon­est though, the styling be­comes about as rel­e­vant to the driver as the He­my­ock milk train would be to a Lon­don com­muter once you get it out on to the road. The main rea­son for this lurks be­neath the bon­net – Mazda’s ground-break­ing com­pact ro­tary en­gine. We spent half an hour just gaw­ping at it, amazed that it com­prises just three mov­ing parts. But if it looks un­usual, that’s noth­ing com­pared to the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Be­fore that though, a mo­ment of nos­tal­gia. Open­ing the driver’s door re­veals a world of wild 1980s car cabin de­sign. There ap­pear to be vary­ing au­tum­nal shades of reddy brown ev­ery­where, along with a mix­ture of boudoir and kitchen work sur­faces, a glo­ri­ous fu­sion of plas­tic and Dray­lon-style ma­te­ri­als and car­pet on the doors as well as the floor. We love it. The vast dash­board brings to mind a Vauxhall Cava­lier MkI and the cen­tre con­sole seems to con­tain more elec­tric win­dow switches than there are ac­tual win­dows.

Turn the key and the sound that re­sults is like noth­ing else – a sort of sub­dued yowl over­laid with a throb­bing bassline. You’ve barely enough time to reg­is­ter this be­fore a seem­ingly end­less ar­ray of warn­ing lights flash on then off again, al­most as if to say, ‘we’re here’. It’s re­as­sur­ing, if a lit­tle be­mus­ing.

Into first gear, and it’s as though the car is be­ing pushed hard by some hid­den force – ev­ery­thing seems so smooth and ma­jes­ti­cally un­ruf­fled. The driv­ing po­si­tion and all-round vis­i­bil­ity are su­perb and the in­stru­ments are clearly vis­i­ble. The most im­por­tant of these is the rev counter – once it’s warmed up, this car doesn’t mind revving hard and pulls cleanly all the way to a dizzy­ing 6800rpm. At this point a buzzer po­litely in­ter­jects to warn you to change up a gear, or else face the prospect of hand­ing over the con­tents of your wal­let to your near­est ro­tary en­gine spe­cial­ist.

Into the sur­pris­ingly tall fifth gear and you’re al­most waft­ing along, now. The en­gine sound at speed is sub­tly dif­fer­ent – a mix­ture of howl­ing Fer­rari and rum­bling Mopar V8.

The com­pact na­ture of the 1146cc carb-fed ro­tary en­gine al­lowed Mazda’s en­gi­neers to mount it fur­ther back to­wards the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment than they would have been able to in a nor­mal car. The re­sult is a near-per­fect 51:49 weight dis­tri­bu­tion front to rear, which in turn leads to beau­ti­fully bal­anced han­dling – im­pres­sive, given that the sus­pen­sion is a rel­a­tively tra­di­tional MacPher­son strut/ live axle setup. It feels solid rather than in­her­ently chuck­able thanks to brakes that are good if not ex­actly world-chang­ing, and re­cir­cu­lat­ing ball steer­ing that feels just a lit­tle notchy.

How­ever, these foibles are not enough to de­tract in the slight­est from what is a truly as­ton­ish­ing driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Pop-up head­lights… with a twist – you can raise each one in­de­pen­dently. But why would you? Nick awash in a sea of au­tum­nal colours, prob­a­bly with The Hu­man League on the stereo. The driv­ing po­si­tion is ex­cel­lent. FIVE CLAS­SIC TRI­ALS MAZDA RX-7

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