What we drive: 1994 Mazda RX-7 R2Fri, 20 May 2011 00:00:00 -0700
Blame it on the 1993 Montego blue RX-7 parked a block away from my childhood home--and the cover photo of the competition yellow mica R1 gracing one of the other monthly car magazines that year. Either way, it was 1993 when my captivation with the third-generation Mazda RX-7 caught fire. I was 10 years old.
The years following were filled with RX-7 knowledge-seeking expeditions through car magazines, picking the brain of my mechanical-engineer cousin who gave me my first crash course on rotary engines and on an Internet that was still sparse with information. I was the seventh member to join RX7Club.com, and today the site boasts 151,530 members.
When I got my driver's license, an RX-7 was out of the question as a first car. A rear-wheel-drive, turbocharged two-seater coupe with 255 hp wasn't right for a snot-nosed teenager who thought he knew everything, nor was it the right car to be driven year-round in Michigan.
No matter. It gave me more time to plan what my RX-7 eventually would be. First, it had to be a Silverstone metallic R2 model, which would make my search that much more difficult as only 83 were imported in 1994 and a mere 16 were brought to the United States in 1995.
Second, a handful of reliability modifications would need to be done to improve cooling to prevent the finicky 13B engine from overheating and possibly blowing. And finally, there was a light list of performance modifications.
Napster Didn't Just Have Music, He Also Had My Car
With only 99 cars meeting my criteria (fewer if you consider that I was looking for a lower-mileage example that wasn't beat to oblivion), I patiently went about my search. Autotrader.com, various others used-car Web sites, the weekly classifieds section in AutoWeek magazine and RX-7 message boards were part of the routine for the better part of three years.
During that time, I had become friends with a Shawn Fanning, an RX-7 fanatic best known for writing the peer-to-peer file-sharing program Napster. At one point, he owned three RX-7s, one of which was a 1994 R2 painted Silverstone metallic.
He eventually would sell off two of his RX-7s and hang onto the silver R2--which also happened to have almost every modification on my wish list. I planted the bug that I would be interested if he did decide to part with his final RX-7. He didn't like the idea.
Roughly eight months later, Fanning asked me if I'd found a car yet. I hadn't, and he finally offered to sell me his.
A Decade Later
Over the past 10 years, I've piloted my RX-7 at countless track days, autocrosses and in late-night blasts over empty country roads. Like any good rotary enthusiast, a spare quart of oil sits in my rear storage bins at all times, and I'm also well-trained to keep a close eye on the water-temp gauge.
The strict maintenance regimen consists of an oil change every 1,000 miles, along with fresh spark plugs, wires and fuel filter every year. Overkill? Probably, but that's just the crazy thing a lot of wankel heads do.
This car is a labor a love but continues to bring a smile to my face with its turbocharged punch, insane steering response, tight chassis and body lines that still hold up well 17 years later. I only wish that the aero was a little better, because things do get a bit sketchy when topping 135 mph.
AutoWeek Flashback: Mazda RX-7, spot-on for the '90s purist
Originally appeared in AutoWeek on December 21, 1992
The message Mazda's latest RX-7 sends its driver is unambiguous: You can go back to sports car basics without going primitive. In its kart-like road demeanor and the take-no-prisoners attitude of its twin-turbo rotary, the RX-7 concedes nothing to those who prefer commuter-duty sports coupes to genuine sports cars.
When you mash that gas pedal, you don't get an immediate kick in the pants like in a big-displacement car, but with 255 hp to move only 2800 pounds (more or less, dependent on options) the RX-7 gets up and runs. Without perceptible turbo lag in most circumstances, it delivers that booster-rocket surge that's one of the more welcome attributes of turbocharged powerplants.
The rest of the car is a similar no-compromise proposition. It is so responsive, so reactive, provides so much feedback, that the car seems to be insisting that its driver remain involved in the task at hand at all times; to make smooth progress, it wants a smooth driver paying full attention.
Yes, indeed, one for the purists. Which is not to say that the car neglects creature comforts – it has the common gizmos you'd expect in a $32,500 car, like power windows, and door locks, standard a/c, sophisticated audio system, cruise control, etc. Yet this is a car that cares for, but doesn't coddle, its driver. Under that ltalianesque double-bubble roof and curvaceous bodywork, all RX-7s feature a time-honored sports car basic: a cramped cabin. Ingress and egress aren't easy (watch your head!), and once you're in there, wiggle room is sparse.
There are other nits to pick, like the chrome surrounds on the gauges (they were cute on the Miata, jarring on the 929, and now cheap-looking on this car) and the warning light for an overheating exhaust located on the aft portion of the console where you're unlikely to see it when you ought. The large tach dominates the dash, with the speedometer rather smaller, numbered in only 20 mph increments. It's good that you can monitor the engine for maximum performance, but in the land of the radar trap it's better to know how fast you're going in a ticket-bait red sports car.
The RX-7 handles splendidly – nimble, balanced, grippy. It comes out of corners like nobody's business, thanks in part to the Torsen rear differential. The base suspension is stiff, but not rock hard. But if your personal definition demands that a sports car provide a kidney-bleed ride, Mazda will oblige you with the R1 model. That's the one with the front air dam, rear wing, dual engine oil coolers, front-brake air ducts, Z-rated tires and special suspension tuning (including a cross brace connecting the front shock towers.)
Our staff universally proclaimed the R1 more attuned to racetracks than highways, and preferred the base suspension (which also carries over if you opt for the touring package – leather seats, upgraded audio system, sunroof, fog lights, rear wiper-washer, etc.). Frankly, the R1 suspension setup is as far off-base as was the performance suspension offered on the Corvette when the current generation debuted in '84; it's strictly for autocrossers, showroom stock racers and those who use the car only as a toy.
For the rest of us, the normally suspended RX-7 is less harsh, yet the turn-in, cornering and acceleration felt as good in all non-track circumstances. Even the base springs left no doubt that you were in a stiffly sprung sports machine. The turbo rotary mill is never going to be remembered as an auditory thrill, like a Ferrari V12, but at least the sounds it makes remind you that the engine is something special in a world of 24-valve V6 clones.
Our biases favor cars of this ilk – responsive, light, elemental (or as elemental as anything with a/c, a CD player and cruise control can be said to be). It has a refreshing visceral appeal. But like all true sports cars, it clearly appeals to a small number of people who have a sufficient appreciation for what it can do that they're willing to make the sacrifices required.
By manifesting so many traditional sports car qualities – both good and bad – while being every inch a modern automobile, the RX-7 practically redefines the genre for the 1990s purist. We hope there are enough purists to make that worth Mazda's while.
Kevin A. Wilson
Base Price: $32,500
Wheelbase (in): 95.5
Length/width (in): 168.5/68.9
Curb weight (lb): 2,789
Powertrain: Front-longitudinal, injected, sequential twin-turbocharged, intercooled 1.3-liter/80 cid two-rotor Wankel, 255 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 217 lb-ft of torque @ 5,000 rpm, rear-drive, five-speed manual transmission
0-60 MPH: 5.3 seconds
Top speed: 150 mph (est.)
Suspension: Ind. front, double-wishbone, gas shocks, coil springs, antiroll bar; ind. rear, double-wishbone, gas shocks, coil springs, antiroll bar
Brakes: Power vented discs front and rear, ABS
Passive restraints: Driver-side airbag
MPG/range: 20.6 mpg (avg.) X 20.0 gal = 412 miles.
By Jonathan Wong