A Wankel, or rotary, engine is a bit of an automotive conundrum these days. It is a technology with some very distinctive pros and cons, making it very controversial amongst car people. In fact, Mazda is the only company that has dabbled with it in modern production cars, and the RX8 just recently went out of production. The rotary is the trademark feature of their RX line of sports cars, in the same way that a rear engine design is the hallmark of the Porsche 911. I got my first taste of a rotary when I reviewed the RX8, and I thought it was quite fun. So when my friend Shane told me I could borrow his ’91 RX7 convertible for the afternoon, while he was at work, I jumped at the opportunity. Sunny day, convertible sports car, rev happy Wankel motor, it sounded like a great time to me.
This was the last year for the FC generation RX7, and it just so happened to overlap with the first-gen Miata, which I happen to own. Jumping out of the Miata and into the RX7 was interesting, and I will discuss the specifics later on. I am quite fond of sports cars from this late 80s-early 90s era, they were well built and I find them beautifully simple in execution compared to their modern counterparts. I learned to drive stick on a Porsche 944 S2, one of this RX7’s competitors at the time, and my love of these cars grew from there. Shane’s car was in the exact sort of condition that I like these cars to be in, rough around the edges but clean enough. This means you can really drive the car and not worry about the little dings and things.
While it did have some patina to it, this car functioned quite well. As far as appearances are concerned it is still a sleek black convertible. You get the wind in you hair and all of the sensations of nature as you speed along, what’s not to love about that?
I have always found the FC to be quite a handsome, with a well proportioned design, similar to that of the 944. The car still looks great here in 2012, it won’t be mistaken for modern, but if you ask me thats a good thing. The RX7 carries the charm of its era, an era whose ideals are clearly still desirable today given the popularity of cars like the Scion FRS/ Subaru BRZ.
On the inside things get very ‘80s very fast. There are huge knobs everywhere, and lots of bright orange font is used for labeling buttons. This car has the full leather interior, but like in my Miata, the driver seat is all torn up and most of the cabin looks well worn form 2 decades of use. The seat was still quite comfortable and supportive though, despite the appearance. In my opinion this isn’t a bad thing because it means you don’t have to worry about the interior getting messed up because it is already messed up. So long as I am comfortable in the car, then as far as I’m concerned the interior is fine.
As far as the controls go this RX7 was good enough to have fun with, but far from perfect. One of the bushings in the shift assembly had gone, and there was a huge amount of play in the gear lever, but I managed well enough with it and didn’t miss my shifts. The shifter itself was quit nice though, not a knob but more of a lever to grasp with your entire hand. At my feet the clutch had good grippy feel and it was brand new so it engaged well. The brakes were also nice and firm, and the gas was very responsive it inputs.
One fault of Mazda’s is the lack of an adjustable steering wheel. Like in my Miata, it will not tilt nor telescope. This means that there is but one driving position for this car, and you are the one that must conform to it. Once situated in said driving position, I found the bottom of the wheel to be a bit too close to my thighs, causing me to have to shift my hands on the wheel on sharp corners. I definitely got used to it, the same way I have in my Miata, but overall it is very annoying when you cannot adjust the steering wheel.
Enough with the small bits though, the real centerpiece of the RX7 is its rotary engine. It ends up defining the character of the car as a whole, and things definitely add up to be more than the sum of their parts. The 1.3L rotary puts out 160hp at 7000rpm, and screams on to a redline of 8000rpm. That may not sound like much power in a car weighing 2800lbs, but it is the way it is implemented that changes the game.
The RX7’s gearing is very wide, much like in a Porsche, and the rotary engine needs to stay at higher revs than most piston engines while cruising. Generally I tried to keep it above 3000rpm, and the wide gearing made that easy to do comfortably. If you max out 2nd gear you will be topping 70mph, and I only saw 5th gear once while I was cruising on the highway at 85mph; any lower than that and you should be in 4th. The wide gearing allows the RX7 to swallow speed in large gulps, and its highway gate was similar to that of much faster european sports cars; it isn’t really settled below 90mph.
That was my biggest realization about the RX7, it is actually very fast. Obviously with just 160hp, its in gear acceleration isn’t too vicious, but it is relentless. This car will pull all the way up to 8000rpm, and when you get there you will be going much faster than the posted speed limit. I continually found myself going 20-30mph faster than I had thought I was going. This could have been a side effect from being used to the Miata with tight gearing, but it was surprising nonetheless. The real world pace of the RX7 is on par with many much faster cars, and for me that was really impressive given its somewhat lackluster spec sheet.
There was a hole in the exhaust right before the muffler, so this RX7 was actually pretty loud as the revs got up there. The relentless power delivery is accompanied by a high pitched hum that sounds like you are being chased by thousands of angry bees as you fly down the road. The car screams as the revs approach 8k, and a satisfying POP! announces your shift into the next gear as unburnt fuel ignites in the exhaust. The rotary gives a satisfying sound that really adds a lot to the experience, especially in a convertible like this. As far as my ears were concerned, the RX7 was a treat.
Another thing I noticed with the rotary was the lack of any vibration as the revs climbed. With a piston engine lots of parts are violently changing direction as the speed increases, but with a rotary there is basically just one moving part that goes in a circle. The result is a very smooth running engine that can pretty quiet, even at high revs, unless your foot is hard on the gas pedal. It is also comfortable being wound out, and doesn’t feel thrashed like a piston engine can. Feel free to keep the revs up, it likes it. So, despite it being loud, with power that never seems to end, the RX7 drives smooth as silk.
On winding back roads I found myself leaving it in 3rd gear for the most part, staying at a pace that most people only do on the highway. The chassis was set up well, staying very composed and predictable in corners. The steering was somewhat loose for a sports car, and took some getting used to, but after a while I got a feel for it. The pace of this car on back roads is right up there with many much faster cars I have driven, and I had a few close calls with law enforcement during the course of the afternoon (lets just say I’m glad it only had 160hp). It was while carving through corners that I found myself with a big smile on my face, just enjoying life. This RX7 is a sports car in the truest sense, one that wants to go fast, and that makes it a lot of fun.
As for how the RX7 compares to my first-gen Miata, there were some very fundamental differences that I found. At least between our two specific cars, the Miata is much tighter. The steering, the shifter, and the nimble handling, the Miata is most fun under 80mph. The Miata is also way better on gas, if you are fuel consumption conscious, getting high 20s even when being thrashed. The RX7 on the other hand is much more about real speed, its drives a bit bigger and its controls are more loose, but it is far more composed at higher speeds. As far as gas is concerned, I used over 6 gallons during my afternoon with the car. I was driving pretty fast, but rotaries are notoriously thirsty. In the end I would say the Miata is a proper roadster, and the RX7 is a proper sports car; a fundamental difference in attitude to be sure.
This was one of those cars that gave me a broader perspective on driving, a sort of “It’s not the size, but how you use it” sort of thing. I had no idea that this RX7 would have such a fast paced nature about it. On paper it really doesn’t seem like anything special, but from the driver seat it works wonders. Shane’s car definitely had some rough edges when I drove it, but I know he has been addressing many of the issues since then. It was a blast to drive with its rough edges, so I’m sure its even better now that things are mended.
The reality of an FC RX7 in 2012 is that of a relatively cheap toy to have fun with. Like a Miata it can be had for just a few grand, and will deliver lots of smiles. In the end that is really what this car comes down to, fun. It is a very different experience than a Miata, and totally worth comparing if you’re in the market. I really enjoyed my time with this RX7, it was a great way to spend my afternoon. It actually expanded my view of cars some, and I had a blast in the process. What more could I ask for?
Special thanks to Shane for letting me review his RX7.
WoM Score: Mazda RX7 FC
Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: Practicality(1), MPG(0): 0.5…… seats two, trunk useable with roof up, terrible fuel economy
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2……. yes rough edges, but its old, and everything still worked right
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 8.5/10