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This 1993 RX-7 was mothballed for 19 years and was only recently brought out of storage. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
This 1993 RX-7 was mothballed for 19 years and was only recently brought out of storage. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

Blast from the past

A trip down Mazda’s memory lane Add to ...

The early 1990s were a good time for Mazda.

Sales were brisk and the company’s motorsports division was basking in the glow of winning the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, in 1991, not to mention various other contests, including Pike’s Peak and the American IMSA GTU championship. All thanks to a Wankel-inspired rotary engine that could pump out enormous amounts of power with comparatively small displacement.

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Despite having a rather hefty price tag for the time, the rotary-powered, third-generation RX-7, in particular, was something of a cult car. It was a big favourite with amateur motorsport enthusiasts, especially autocross aficionados, who loved its tossability, with an almost instant and endless power delivery.

The fact that it had a “happy” rear end and sub-standard fuel economy wasn’t much of a deterrent to the faithful, and among its fans was Napster co-founder and Facebook partner, Shawn Fanning who, it was reported, owned three.

Still, perhaps it was the high sticker price, or mediocre fuel economy, or emissions issues, but 1993 was the beginning of the end for the RX-7. The RX-8 was just around the corner, and two years later, the RX-7 would be history in Canada. As well, sales weren’t that great, with Mazda only moving a couple of hundred a year in this country back then.

Which could explain why Mazda Canada has had a bright yellow RX-7 sitting in its Ontario warehouse for the last 19 years. Originally part of the ’93 press fleet, it was mothballed and forgotten until Mazda Canada public relations manager, Sandra LeMaitre, decided it would be fun to get it out there again and temporarily put it back in the fleet. “It was just sitting there,” she says, “so I thought, why not make it available?”

Why not indeed. But first, a few specs.

With twin sequential turbochargers, the 1993 edition of the RX-7 had a 1,308-cc twin rotor rotary that pumped out a healthy 255 horsepower and 217 lb-ft of torque. Transmission was either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, and it was strictly a two-seater hatchback, with a pair of storage bins where the back seats would be and a large-ish rear hatchback that opened manually. It came in five colours and this particular one was – is – “competition yellow mica.”

Standard equipment included things like a driver’s side airbag, power windows and door locks, an engine oil cooler, ABS, air conditioning and cruise control, and you could order options such as leather interior, upgraded Bose sound system and a power sunroof.

But by today’s standards, the RX-7 was pretty basic. You’ll look in vain for things like a vehicle stability control system, climate control, navi, ventilated seats, adjustable suspension or traction control (although it did come with a Torsen locking differential). It didn’t even have tilt/telescoping steering. Depending upon your point of view, this either adds to its overall appeal or makes it just too crude to drive on a day-to-day basis.

Behind the wheel, a few things become apparent right away. Performance is intoxicating. Bury the pedal and the car leaps away from a dead start like a startled cheetah, and you can light up the rear wheels in a heartbeat. In the rain, however, the rear wheels tend to “hop” when they break traction and all that power and lightweight body construction makes the RX-7 a handful in wet weather. After all, it’ll do zero to 100 km/h in about five seconds, revs to 8,000 rpm and has a top speed in the 260 km/h neighbourhood, so this ain’t no lightweight in the performance department.

Secondly, it still has a notchy transmission, with weak synchromesh in all the lower gears and you can grind ’em very easily if you’re not paying attention. I remember this feature from ’93, but it still caught me by surprise.

Third, this generation of the rotary engine is as quiet as the current RX-8. That’s one of the things that kind of distinguishes the RX-7. It has hell-for-leather performance, yet idles like a purring cat at stoplights, and is perfectly quiet on the highway. Interestingly, as I recall, the oversize rear glass hatchback could pop up randomly if you drove at high speed with the windows down, but that didn’t happen this time around.

Last but not least: pop-up headlights. Yes! I’d forgotten about those and I laughed out loud when I first twisted the steering column stalk-mounted headlight switch and the lights flipped up like oversize bunny ears.

And let’s not forget sticker shock. Even 20 years ago, the RX-7 was getting up there, and had a base price of $42,545 in 1993, with another grand for the autobox and $4,000 for the optional touring package. A lot of money then, a lot of money now and, coincidentally, about the same price as a 2011 RX-8, which has likewise been discontinued.

Wonder if Mazda will put one of those back into the press fleet sometime?

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