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1993 Mazda RX-7

The Globe and Mail

Nineteen years ago, the performance of the twin-turbo 1993 Mazda RX-7 was a mind-blowing delight: 0-100 km/h in just about five seconds, with a top speed of 250 km/h. That performance holds up nicely today.

Thus, it's with a mixture of admiration and sadness that I say one last goodbye to a real gem of the last two decades. We may not see its likes again.

Alas, Mazda has stopped building Wankel engines to power automobiles. Wankel? The rotary was the genius of Felix Wankel in post-Second World War Germany. Various car companies played with it, but Mazda made the Wankel its own – licensing it from Audi in 1961.

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Fast forward 30 years to the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans. The winning car, to the shock of everyone including Mazda, was the rotary-powered Mazda 787B, the first Japanese car to win the French race. The lightweight, turbine-smooth rotary was at the height of its powers back then. And what Mazda was committed to at Le Mans showed up in the '93 RX – a fast, lightweight, two-seater capable of eating up tracks and unsuspecting drivers.

Mazda is planning a future for the Wankel, though it's nothing as sexy and exciting as racing. Company president Takashi Yamanouchi has said Mazda will use the rotary as a mini-generator in electric vehicles of the future, reports Bloomberg.

"We should be able to make the most of the rotary engine's advantages, such as the ease of making it compact and safe," Yamanouchi told Bloomberg. The report added that Mazda will start leasing an extended-range EV next year; the rotary will generate power from hydrogen to keep the EV on the road after the battery is out of juice.

That's a long way from where the rotary was 20 years, when the '93 RX was wowing us with its front mid-engine layout. That design made for perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Yes, EVs and hybrids will extend the life of the Wankel, but they won't bring elation to gearheads and enthusiasts. That's a little sad.

There was and is nothing sad about the '93 RX. What I marvelled at two decades ago remains a delight. I know this because I just revisited a well-preserved '93 RX from Mazda Canada – one doing of a farewell tour to RX and the Wankel. I found myself reliving the thrill of a wonderful free-revving sports car with sequential twin turbos.

The rotary, it was described at the time, is ideal for turbocharging. Why? The Wankel uses ports instead of valves to manage intake and exhaust. The rotary gets its name because, instead of pistons moving up and down inside combustion chambers with ports opening and closing to let in the air/fuel mixture and letting out the burned exhaust gases – three-sided rotors spin inside trochoid chambers. The spinning rotor effectively opens and closes the intake and exhaust ports.

So the rotary is compact in part because it has no valve gear; the combustion chamber is in the rotor itself. Two spark plugs per chamber ignite the fuel mixed with air. It is an ideal design for the sequential twin turbocharging in the RX of '93. That is, the first of the turbos delivers boost at low engine speeds, then the second kicks in when revs go higher.

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The result is a blast of seamless power as rich and rewarding today as it was in the early 1990s. Whoooosh – the power just flows. Now being a 1993, the manual gearbox here is a five-speed and it does seem primitive. A four-speed autobox was also available back when Brian Mulroney was prime minister. A four-speed seems as quaint and old-fashioned today as drum brakes and bias ply tires.

The old RX also had a very Torsen limited-slip rear differential, a fully independent double-wishbone suspension all around with large chunks made of aluminum alloys. Pretty modern for '93. The rubber? Ultra-low-profile 225/50R16 radials tires. Yes, 16-inch wheels are small by today's standards, where 18, 19 and 20 seem almost commonplace. But this Mazda's wheels and tires were a big deal two decades ago.

This whole package does not feel much out of place when stacked against today's racy cars. Not at all. The acceleration is as good as anything you can buy for the $42,545 the '93 stickered for. The big ventilated disc brakes all around are more than able to bring things to a stop quickly and predictably. Mazda made much of the ABS (anti-lock braking) system standard on the RX, citing it as a performance advantage in cornering as much as a safety feature in emergency braking. And there was even a driver's-side air bag.

Yes, the '93 RX-7 was ahead of its time among sports cars. Unfortunately, it was too ambitious for the Mazda brand – then and arguably now. So the rotary is going to be the backup plan in a future Mazda EV, not a future RX. Sad, but true. But no one can take away the joys of the RX.

A sports car ahead of its time

The first time I drove the old, then-remade RX-7 was in December, 1991. My driving partner was Hiroshi Yamamoto, one of the lead engineers in the development team for the then-third generation RX-7.

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Yamamoto talked about the link between 40-horsepower go-karts and what was in then one of the fastest production cars in the world. He told me that's where Mazda engineers stay up to date with lessons about the importance of power-to-weight ratio in a sports car.

"We saw these small go-karts outperform much more powerful sports cars," said Yamamoto at the time. "So we focused on reducing weight and increasing power, strength and rigidity."

As a business proposition, that RX-7 was a disappointment, even a failure. Smart and capable as they were, the engineers were given too much freedom to create a pure driver's car. They didn't worry much about whether enough people could afford it. Thus, the third-generation RX-7 was more than twice as costly as the car it replaced – and nearly three times what I paid for my brand-new 1988 RX-7.

Worse, that RX-7 went on sale in the early 1990s when a nasty recession had taken hold, curbing spending on racy toys like the 1993 RX-7. Good as it was, this lightweight two-seat road-burner with the emphasis on handling, power, brakes, and more handling, Mazda Canada sold only a few hundred a year during its run. Today, they're rare and coveted by true believers.

But consider what Mazda did 20 years ago. The 1993 RX-7 was lighter than its predecessor by some 100 kilograms (220 pounds). At 1,386 kg (2,800 lbs) it was also lighter than other sports cars of that era, including Toyota's smaller MR2, Acura's NSX, Nissan's 300ZX, Chevrolet's Corvette, Porsche's 968 and Dodge's Stealth.

The '93 RX was powered by a twin-rotor Wankel rotary engine with sequential twin turbochargers (STT) that spun up 255 horsepower (compared to the previous 205). Power-to-weight ratio was increased by 25 per cent, to 11 pounds per horsepower. The result was a sports car that zooms from 0-100 km/h in less than five seconds.

The 1993 RX-7 was base priced in the mid-$40,000s, so it was not affordable for the masses, but it was it was fast, light and it looked the part. The voluptuous, curvaceous shape remains just plain sexy. In the cockpit, the driver of a '93 RX snugs into one of the two firm bucket seats. The instrument cluster has round, white-on-black oversized gauges rimmed in shiny chrome. The stubby shifter delivers short, direct throws and the airbag-equipped steering wheel is thick and grippy.

And the car remains a treat to drive. The rotary engine ladles on smooth, effortless dollops of power and is quite happy spinning beyond 6,000 rpm. In fact, the second turbo in the sequence only comes to life after about 4,000 rpm. The car is stable at high speeds thanks to perfect 50:50 weight distribution, a low centre of gravity and a rigid body structure.

The steering? Tight. The brakes? Awesome. The suspension? Hard and responsive. And road grip is managed by 16-inch wheels mounted with 225/50VR-16 radials. There was a limited slip differential, but Mazda did not go down the high-tech road of traction control, four-wheel steering and the like. That meant in 1993 you could quite easily get the rear end to step out and play and that remains so today.

This 1993 RX was a sports car ahead of its time.

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