In a world of progressively swelling curb weights, Mazda's RX-7 was a rare and welcome anomaly. Penned by Miata designer Tom Matano and built with such an excruciating eye toward weight reduction that its wiring harnesses were redesigned to shorten the wire lengths, the third generation RX-7 - sold here from 1993 to 1995 - held the distinction of being not only lighter, but also smaller and faster than the car it replaced.
The RX-7 also stands as a sterling example of why enthusiasts make lousy focus groups. "Give us something purpose-built," they said. "Give us something without extraneous gingerbread. Give us a pared-down, track-ready street car and, by God, give us something that takes skill to drive!"
Mazda gave those enthusiasts a car that was, in a market saturated with turgid Japanese GTs, a lean and finely honed tool. A car that, as it turned out, tested the resolve of those who thought they wanted a sports car. The RX's unforgiving suspension was seemingly the result of collusion between engineers and chiropractors with boat payments; it not only kept the car planted but also randomly shifted the stack of bones in occupants' spines. Masochists of all stripes were even more impressed with the soft-as-a-diamond, showroom-racer R1 model. "Out in the real world, [the RX-7] proved to be an unmitigated bitch," said Automobile Magazine's Rich Ceppos of their long-term test car. "The insult [it] delivers to your body cannot nearly be offset by its otherworldly performance." The RX's wide tires made the car tramline through pavement ruts and tire grooves, and its lack of luggage space prevented it from being useful on long trips. Loving an RX-7 required the same oath of fealty that a Lotus Esprit demanded of its owner: The car owned the driver, and the driver was bent to its will.
That so many people fondly reminisce about the RX-7 is a testament to selective memory: Everyone remembers its chest-knotting performance but forgets that Mazda couldn't give them away. Sales in 1993 were a meager 9477 units, and they nose-dived to 500 by 1995. Before pulling the model from our shores, Mazda managed to move fewer than 14,000 examples - nearly as many F355s as Ferrari delivered with a dealer body 1/20th the size.
Not that marketplace acceptance matters to the faithful that congregate at sites like rx7club.com, whose 10,000 active members log in daily to discuss their pistonless rides. Yahoo! lists no fewer than 15 clubs devoted to the RX-7, more than exist for every BMW M car ever produced, combined. What unifies them is the RX-7 owners' rallying cry, which runs something like this: "Our cars are so singular of purpose that they separate the true believers from the poseurs out there - to be one of us, you have to live what you preach, not just be in love with the concept of sports car ownership."
And they're right. Dancing with a third-generation RX-7 is an enervating affair, but it gives back in equal proportion to the effort put in. The steering is light and quick to react, requiring constant attention to prevent the RX-7 darting off on new and uncharted vectors, yet it always transmits a feeling of connection with the road. The layout is mid-front engine, with the drivetrain set back so far that nothing, save a radiator and steering parts, extends past the front wheels. With 50/50 weight distribution and a low polar moment of inertia, the car is balanced yet twitchy - it has a tendency to initially push through corners before transitioning quickly, almost abruptly, into oversteer. The RX-7 doesn't suffer novices, and those who don't have a good grasp of when to feed in countersteer will find themselves backing into stationary objects at high speed.
But forget about tracking the car for a moment, because it's speed - sheer, unadulterated speed - that is the RX-7's most bountiful gift. Sixty comes up in 5.1 seconds, and owners we spoke to tell us that even higher-mileage cars can fire off a high-13-second pass at over 100 mph. Braking is equally impressive, due to the RX-7's unusually low curb weight - 2800 pounds soaking wet - and vented front and rear rotors. The car we found for this article was sporting new tires and Hawk HPS brake pads, which helped pull it down from 60 to 0 in 114 feet.
Credit is also due to the drivetrain. Mazda's aged, twin-spinner 1.3-liter rotary engine, is here mated to two turbochargers that operate sequentially: A smaller turbo comes online at 1800 rpm and runs out of breath around 4000 rpm, at which point a larger turbo grabs the baton and runs clear up to RX-7's 7500-rpm redline. The result is smooth, linear power delivery that lets the rotary pull trough the upper gears without any of the peakiness expected from such a small engine. The 5-speed transmission, which was built with double-cone synchronizers for smooth shifting, hasn't fared well over 14 years of owners flogging them. More than one owner told us of recalcitrant gearshifts chattering on downshifts and frequently slamming into the gate between first and third when upshifting quickly.
The RX-7's interior is a mixed bag of '90s Japanese curves and '80s Japanese materials, with a vinyl-covered dashboard that sweeps into the door panel, and a hard, creaking, black-painted plastic center console that has failed to age gracefully. The tach sits in the center of the gauge cluster, in the driver's line of sight like a vintage Porsche, while full instruments flank it on either side. The glovebox is a novelty piece, and miniature storage compartments scattered around the cabin are entirely the wrong size to hold anything of substance.
The RX-7 was originally a right-hand-drive car for the Japanese market, and small vestiges of its heritage remain: the parking brake handle, for instance, is on the right-hand side of the center console, which necessitates copping a feel of the passenger to release it. That niggle is more than offset by the wonderfully firm cushions of the RX's sport seats, which offer magnificent thigh support and keep the driver from sliding around, even if the side bolsters feel as though they have been filled with marshmallow cream.
The RX-7 also came with a roadgoing version of the Bose Acoustic Wave radio. With nine feet of six-inch-diameter plastic intestines snaking around the rear cargo hold as a sounding tube for the subwoofer, this audio set up is best known for blocking access to the spare tire, with the side effect of producing a tangibly small quantity of bass.
Mazda referred to the RX-7 as a "pure sports car," and there's no doubt that it is, but the third-generation RX is so much more. It is a triumph of devil-may-care design over corporate bean counters. It is a cautionary tale, the kind that parents tell to their children when they want them to grow up and design economous anonyboxes. And most of all, it is a solemn validation of the familiar epigram: "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."