Instant Heritage

After three generations of the self-styled 'legendary' rotary-powered RX-7 sports car, Mazda is a feared worldwide combatant in the two-seater market. The latest RX-7 is now available in the UK at £34,000 and is a successful attempt to combine significant speed and affordable creature comforts in a stylish fixed head.

Following the MX-5 and a surprise 1991 Le Mans victory, Porsche's well publicised problems and the brutally abbreviated life of the last Lotus Elan, Mazda's western opposition seems scattered.

No longer exhibiting Porsche styling cues and attracting copycat charges, Mazda has opted for a swoopy outline and curvaceous glass that is more likely to be imitated than imitative.

Old habits die hard however, and the big tachometer within looks like the Jones units we often find in big American racing saloons. The interior itself is not a £34,000 class act. Too many cheap trims are on display, particularly in the doors: was the priority low weight or low cost in this area? The well balanced (50/50 weight distribution) front rotary, rear-drive formula has a new, lightweight suit that weighs 209 lb less than its predecessor at the kerb. Most dietary thanks go to a fundamental rethink and details such as thermoplastic panels, aluminium wishbones, hubs and jack. Some of the foot pedals (brake and clutch) are drilled in the old Fiat Abarth tradition.

The cockpit is no longer two-plus-two but a simple two-seater with storage lockers where the old 'plus-two' midget accommodation might have existed. However, standard equipment is far more extensive than before, embracing very effective air conditioning, cruise control and all the electrical assistance you might expect at this price, including the sun roof.

Weighing 2789 lb and powered by a twin version of the twin rotor (13B) motor, the RX-7 has opted to offer serious performance in civilised style. The tiny turbos are arranged to run sequentially, succeeding in overcoming low rpm lag.

Unfortunately, both a Motoring News colleague and I occasionally found hiccoughs on two demonstrators, when attempting the middle range rpm transformation to twin turbo boost. It was fine on full throttle, a very satisfying "whoosh" of immediate acceleration underlying Mazda's claim of 0-60 mph in just 5.3s. On part throttle, there were some definite flat spots.

Peak power is now a substantial 237 bhp at 6500 rpm (from 1308 cc!). Maximum torque is 218 lb/ft at 5000 of the 7000 permitted rpm; a beep tells you playtime is over. The trouble is that the rotary is such a smooth performer that unleaded fuel disappears at prodigious rates: Mazda talks of 23.5 mpg "over a mixed variety of road conditions," but the urban figure is quoted as 17.7, and many owners are unlikely to exceed 20 unleaded mpg.

We drove this sophisticated lightweight over 100 Leicestershire and Derbyshire miles. Cabin noise levels were notably low, even under hard acceleration, and the ride was excellent at all but town speeds on poor surfaces. We avoided investigating the claimed 156 mph maximum as our route march was dogged by an unmarked police Scorpio.

These comfortably rapid miles culminated in a session at Donington Park in the company of former Mazda MX-5 UK Cup champion and current British Touring Car Championship Mazda driver, Patrick Watts.

Owing to photographic commitments with the TVR Griffith (see this month's full test), our laps in the RX-7 were confined to a couple of sample laps alongside Watts. Then came three with the Mazda master sitting alongside our short circuit assault. Inevitably the mischievous Patrick saved up his bravest instruction for the last lap with the writer at the wheel.

Plunging down toward Craner Curves at 120 mph, he commanded: "Come on. You've seen me do it. Flat through the left. Leave your toe down."

Gulp.

I gripped the leather rim hopefully, eased the power-assisted rack into the hidden left-hander, hoping to coax the Mazda through this demanding task uneventfully. Bridgestone 225/50 Expedias on large (8Jx16) alloys cooperated. The RX-7 rushed into the dipping curve without a wriggle. Neither did the newcomer need special treatment to exit the corner cleanly, allowing the briefest smirk of self-satisfaction to develop, a smirk that should be credited to Mazda Motor Corporation and its engineers.

Under sustained braking into the subsequent hairpin, a quartet of 11.7 in vented discs performed reassuringly, not even alarming the ABS under severe deceleration.

It is not often that a pure production car loses weight as the generations develop around extra standard equipment. Nor is it often that such a popular car impresses us just as much on the track as on the road.

The RX-7 suavely achieves both objectives and sets new benchmarks in many areas, standards that others will struggle to emulate at any cost. J W