Mazda's final RX-7 seemed to have it all: great looks, performance and grip. Yet as Andrew Frankel discovered, reality failed to match the myth
It was only a few years ago but it still seems hard to credit there was a time when every successive Japanese car seemed to redefine the class in which it competed. It mattered not whether it was a Nissan Micra changing forever the way we thought small cars could be built or Toyota's Lexus LS400 achieving standards of ride and refinement which made Jaguars look crude.
It was the early nineties and it appeared that no trick was too great for the Japanese. The Mazda MX-5 blew apart our preconceptions about sportscars we could afford, then the Honda NSX did the same with those we could not. I remember sitting down to dinner with a number of British car designers and asking what was to be done about it.I was met by a number of long faces and a few queer looks. No answer was given in the long silence that followed. It ended only with a question. "Well have you got any ideas?"
To some, the Mazda RX-7 was the most frightening of the lot. This was 1992's RX-7, not its undistinguished predecessor. It was, if the purple prose tumbling from America where the car was first driven was to be believed, an outstanding car, which recent precedent suggested was no surprise. But it was exquisitely, astoundingly beautiful too, and this was new. Look at the cars mentioned above and none, save the MX-5 is what you the vernacular would describe as a looker. And the little Mazda only looked cute because it borrowed its lines from a 1960s Lotus.
The RX-7, significantly, borrowed scarcely a curve. Having mastered producing cars that were better to drive than anyone else's, the Japanese now seemed to have made them better looking too.
For the Euro-establishment, this was critical. While accepting pure computer power could create superior dynamics, no one mentioned Europe's styling houses could be so preposterously yet convincingly challenged too. Mazda's lithe new RX-7 said otherwise. Yet it seemed to me, when the RX7 fell finally into my hands, five years ago, that someone wasn't telling it like it was. Some of the disparity between the RX-7 I had read about and that which I was now driving could be explained by the fact that Mazda launched the car in the US in road-racing form. Called the 'R1' it sacrificed much of the addenda tacked onto the car I drove in the interest of light weight and its attendant extra agility and pace. Sitting in leather lined, air-conditioned, cruise-controlled comfort, it struck me that, for all these extras, something rather more important had perhaps been lost.
Even so, there was much beneath the looks (which, to this day attract my eyes like few other road cars), about which there could be no argument. It was quick to 4800rpm and, when the second of its sequential turbochargers kicked in at that engine speed, it was close to ferocious. The twinrotor Wankel motor was uncommonly smooth, too. It also got around the corners at an unlikely speed for a frontengined car. I remember trying to keep station with one across country in a Porsche 968 Club Sport, no mean performer itself, and giving up after few miles indeed.
Given the above you will have perhaps yet to figure why the words 'rotten apple' appear at the end of this page. The answer is in the details. It annoyed me that I, a large but scarcely freakishly proportioned driver could find no approximation of a decent driving position. It wasn't that relationship which exists between driver, steering wheel, pedals and gear-lever so much as a simple lack of space. Perhaps the less generously padded would not have noticed.
Nor might they have noticed too, the derivative dashboard with its 911-style central rev-counter; they might not have minded either. Less easy to forgive was the flat note of the rotary engine. For a car to look and perform like this but to sound rather less interesting than an electric hedge-trimmer stands in this book as a grave fault.
Yet this was nothing after the RX-7's most startling flaw. On the limit and in need of a favour, it was no friend. I went to Goodwood with one and was dismayed by its dull steering and scared by unintended oversteer in a way I thought road cars had abandoned years ago. Nor was I alone. A former Grand Prix driver who had cause to drive one rang me to ask if it was actually meant to be like that. I devised a test which involved driving on the limit around a steering pad in ten different sportscars, lifting off the throttle at a given point to see what happened next if no correction was applied. Some spun gently inwards, some gently outwards, some wouldn't even oversteer. The RX-7, with no time for such conformity, threw itself clean off the pad and was heading for the bank when I decided that now was a good time to break the no correction rule.
I never really trusted the RX-7 again. In future, I stayed away from its limits, not specifically because I felt any real danger lay there but because I knew that, unlike so many others, there was no fun to be gained from the visit.
The RX-7 never did hit the big time over here, despite its obvious appeal and swingeing price cuts. Innate British snobbery could never quite reconcile a car so fast and attractive with the Mazda badge on its nose. To this day, I miss its looks but not, for a second, the way it drove.
Verdict: Rotten Apple.