No one does rotary cars like Mazda. In fact, no one does rotary cars. But Mazda may be about to return one to its line-up. We sample one it made earlier If we had a pound for every time we had cause to write that Mazda was going to bring a new, rotary-engined sports car into production, weíd have, well, about six or seven quid.
But still, another motor show looms Ė this one Tokyo Ė and itís another where Mazda will have another rotary concept. It has now been so long since it had a rotary car in its range Ė since anyone had a rotary car in their range Ė that itís worth reminding yourself what one is like.
We could have borrowed a recent car, perhaps an RX-8, but I like the purity of an earlier rotary. So weíve opted to try the first of the RX-7s Ė or near to it. This is a late first-generation car, so post mid-life upgrades, but an original RX-7 in the scheme of things.*
Mechanically, itís sound and, er, itís Ďhonestí of body Ė brushed touch-ups here and there, but straight and solid. And cute. Itís not as dinky as youíd think for a car from 1983. It sold well in the US and they donít do tiny cars, so at nearly 4.3 metres long itís a touch longer even than todayís Toyota GT86. Like the Toyota, itís a 2+2 (although American cars were two-seaters, hence the rear chairs are pretty hopeless), but the Mazda is much narrower than a car of today, at only 1675mm wide.
That much is obvious when you slip inside the carpeted, veloured interior, whose colour and finish tell you quite a lot about when this car was built. Driver and passenger are seated fairly close, but itís the proximity of the exterior and the glass area that show the carís age Ė that make you think you probably donít want to have an accident in it.
The A-pillars are tiny, so visibility forwards is exceptional, as it is to the rear. The big glass rear hatch means that the entire rear-view mirror, bar a tiny amount of head-restraint intrusion at each corner, is given over to the view behind. No modern car gives you such a good outlook.
Thereís not much wrong with the driving position, either. The seat is a little higher than in todayís coupťs and the steering column is not adjustable, but the pedals are well spaced and the steering wheel is a pleasing size. The whole thing, though, is starting to feel like a Ďclassicí. At least, most of it is. But how about that engine?
Throw open the bonnet and you get a good view of it. Mazda set it back behind the front axle, to give nigh on a 50/50 weight distribution, and itís a two-rotor unit that runs on a carburettor rather than being fuel injected. Each chamber is diddy, at 573cc. That technically gives a capacity of 1146cc, but because a rotary completes an entire combustion cycle per revolution Ė*whereas a reciprocating engine wants two revs per cycle Ė it has*the equivalent of 2292cc.
Back in the day, that was good for 105bhp and 105lb ft Ė not a huge amount, even though the kerb weight is 1024kg. But still, sprightly enough; Autocar tested the RX-7 at 120mph flat out and completed 0-60mph in 8.9sec when it was new, figures that each new generation made quicker as the power output grew.
Today, though, itís not the performance thatís startling but the engineís smoothness Ė and the slickness of the gearshift. Quite often, today, low-powered manual cars*have the sweetest gearshifts because the íbox doesnít have to be so beefy*to cope with the modest torque*output. I donít know if thatís whatís behind the RX-7ís shift, but itís as good as anything currently on sale.
It needs to be, too, because youíll want to use it to exploit the engine to its fullest. Itís tractable enough at low revs, but this is a unit that likes to spin. Throttle response is crisp and it has a lovely, sonorous sound that is impossibly smooth. Thereís no increase in harshness as revs rise and it gets no angrier and no more vibratey. It just hums, wasp-like, with a delicate, hollow rasp to the exhaust.
While much of the RX-7 feels like a classic experience, the engine doesnít. Itís no wonder thereís an audible warning from around 6000rpm that the 7000rpm redline is approaching. Keep the throttle pinned and the engine sails up to and indeed (because it has a carburettor, not electronic injection) beyond it if you donít change up again.
The rest of the RX-7 experience is more of its time. The steering is unassisted, so anything between 3.5 and four turns lock to lock, depending on how heftily youíre prepared to challenge its soft limits. And although, later in life, the RX-7 was Ė still is Ė popular with drifters, given the number of turns between locks, thatís something Iím disinclined to try with this one.
Instead, the RX is best enjoyed in the classic coupť style. It rides on 185/70 R13 tyres and has a loping, docile ride quality that makes it an easy companion, and it steers naturally and rolls up to a modest cornering limit. Itíll hold a motorway cruise with ease and, as classics go, itís remarkably usable and, from*less than £5000, not expensive Ė if you can find one.
Do so and youíll have a car that feels at home enough in modern traffic conditions and has bags of mid-to-late 20th century character, but with an engine that feels every inch at home in the second decade of the 21st century. Now weíve just got to hope that Mazda will assemble a car whose entirety is fit for today, and tomorrow. Start putting the pounds to one side. You never know when they might finally push the button.
Our top five rotary-engined cars
Mazda 787B -*Mazda is still the only Japanese manufacturer to win the Le Mans 24 Hours race outright, which it did with the 787B in 1991. It sounds as good today as it did then.
Mazda RX-7 Mk3 -*The 1991-2002 ĎFDí generation was the last of the two-seat RX-7s and the fastest and best. Twin turbochargers provided it with 276bhp, an output that is easy*to tune higher.
Mazda Cosmo -*Mazdaís predecessor to the RX series was the cute, 1967-onwards Cosmo, a sweet road car that became a decent racing car, too.
NSU Ro80 -*No list of rotary cars would be complete without the NSU, a technologically advanced and good-to-drive but fatally flawed saloon.
Mercedes-Benz C111 -*Mercedes experimented with a rotary in the early stages of its C111 series of supercars. First it ditched the rotary; later the whole project
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