A Small Fury

The Cult Appeal of the Mazda FD RX-7


October 5, 2015 Cars By
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Back in what seems like another automotive era, Japan used to make some truly great sports cars, like the Toyota MR2 and Supra, the Honda Prelude, the Nissan 300ZX and, of course, the beloved Mazda RX-7. The third-generation FD RX-7 stands out as iconic not just for its sublime design, but also for its sporting capabilities and the adoration it garnered from driving purists. Of all the Japanese sports cars on the stage in the 1980s and 1990s, only one was powered by a Wankel rotary engine, a revolutionary and controversial choice for a modern automotive powertrain. Through three generations of the car, the RX-7 kept the rotary engine, and the car kept on improving in power, performance and design — and the FD was the culmination of all developments.

What It’s All About

By the time the third-generation car bowed, the RX-7 was already a cult favorite and had the makings of an automotive legend. The FD clinched that status. The size and positioning of the RX-7’s rotary engine allowed for excellent weight distribution and a low center of gravity, lending to great handling, but the FD took that baseline and increased power, improved driving dynamics and offered a proper sports car look. The exterior design of the first-generation FB looked clean, but it lacked drama. The second-generation FC looked like a poor man’s Porsche 944. But the third-generation FD, made by designer Yoichi Sato, was utterly curvaceous, tip to toe, without looking cluttered.

Though flip-up headlights generally look antiquated, the low profile quad versions on the FD work. They barely rise out of the sculpted hood, not detracting from the overall fluidity, even when deployed. The rounded hood is mildly dramatic, while the swoopy profile, which includes door handles integrated into the window trim and small, crisp fender vents, represents excellent execution of overall automotive vision. Front and rear overhangs are barely noticeable, giving the FD a powerful, compact look. Even the spoiler and taillights are tasteful and tight.

The experience of driving the FD RX-7 was also nothing short of fulfilling. It was raw, fast, thirsty for petrol and fantastically rewarding. For a turbocharged car, it was ahead of its time, and the perfect 50/50 front-rear weight distribution and low center of gravity made it rapier-like in turns.

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Technical Rundown

The FD housed a 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine that was ideally situated directly behind the front axle. Three outputs from the rotary engine were available over the FD’s lifetime: 236, 255 and 276 horsepower. The rotary engine was used for multiple reasons. The unusually high output for such a compact engine was impressive, as was its stratospheric 8,000 rpm rev limit. Furthermore, since a rotary engine’s cylinders rotate around the crankshaft, it had no need for a big heavy flywheel, since there were no reciprocating components to cause engine vibration. This kept both the weight and size down. Compression ratios are higher for rotary engines, enabling it to churn out more power compared to similar displacement and sized engines.

Power was also aided by the first mass-produced Japanese sequential twin-turbo system in the FD. The first turbo (10 psi) kicked in at lower engine rpms (1,800), while the second one (10 psi) activated at higher rpms (4,000) — and the handoff occurred around 4,500 rpms, keeping acceleration smooth despite some lag — and the torque curve impressively linear. The five-speed manual transmission was notchy and precise, and the combination of all of these components, along with a 2,798-pound curb weight resulted in a car that was incredibly rewarding to drive on the street and around the track.

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Why It Matters

The likelihood that Mazda will bring back some version of the RX is unlikely. The 2001-2008 RX-8 was aimed less at enthusiasts and more as a mainstream sporty coupe. The FD RX-7 stood apart in terms of design, power and handling. It was a true driver’s car that still has a strong cult following today. It had a dramatic personality thanks to the rigid chassis, light weight and the high-revving engine. In the amateur racing/tuner crowd, FDs abound thanks to its performance abilities. It’s a true sports car that just happened to have a rotary engine, and the kind of unique vehicle we may never see again.