We now regard Mazda's RX-7 as a true motoring icon, but back in 1979 Mazda's reputation hung squarely on the shoulders of this rotary-engined sports car
Matt Burt
19 November 2015

Autocar kicked off its road test of the Mazda RX-7 by proclaiming the model “the Wankel’s lonely champion”, with the manufacturer remaining the standard-bearer for rotary engines in road cars.

The front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports coupé was first seen in March 1978, and this magazine got its hands 
on one near the end of the following year, in line with its UK launch.

Mazda wasn’t having too many difficulties in selling the car in left-hand-drive form. In the 17 months up to the British launch, more than 90,000 cars had been sold, and production was running at around 7000 cars per week

Produced by Toyo Kogyo, as Mazda’s parent company was then called, the RX-7 was imported to the UK by Mazda Car Imports (GB) Ltd in Tunbridge Wells and sold for £8549 in the UK – a comparatively steep price compared with its US tag of $7195, which worked out at £3564.

Company chairman Kenichi Yamamoto was a passionate believer in the Wankel engine and the benefits it could bring to Mazda by differentiating it from its rivals. However, such dedication had been tempered with a more pragmatic approach, borne out of near-bankruptcy in the early 1970s, and Mazda had bolstered its range with cars using more conventional engines.

As Autocar put it: “The company has apparently persevered and flourished because of a blend of piston-engined caution and Wankel-engined enterprise.

“The enterprise has been sensibly aimed. The Wankel is not noted for good low-speed power, so they put their new-generation rotary in a sports car, where bottom-end power, though still very desirable, is not essential.”

Power for the RX-7 came from a 
twin-rotor engine that offered four times its single-rotor displacement (573cc) to give an effective 2292cc capacity. It produced a claimed 105bhp at 6000rpm and 106lb ft torque at 4000rpm.

Autocar reckoned the RX-7 was aimed squarely at the Porsche 924, with other rivals including the BMW 323i, Lotus Eclat 523, Ford Capri 3000S and Triumph TR7.

“Mazda claims to have improved on the Wankel’s other great failing, poor fuel consumption – but to what extent remains arguable. Our tests show that in both steady-speed and general respects the car is thirstier than its rivals, but again, economy is less important in the sporting market,” our testers wrote

The RX-7 won favour for its attractive shape. “The body, greatly admired by most onlookers for its apparently good aerodynamics (Mazda claims a 0.36 drag coefficient) and – unusual for a Japanese car – exemplary lack of unnecessary ornamentation, sits on an independent front end – MacPherson strut – and a live-axle rear,” said Autocar.

Less impressive was the car’s outright performance. The RX-7 recorded a top speed of 113mph but was left trailing its rivals in the 0-60mph acceleration test. Whereas the fastest car, the Lotus Eclat, set a time of 7.9sec, the RX-7 took 10.1sec.

It didn’t cover itself in glory in terms of fuel economy, either, recording 18.2mpg by Autocar’s reckoning, compared with the 27.8mpg of the most fuel-efficient rival, the Porsche 924.

“The Mazda appeals strongly to 
many people with its looks and holds the road well, but it could do with better steering. The question mark over its engine is today a faint one, but one wishes that its mechanical refinement was matched by better sound reduction,” was Autocar’s conclusion.

Previous Throwback Thursdays

4 March 1899 - Steam, electric or combustion engine? 

26 June 1906 - The first French Grand Prix

9 July 1907 - The beginning of Brooklands

14 February 1913 - 100 miles in one hour

8 April 1916 - Making post-war predictions

25 March 1922 - Caterpillar tracks are the future

4 July 1925 - Citroën lights up the Eiffel Tower

28 September 1928 - Engine tech takes a great leap forwards

2 February 1934 - The ethics of skidding

6 July 1934 - A tour of Cowley

1 June 1935 - Introduction of the driving test

22 June 1945 - Driving through post-WW2 Europe

21 January 1949 - Tidier tails

25 August 1950 - The evolution of transmissions

27 April 1951 - Frankfurt hosts its first motor show

24 April 1959 - Aston Martin enters Formula 1

16 September 1960 - The beginning of MOT tests

28 October 1960 - Economy driving 1960s style

27 January 1961 - Ford Thunderbird road test

17 November 1961 - TVR Grantura road test

10 September 1965 - The birth of modern Audi

19 August 1966 - Four-wheel drive on test

6 May 1971 - Driving Ford's Supervan

12 June 1976 - Cars for under £100

10 July 1976 - Land's End to John O'Groats on one tank

8 October 1977 - Music on the move

13 May 1978 - Ferrari 512 BB road test

19 January 1980 - Talbot Horizon road test

13 February 1982 - 4x4s tested on the farm 

17 April 1985 - Secrets of a lost British supercar

4 September 1985 - Ford's electronic test bed

15 August 1990 - Giugiaro's vision of a 1990s Jaguar

11 November 1992 - Green light for Jaguar's new E-Type

28 April 1993 - BL's unseen concepts

16 March 1994 - Bentley's Concept Java

16 April 1997 - When Bugatti bit the dust

11 October 2000 - BMW X5 Le Mans

4 April 2001 - 0-260mph in 6.0 seconds

25 July 2001 - 180mph in a Chevrolet Corvette

9 November 1934 - What is a sports car?

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Comments
1

19 November 2015
Slow, thirsty and noisy with poor steering and a primitive back axle.

One of the worst cars ever made?

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