Top Gear’s Bargain Heroes: the mk3 Mazda RX-7

  • When was the last time you saw one of these? Seeing a Mazda RX-7 in the UK is rare enough; spotting one that hasn’t been adorned with a Veilside bodykit and had its horsepower doubled is a tale very few can tell.

    But doesn’t it look great? Crisp, clean and just simple. The best car shapes always are. Pop-up lights, weeny wheels and a long, retractable aerial immediately date stamp it as a product of the early 1990s, but it still gets plenty of attention. All who approached us to ask what it was were staggered this example is now 22 years old.

  • The Mazda RX-7 was produced from 1978 to 2002. The car we’re focusing on here is the third-generation model, introduced in 1991, and known better by the code ‘FD’.

    Like its predecessors, the FD’s power came from a twin-turbocharged, twin-rotor wankel powertrain. A compact unit, its displacement totals 1.3 litres.

    But its unconventional power delivery ensures it punches harder than its diminutive size suggests; peak outputs are 237bhp at 6,500rpm and 218lb ft at 5,000rpm. Enough, when a car weighs just 1,310kg, for a 5.1-second 0-62mph time and 156mph top speed.

  • In UK cars, anyway. Japanese market cars actually produced around 250bhp. But with just 210 FD RX-7s officially sold in the UK between 1992 and ‘95 – from a total of nearly 70,000-strong production run – you’re far more likely to encounter an example imported from overseas. And even likelier still to find one that’s had a fair bit of aftermarket work done.

    “Around 90 per cent I see have been modified,” RX-7 specialist Pip Gardner, from WGT Auto Developments, tells us. “They range from mild to wild. I had one recently with the best part of 500bhp.”

    It’s time to revisit the RX-7 to see if its driving experience is as fresh as the styling, and why the heck anyone would want to more than double its power output. Also, with prices starting at £7,000, we’ll see if you should think about buying one…

  • How it feels to drive today

    To answer this, you first need to get into the RX-7, which isn’t the work of a moment. The high-rise door handle is easy enough to find – the car is so low it practically sits at normal height anyway – but descending into its squashy leather seat and folding your legs under its ginormous, non-adjustable steering wheel is much trickier. Even for a five-foot-nine shorty like me.

    Once in place, it’s reasonably comfortable, but the taller among you might be put off immediately. If you’re thinking about buying and modifying one, a less cumbersome steering wheel might just have pushed itself to top of the list.

    From there, you discover a lot of heft in the RX-7’s controls. The steering is full of weight, the gearchange very muscular and the clutch pedal in need of a proper prod. This car does not make light work of urban driving.

  • But that really isn’t what it’s for. Its shape may suggest GT car, but its slim weight figure, prosaic equipment list and lack of space all scream ‘sports car’.

    Get to your favourite piece of road and it initially feels like a bit of a softy. There’s body roll when you start to push, the car leaning this way and that as the steering weights up. Rather like a modern-day MX-5 in that regard, then.

    These are helpful warning signs in an older car, though, one without any modern electronic helpers. Push beyond its inherent softness and the RX-7 can get a little spiky, mainly when it’s wet. But with such modest torque from its wankel engine, you’re unlikely to be caught out unless you’re using the throttle with considerable vigour.

  • It’s at its best driven smoothly, with thoughtful, minimal steering inputs and the aim of smoothly flowing down the road rather than attacking it like a special stage.

    Then, the power delivery feels perfectly matched to the chassis. In the RX-7’s lower gears, there’s a real punch from just below 3,000rpm, the power then building progressively right to 6,000rpm.

    If we can be nerdy just for a tick, the engine’s two turbos work sequentially. The first kicks in from 1,800rpm, before the second takes over at 4,000rpm. The handover is impressively smooth, and overall, this doesn’t feel vastly different to modern turbocharged cars.

    Just a shame that beyond 6,000rpm, there’s no real incentive to keep wringing the engine out. When the red-line starts at seven and the dial contains a nine, that’s a bit of a damp squib.

  • But with Ford Focus-like mass to shift, it’s still a rapid car. A Focus ST or RS would probably be the quicker machine, but acquiring then maintaining speed in those just won’t be as special.

    And with its engine so smooth, there’s way more refinement here than you might expect. There are still GT car genes. Despite having only five gears, it’s quiet on a motorway cruise, and feels barely in its stride at 70mph. I suspect the RX-7’s natural cruising speed is probably much higher, and that it would like to sit at a number that wasn’t as strenuously policed back in the early ‘90s.

    Passing time on a journey is fun, too, every window and mirror containing wonderfully sculptured bodywork. It’s a fun car to be in and around. You won’t be able to resist twisting the end of the indicator at the merest hint of dusk, just to bookend your forward visibility with its joyously antiquated lights. Indeed, when RX-7 production came to a close, it was one of a handful of cars still hanging onto pop-up illumination.

  • But despite my excitement to drive an unmolested Mazda RX-7, it’s easy to pinpoint why there’s such a thriving scene for tweaked FDs.

    More top-end response would be something I’d look for, as well as sharper focus to the suspension to tie down a bit of the pitch and roll. Not night-and-day changes; I don’t crave a 500bhp Fast and Furious extra. Just an RX-7 that’s more sports car than tourer would be spot on. I’d happily trade on-road refinement for on-track riotousness.

  • That doesn’t have to mean heading to the aftermarket, though. Poor sales may have stopped Mazda importing the RX-7 to the UK after only a few years, but production continued until 2002, with various Type R and Spirit R versions upping the ante over standard.

    Most exciting of all was this run-out special, the Type R Bathurst. Just 500 were made, with 276bhp claimed (it’s politely suggested this one puts out a fair whack more) and its lighter 1,260kg kerb weight helping it to a 4.7-second 0-62mph time and 160mph top speed. But, more crucially, a more enthralling driving experience, too.

  • Almost inevitably this one has had a few mods – a titanium exhaust and some uprated suspension – and the result is an RX-7 with sharp edges to its dynamics, one which demands some respect, but is utterly joyous when you step up your own talents in order to explore its. The intense kick as its second turbocharger steps in is an experience to behold.

    If, like me, you like the idea of keeping a car standard, trusting in the thought processes of the engineers who made it, this is the RX-7 you need for thrills.

    On the other hand, if you see your potential new ‘90s coupe as a blank canvas that’s ripe for changing, then this Bathurst ought to be a wonderful source of inspiration.

  • What to watch out for

    “Engine life is always an issue,” WGT’s Pip Gardner tells us. “The vast majority of engines have been rebuilt, but you want details of when it was done, and by who.”

    Rebuilding an RX-7’s engine costs in the region of £3,000 before VAT, and it’s the inevitable conclusion of bad maintenance. Like any rotary engine, it will drink oil. While Mazda reckons on 500ml per 1,000 miles, Pip says twice that isn’t unusual. Make sure it’s topped up with proper mineral oil too, not synthetic or part synthetic alternatives.

    An oil and filter change should happen every 3,000 miles, while awkwardly located fuel filters mean those are often neglected when to comes to maintenance. Don’t be shy in asking frank questions about how well a car’s engine has been looked after. It’s key to avoiding that dreaded rebuild.

  • Also investigate how the car has been used. Frequent short journeys aren’t ideal, and if an owner never takes the car above 4,000rpm, the second, underused turbocharger can have issues. Find out its driver’s behaviour, and be sure to use all of the power if you buy one. Some genuine Top Gear consumer advice, that.

    A compression check is vital whichever RX-7 you’re looking at, and it needs to be done with a bespoke piece of equipment thanks to how unusual its powertrain is.

    An RX-7 should start without hesitancy whether the engine is hot or cold, and any troubles could be a hint that an engine rebuild is due. A rough cold start, meanwhile, could imply a water seal issue, something also signalled by mayonnaise-like substance under the water filler neck. The fix? You guessed it, an engine rebuild…

  • “Gearboxes are relatively bulletproof,” says Pip, “but check to see how fifth engages.” A crunch could suggest the synchro is damaged, and you’ll want to budget £400 for the repair. Should be easy enough to haggle from the price if you identify the problem to the seller.

    Listen for a knocking from the rear suspension, another known weak spot, while the door handles, inside and out, can be a bit brittle too. When they stop working you can need an entire (and expensive) door lock mechanism.

  • And now we come to modifying. Of course. “Cars with up to around 400bhp are relatively reliable,” says Pip. “Over that, you’ll need lots more maintenance and the engine needs to be very well built. You can see 360bhp with bolt on parts and without touching the engine.”

    He recommends properly poking around RX-7s that have been lowered, too. It can affect the operation of the pop-up lights, while some cars have had the plastic liners removed from their wheel arches, which can lead to moisture getting into the car and damaging its electronics.

    It’s not a car particularly prone to rust, Pip assures us, but those which have spent their whole life in the UK will be more likely to suffer. Like with any oldie, a proper hands and knees inspection is vital, and getting a coat of underseal once you’ve bought a car is never a bad idea.

  • How much to pay

    This varies wildly depending on age, condition and what sort of power, suspension and bodykit it’s packing. But note that the prices of really cared for original cars have been creeping up over recent years.

    Minimum you want to pay is £7,000, which appears to be enough to secure a UK car with 90,000 miles or so and standard (or lightly modified) specification. At the other end of the scale, some people will ask £20,000 for the same car in tip-tip condition and a far smaller number on the odometer.

    Is it worth that much? Only you, the buyer, can really decide. But if a car’s engine has been cared for properly, higher mileages shouldn’t be feared if they make a car vastly more affordable. And smaller mileages can hint at underuse, and the problems that brings with it.

    What you’ll pay in between those sums is entirely at the behest of your budget, and the spec you’re after. If you’re keen to stay relatively standard, then the more desirable Japanese market cars, such as the various Type R versions, can be had for around £13,000 in good nick and with circa-70,000 miles. With so few cars officially sold in the UK, it’s worth embracing the idea of JDM examples unless you have the patience of a saint.

    Just be rigorous with your checks, and ready to haggle whenever you think something might need a fix, or if you spy modifications you’ll be eager to reverse. And don’t get carried away busting your budget paying for mods you really don’t want.

  • “Why I love mine”

    Mark Riccioni is onto his third RX-7. A firm fan, then.

    “Back when I was 19, it was the first ‘proper’ sports car I ever bought. I was determined to get maximum horsepower for minimum wedge, and a good example could be had for as little as £4,000. The other options were a hot Honda or a Nissan Skyline, but they were always stolen or crashed. RX-7s seemed to go under the insurance radar, probably because so few existed on the roads in an actual working state.

    “They’re great-looking cars, and of all the ‘90s Japanese motors they’ve probably aged best, along with the NSX. It’s always a good talking point as very few people know what they’re even looking at, not to mention the noise, which becomes seriously addictive!

    “I’ve owned my current RX7 – a 1999 Type RS import – for just over two years now. It looked seriously ‘90s when I bought it – loads of fibreglass, a giant wing and three-piece wheels – but mechanically it was sound and I’ve had just under 10,000 fault-free miles ever since. It runs a single-turbo conversion (which does away with the horribly complex sequential setup), Alcon brakes and lightweight Volk Racing wheels to name a few upgrades.

    “I think part of their attraction is down to the stigma associated with rotaries. Plenty of people love the idea of owning one, but don’t want the hassle if, or when, it goes wrong. Truth be told, they’re no more of a hassle than any other ‘90s turbo car: give them time to warm up and cool down, change the oil every 3,000 miles, and run them on super unleaded. You won’t regret it.”

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