Mazda Sports Cars

The Mazda RX-7 quickly became a classic sports car because of its performance, reliability, and affordable price. See more sports car pictures.

As early as 1978, Mazda was experimenting with alternative engine designs, eventually refining and perfecting the rotary (as opposed to piston-driven) engine. In this article, you’ll learn about some of the classic sports cars Mazda created since the 1970s.

The Mazda RX-7 has been through quite a bit in its two decades of production. When it first appeared on the scene, the RX-7 struck just the right balance of sportiness and reliability. These two attributes on their own would have made for a fine car, but its astoundingly low price tag made the RX-7 a favorite with consumers. Going through several permutations, the RX-7 sold incredibly well, even during tough economic times in the early 1980s.


If the RX-7 seemed like a tough act to follow, the Mazda MX-5 Miata didn’t show any signs of intimidation. Simple and lightweight, it eschewed all unnecessary parts and equipment in the name of performance. Affordable pricing brought this fun, powerful car into the mainstream, and it remains one of the finest examples of its breed.

In the following pages, you can learn more about Mazda’s history, and thanks to detailed model profiles and pictures, you can keep up with the RX-7’s many changes.

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1984-85 Mazda RX-7

The original Mazda RX- 7 blended elements of several contemporary rivals without looking like any one of them.

There are three significant things about the original, 1984-1985 Mazda RX-7. First, to the delight of enthusiasts everywhere, it revived the affordable sports car after the bloating of Datsun’s 240Z. Second, it kept the rotary engine alive. Last and definitely not least, it was flat terrific.

Having made the rotary reliable -- something Dr. Felix Wankel and his cohorts at NSU couldn’t do -- Mazda nearly went under during the first gas crisis by selling it in ordinary economy sedans. The rotary was more powerful than piston engines of similar displacement, but wasn’t as fuel-efficient. Then Kenichi Yamamoto, the rotary’s patron saint at Mazda, championed the rev-happy hummer as perfect for a reasonably priced sports car. Project X605 began in 1974, was completed by late ’76, and went on sale in 1978 as the RX-7.


This was a conventional but thoroughly modern unibody hatchback coupe, with coil suspension and a live-rear-axle, recirculating-ball steering, and front-disc/rear-drum brakes. Styling mixed elements of several contemporary cars without looking like any one of them. The engine, of course, was what really made it special.

Breathing through a single four-barrel carb, Mazda’s twin-rotor 12A Wankel spun 100 hp from just 1.1 liters. It was small enough to fit behind the front-wheel centerline and made for a finely balanced "front/mid-engine" design. Zero-60 mph came in 9.7 seconds, and top speed was 118. Zesty, nimble, and solidly built, the Mazda RX-7 was a sensational value at just $6995. It was a racer to be reckoned with, as well, dominating its IMSA classes and even challenging Corvettes and Porsches in theirs. Road & Track rightly declared it "an enthusiast’s dream come true."

The Mazda RX-7's compact twin-rotor Wankel engine was placed behind the front axle for optimal weight balance; thanks to its rotary design, horsepower came on smoothly.

It wasn’t perfect, certainly. The ride was a bit stiff, the cabin cramped for larger folks, and cornering got tail-happy on bumpy or wet surfaces. But the RX-7 was a hot seller from day one.

In 1981, the S and GS models were joined by the GSL; it had rear discs, a limited-slip diff, alloys, and power windows. Capping generation one was the GSL-SE, which bowed for 1984 and reeled 135 hp from its larger, fuel-injected 13B rotary while adding Pirelli P6s, larger brakes, and upgraded suspension.

Unfortunately, currency fluctuations had pushed Mazda RX-7 prices as high as $15,295 by then. The only consolation was that most rivals cost a lot more, and precious few could lay claim to being a minor classic.

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1986-1988 Mazda RX-7

The convertible version of the second-generation Mazda RX-7 came to market for 1988 and was available in the U.S. only.

In greeting the second-generation, 1986-1988 Mazda RX-7, some journalists felt compelled to state that the original would be tough to follow. Unsaid was the equally obvious fact that the ’86 couldn’t hope to have its predecessor’s impact, for the market had changed a lot since 1978 -- more crowded and competitive than ever. Yet with a little perspective, the second-generation emerges as not only a more mature RX-7 but an eminently desirable one in its own right.

It was born in 1981 as Project P747 (a purely arbitrary number chosen to confuse outsiders). Rotary power, front/mid-engine layout, rear drive, unit construction, and close-coupled hatchback coupe format were never in doubt, but American feedback on the original RX-7, gleaned from several U.S. trips by chief engineer Akio Uchiyama, gave Mazda a whole new perspective on "RX-7ism."


Three possibilities were hatched for P747: a continuation of the existing model, an all-new "high-tech" car with electronic suspension and rear transaxle, and something in between. The last ultimately won out, but the influence of Porsche’s 944, which arrived in the program’s second year, would be undeniable. Exterior and interior design, features, packaging, and other essentials were determined through a long series of consumer meetings, with counsel from Mazda’s California-based U.S. design center.

The Porsche’s styling had "tested" well, so the new Mazda RX-7 looked much like the 944 in front. But the central body bore Porsche 928 overtones, while the compound-curve hatch and bold taillights looked like Chevrolet Camaro copies.

A disappointed press termed it all "timid" and "derivative," but at least the new shape was slipperier. The claimed drag coefficient was 0.31, and the optional Sports Package with front air dam, rocker skirts, and loop-type spoiler cut that to a commendable 0.29.

More exciting things hid beneath. Base power was now the six-port 13B rotary with electronic fuel injection, first seen in the U.S. on the ’84 GSL-SE but with 11 more horsepower and 6 percent more torque. And there was a production first: an intercooled "Turbo II" version packing an extra 38 horsepower in U.S. trim, a remarkable 182 bhp total. (The blown Wankel was only new to America, however, as Mazda had offered a first-generation "Turbo I" model in Japan.)

The extra muscle was welcome. The base ’86 weighed about 240 pounds more than the comparable ’85, and the Turbo was some 225 pounds heavier still. Dimensions stayed roughly the same though. The Turbo wasn’t available with automatic, but non-turbos were: a new 4-speed overdrive unit, replacing the previous non-OD 3-speeder.

The chassis offered more Good Stuff. Rack-and-pinion steering ousted recirculating ball, and its available power assist was a new electronic system that varied effort with vehicle speed and road surface changes. Front suspension was a simpler MacPherson strut/A-arm setup.

Out back, the old live axle was discarded for a new independent Dynamic Tracking Suspension System (DTSS). A rather complex semi-trailing-arm arrangement, it induced a small amount of stabilizing rear-wheel toe-in under high lateral loads and minimized camber changes in cornering, long a problem with this geometry.

An intended electronic ride control materialized as Auto Adjusting Suspension (AAS), two-stage manual/automatic shock damping. Finally, all models got low-pressure gas-filled shocks and disc rear brakes instead of drums, vented on the Turbo.

U.S. model choices expanded with the addition of the 2 + 2 package previously restricted to Europe and Japan. It and the familiar two-seater were offered in normally aspirated base form or as plusher GXLs with standard AAS, power steering, and a host of creature comforts.

The Sports Package, which also included power steering and firmer suspension, was limited to the base two-seater, but a Luxury Package with power sunroof and mirrors, premium sound system, and alloy wheels was optional for both it and the 2 + 2. The Turbo was a two-seater only.

Styling aside, the new Mazda RX-7s earned rave reviews. The ride was still a bit firm perhaps and the cockpit too tight for tall types, but the normally aspirated cars were usefully faster and the Turbo was a real flyer, more than a match for the 16-valve 944S in the inevitable comparison tests. One magazine said the new DTSS "occasionally out-tricks itself on the race track," but most critics agreed the new RX-7 was grippier, more nimble, and more forgiving than the old. One said it "raises the standards for sports-car performance."

The second-generation story is far from finished at this writing, and it keeps getting better. The main 1987 development was a new extra-cost anti-lock braking system for the Turbo, GXLs, and Sports Package. Also, a two-seat SE arrived during the year with mid-level trim, extra equipment, and special pricing to combat "sticker shock" caused by worsening yen/dollar exchange rates.

The plot thickens for 1988 with the first factory-built RX-7 convertible -- and rumors that Mazda may build RX-7s exclusively in the U.S., since that’s where most are sold anyway and sports-car demand is now nearly nil in Japan.

Whatever happens, the second-generation story is already a happy one. The original Mazda RX-7 may have been tough to follow, but in this case, success has bred success.

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1993-1995 Mazda RX-7

stretched tight over the tires and cockpit.

Purity of purpose is as rare in a modern automobile as it is in modern life, which is why the third-generation, 1993-1995 Mazda RX-7 was a great sports car.

Mazda had followed the successful first-generation RX-7 with a plumper model dimmed by Porsche 924-derived styling. It was a more forgiving handler than the original and, with the addition of a 182-hp turbocharged rotary and convertible body, was faster and flashier. But it wasn’t as sincere. Sports car or boulevardier? Mazda couldn’t decide.


There was nothing ambiguous about the taut little two-place coupe that replaced it for 1993. Mazda went back to basics with a simpler, lighter, more potent, more entertaining RX-7. It had nothing in common with the 1986-1992 series except rear drive and the 1.3-liter Wankel. The Japanese automaker’s California design team under Tom Matano had fashioned a genuine original, an organic form shrink-wrapped around tires, engine, and cockpit.

Compared with its predecessor, the new Mazda RX-7 was 1.4 inches shorter, 1.4 inches lower, and 200 lbs lighter. Weight savings were everywhere -- even the spark plug wires were the shortest possible length. The suspension was classic four-wheel double wishbone. The instruments clustered around the tachometer and, in time-honored sports-car tradition, were ringed in chrome.

The 13B rotary returned, but with two turbochargers acting in sequence; one provided boost at low- to medium-engine speeds, the other spooled up for high-rpm assaults. Lots of power and minimal mass is the foolproof formula for excitement, and the rotary rocket did not disappoint. Acceleration was swift, its moves were scalpel sharp. "It feels connected to the driver’s senses," said Road & Track.

The Mazda RX-7's ovoid portals led to a cabin of cozy dimensions, but handling was sharp.

But there were flaws -- a slight hesitation as the turbos transitioned; an interior of petite dimensions and ordinary materials; unreliable engine electronics; and an unduly stiff ride, particularly with the gymkhana-ready R1 option. Price was an obstacle, too -- $31,300 to start -- and insurance rates were prohibitive for many. Sales languished. Quality improved for ’94, the suspension was softened, and a passenger-side air bag joined the driver-side restraint.

But a strong yen pushed the base price to $34,000, and then to $37,500 for ’95. Mazda was stuck with so many unsold ’95s it simply didn’t import the car for 1996. In every market but Japan, the Mazda RX-7 was dead, a martyr to pure performance in an imperfect world.

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Mazda MX-5 Miata

Mazda designed a two-seater MX-5 Miata roadster to be free of unnecessary weight or features or even power.

Forget the folderol about the Mazda MX-5 Miata being an MG that doesn’t leak oil. It stands on its own as a great sports car because it’s simply a blast to drive.

The fuse was lit in the early 1980s, at Mazda’s California design center, by auto-writer-turned-Mazda-product-planner Bob Hall and by stylist Mark Jordan, son of General Motors design director Chuck Jordan. Their idea for a classic front-engine rear-drive roadster beat Mazda-Japan’s proposal for a "new-age" front-drive or mid-engine car. Work proceeded as a joint California-Tokyo project, and the resulting Miata exploded onto the market as a 1990 model.


Significantly, it was not parts-bin engineered, but was executed as an original design, a two-seat convertible laid down according to the sporting gospel of simplicity and lightweight. True, the basic 1.6-liter twincam engine could be traced to Mazda’s 323 subcompact. But it was turned lengthwise, greatly reworked, and freed of its turbocharger.

The rest of the Mazda MX-5 Miata was fresh yet familiar, a timeless idea reinterpreted for our times.

Tidy in dimension and unsullied by geegaws, the body provided enough room for a couple of six footers and a night’s soft luggage. The independent suspension used coil springs and double wishbones all-around. There was a disc brake at each corner and rack-and-pinion steering. The structure was impressively rigid thanks to computer-aided design and an aluminum powertrain truss. The top lowered in one easy motion, the ride was firm but not harsh, and the exhaust note appropriately snarly.

Mazda reworked a passenger-car four-cylinder engine for the MX-5 Miata, starting at 116 horsepower for 1990 and growing to 133 by 1995.

You could order power steering and windows, a CD player and cruise control. But these weren’t needed to enjoy the car. The MX-5 Miata seemed to have achieved a rare blend of modest but fully usable power, accessible cornering limits, and all-around good cheer. Plus, it was leak-free, and Japanese-reliable, too.

An automatic transmission was available shortly after launch, and anti-lock brakes were options for ’91. The engine grew to 1.8 liters and 128 hp for ’94, and to 133 hp for ’95. There was the club-racer R package and various luxury M editions, and base prices over the years went from under $14,000 to over $18,000. But nothing altered the Mazda MX-5 Miata’s character. It remains a communique from sports-car heaven.

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