Mazda's rotary engine is still going strong in the new RX-7

With race-school instructor Randy Baker in the driver's seat, the Mazda RX-7 turbo zooms around the blacktop oval of the Atlanta International Raceway. A glance at the speedometer shows the needle nudging 135. That's miles per hour, not kilometers. I'm quite content to remain in the passenger seat at those speeds.

Even the Georgia State Police are interested in the car and are talking about using one -- unmarked, of course -- to chase some of those high-speed Chevrolet Corvettes that are giving the highway patrol so much trouble.

The RX-7 turbo is agile, superfast on the straightaway, and super-stable on the curves. For control under stressful conditions, the manufacturer's Dynamic Tracking Suspension System is in the front of the pack.

Whether the car is too fast for the American highway is something else again. In any event, it won't reach the showroom till sometime next year. I'm told there is only one turbo in the country right now -- the one in which I've just had a ride.

Meanwhile, the second-generation nonturbo version of the rotary-engine RX-7 -- all new from front bumper to taillights -- is very much on the road and looking for buyers. The car is every bit as nice as the upcoming turbo, if not as fast.

Indeed, the RX-7 is just as slippery, or aerodynamic, as it looks. The drag coefficient (Cd), at 0.31, is even lower than the Porsche 944 or Ford Motor Company's 1986-model Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. An optional aero package, including a rear spoiler, drops the Cd to an even lower 0.29.

Not only is the RX-7 a highly refined sports car ``for the masses'' due to its price, but it also is the only production car in the world with a Wankel-design rotary engine, a propulsion system which the rest of the world's auto industry has turned down. Kenichi Yamamoto, who as head of Mazda research and development for many years led the development of today's highly crafted, smooth-running rotary engine, is now president of the parent company, Mazda Motor Corporation of Japan.

For the 1986 RX-7, both engine horsepower and torque are increased. Brakes are power-assisted 4-wheel disks. An anti-lock braking system, an option in Japan, is on the way to the United States, but may not reach here for a year.

The car feels tight, its flowing lines are pleasing to the eye (as was the earlier RX-7), and the inside layout and control items are all placed in the right location for visibility and ease of operation.

Clearly, the world-class RX-7 is aimed at European drivers as well as those in the United States and elsewhere. It comes as either a two-passenger model or a new 2-plus-2, but with the latter option you may not want to go any farther than the end of the driveway. The ``back seat'' is not a pleasant spot to spend an hour or two on the road.

The first Mazda RX-7 was introduced in the US in May 1978 and immediately took off -- a distinctively designed car with a smooth yet perky rotary engine under the hood and a price that most buyers considered just about right.

The Mazda-maker still knows the way to put a car on the road. The RX-7 is a sports car to be reckoned with.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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