Motoring: The Independent Car Test: A mighty Mazda makes light of an early attack of the shakes: Ignore the wooden ride and ragged low-speed response, says Roger Bell. The latest RX-7 offers more car for less money than any of its competitors

Mazda's latest RX-7 has been hailed as a new champion. The opposition, Porsche included, is said to be reeling. But the third-generation RX-7 is no paragon, far from it. The subject of such glowing pre- launch reviews, it was almost bound to disappoint in some regard, and initially it does.

Before exploiting blistering performance and knife-edged handling, you must come to terms with an uncomfortably wooden ride and an engine that is reluctant to pull cleanly in stop-go traffic. The RX-7 is much easier to drive smoothly when speeding through the gears than it is when dawdling in town.

Mazda is the world's only car maker to persevere with the rotary engine, invented (but not perfected) by Felix Wankel in the Sixties. Although uncannily smooth when extended - a buzzer sounds to warn against over-revving - the RX-7's twin-

rotor engine, bereft of vibrating pistons, is still blighted by two innate flaws: high fuel consumption and ragged low-speed throttle response.

Come to terms with these shortcomings and Mazda's new two-seater sports coupe is an exhilarating driving machine, a junior supercar of real class and distinction. Strikingly shaped (by Mazda's US design studio) and light in weight, the new RX-7 squares up with real authority to Porsche's 968.

The turbocharged engine is carried over from the previous model, although output has been boosted from 200 to 237bhp. It is the new rear-wheel-drive chassis that raises the RX-7's game to benchmark levels.

The obesity that mars some rivals has been avoided by making the RX-7 no bigger than necessary to carry two adults and their luggage. For six-footers, it is barely big enough. Where the old car had kids' seats, there are now cubbyholes to augment the shallow boot. You sit low in an attractive, sculpted cockpit behind a steering wheel with an airbag for crash protection. Most of the switchgear is just where you want it, although the gearlever - stiffer and notchier in action than that of most Japanese cars - obstructs the radio controls.

Other equipment includes anti-skid brakes, cruise control, leather trim, an electric sunroof, air-conditioning, six-

speaker stereo and powered windows and mirrors. Too much equipment for a sports car? Perhaps. A stripped-down lightweight for the serious enthusiast is a future possibility, but do not bank on it being any cheaper. With Porsche's Carrera RS lightweight, you get less car for more money.

Chrome-rimmed instruments, haphazardly arranged but clearly seen, are redolent of a style that went out in the Sixties. Nothing else is. Embracing seats help to mask the car's skateboard-on-cobbles ride, its jitterbugs amplified by thuds and rumbles from the tyres. Against this rumbustious background noise, totally absent 30 years ago from the mould-breaking E- type Jaguar, the sweet engine is very quiet. Wind whoosh, too, is subdued, so the car cruises quietly.

Firm suspension is necessary to keep the wide tyres square to the road, all the better to grip tenaciously. Nothing less than mighty cornering and braking powers are expected of a modern sports car, although the featherlight steering is more in keeping with American tastes than European. Pin-sharp handling and fine traction is backed by scorching acceleration. Porsche's 968 cannot quite keep up, although the German car's fuel consumption is significantly better.

A three-year, 60,000-mile warranty backs the pounds 34,000 RX-7. The price is steep, but the rewards are great. Porsche beware.

Specifications

MAZDA RX-7, pounds 34,000. Engine: twin-chamber turbocharged rotary developing 237bhp at 6,500rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 5.8sec, top speed 155mph. Fuel consumption: 16-22mpg.

Comparisons

AUDI S2, pounds 28,940. Double the number of seats for less money. Performance of five-cylinder turbocharged engine similar to RX-7's. The catch? Audi is an accomplished car but not an inspirational one like its Quattro predecessor. Mazda is less practical, more fun.

NISSAN 30OZX, pounds 32,775. Bigger, heavier and roomier, it nevertheless rivals the Mazda on performance and profligacy, thanks to its lusty V6 turbocharged engine. Formidable slingshot with fine handling, rear-wheel steering and questionable traction. Not for the faint-hearted.

PORSCHE 968, pounds 34,945. Face-lifted development of the 944 goes hard and handles brilliantly - but the RX-7 has its measure, except on economy. Fine driver's car, beautifully made and finished. Comfortable seats compensate for harsh ride.

RENAULT A610, pounds 37,980. Striking, rear-engined supercar powered by potent V6 turbocharged engine. Terrific performance, safe handling, but lacks Mazda's agility. High price and modest image ensures exclusivity in UK.

(Photograph omitted)

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