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FIRST DRIVE

Rotary comeback

The Mazda RX-8 returns to the engine of the past to showcase a four-door car that still has great sports appeal.

September 03, 2003|Steven Cole Smith | Orlando Sentinel

After a nine-year hiatus, the rotary club is once again meeting at your local Mazda dealer. The Mazda RX-7, which had a heady run with its Wankel rotary engine from 1979 to 1995, has been reincarnated as a strange, but ultimately very successful, four-door sports car.

The 2004 Mazda RX-8 aims at several targets and hits all of them. It's a departure from the three generations of previous RX-7s, which is appropriate -- they were all very different cars.

The RX-7 debuted as a 1979 model, a clean, fast little two-seater that took the place of the original Datsun 240Z, which by '79 had grown into a bloated luxury coupe. Changes were comparatively minor through 1985, when Mazda introduced the 1986 RX-7, coming close to repeating the mistake Datsun made with the Z.

The bigger, heavier '86 RX-7 looked uncomfortably like the 1983 Porsche 944, but Mazda partially redeemed itself in 1987 with the addition of a turbocharged model, then a convertible. That generation sold through 1991, then the RX-7 took a year off.

It returned in 1993 as a blisteringly fast sports car that cost almost double the previous model. Suddenly, the 1993 RX-7 was competing with the Chevrolet Corvette, both in price and performance. It was an extremely successful car in every area but one: sales. The 1995 model was the last RX-7 sold in the United States. It was continued in Japan, but Mazda, then strapped for cash in the pre-Ford takeover era, could not justify spending the money to meet new federal government-required updates to sell the car here.

But now, for 2004, the Mazda RX is back, this time as the RX-8. Only one thread ties all four generations together: the rotary engine.

Granted, there's a lot of variation in the petroleum-powered engines commercially available in the American market, but scratch the surface on all of them -- whether it's the tiny four-cylinder in a Kia Rio or the massive diesel in a Peterbilt -- and they are more similar than different. All have pistons that go up and down, turning a crankshaft, which eventually turns the wheels.

All of them but the rotary. The idea for rotary engines was hatched in the mid-1800s, but it was not until 1924 when an inventor named Felix Wankel began work on the basic concept that became Mazda's rotary. To oversimplify, a rotary engine has a big oval chamber in it. Spinning around inside that chamber is a rotor, shaped like a triangle.

In a regular engine, the spark plug fires, and the explosion sends a piston down. A rod attached to the piston turns the crankshaft. On a bicycle, think of your knees as pistons, the pedals as the crankshaft.

With a rotary engine, the spark plug fires, and the explosion sends the rotor spinning inside its chamber. No up-down motion like a piston -- it all goes in circles.

The advantage? Rotary engines are smaller and lighter, with fewer moving parts.

The disadvantage? Early rotaries got comparatively poor fuel mileage, and seals inside the engine tended to harden and leak, leading to oil-burning problems that could make a rotary engine car driving down the street appear to be fogging for mosquitoes.

The engine on the RX-8 uses two rotors. It's only a 1.3-liter engine, but it pumps out 250 horsepower if you get the six-speed manual transmission. If you want the automatic, it has a still-potent 210 horsepower.

The RX-8's other claim to fame is that it looks like a two-door sports car, but it has a pair of smaller rear doors that open from the front. They won't open until the front doors are open. Although this dictates a slightly bulbous, swollen profile, it means that for the first time, a Mazda RX has a usable rear seat. It isn't a new idea -- other manufacturers have done this, most recently Saturn.

And to say the RX-8's rear seat is "usable" means that a couple of kids will fit back there. Mazda claims the rear is adult-sized, and it is, if you have munchkin-sized front-seat passengers. If you have a driver and passenger more than 5 feet tall, they'll have the seats back far enough to squeeze the knees of anyone in the rear. But still, having the back seat easily accessible is great for groceries or a briefcase, especially because trunk space is a modest 7.5 cubic feet.

All this suggests that the RX-8 makes news even before you turn the key, and that's true. But Mazda did not forget how to build a sports car -- after all, the Mazda Miata is going into its 14th straight year.

The test car was a loaded six-speed, meaning it had the 250-horse engine. Acceleration, although never blinding, is invigorating, and the slick-shifting transmission is a delight. Handling is precise and confidence-inspiring, perhaps not as capable as the Nissan 350Z Track model, but the RX-8 has a much better ride. Brakes are superb.

Inside, the leather-trimmed seats are excellent. The test car had a navigation system, displayed on a screen that folds out of the dash; it's easy to use, but it adds $2,000 to the price. That price was $33,100, up from a base price of $26,680. The automatic version is cheaper, starting at $25,180. Good luck finding one for that. Once again, the rotary revolution has begun, and the line forms to the right.

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