Product Preview:RX-8 sports car uses Wankel engine to become wild on wheels
Mazda revs up rotary
By Dan Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
HIROSHIMA--Mazda Motor Corp. communications staffers describe RX-8 designer Ikuo Maeda as "pretty wild" -- which is what they want buyers to think of their new flagship sports sedan.
"Ikuo is difficult to pronounce so somebody nicknamed me 'Speedy,'" Maeda said. "I don't know what that means."
But it sounds dangerous, which is great for a sports car designer. Indeed, without even considering the RX-8's most distinctive feature -- the latest evolution of the Wankel rotary engine -- people who see the four-seater RX-8 for the first time will be hooked by Maeda's aggressive, slightly eccentric design.
The RX-8 lacks a center pillar and the front wheels are awfully close to the bumper. They also stick out, suggesting a sneering lip in front, which contrasts with a busy rear tail light cluster.
The car's zoomy, if severe, design masks an equally idiosyncratic centerpiece -- the Renesis rotary engine.
Now the only rotary engine in production, Renesis shares DNA with the original Mazda rotary from the 1967 Cosmo 110-S and cuts down on traditional rotary problems -- high emissions and low fuel efficiency. The improvements resulted from re-positioning the engine's intake and exhaust ports (rotaries don't have conventional valves).
But why would anybody want to take a gamble on an engine with a bad history?
From a consumer perspective, a rotary takes up less space and weighs less than a traditional engine, making for a lighter, zippier sports car.
For Mazda, the engine is a quirk with no analog in the car business and signals the start of a new era for the Japanese automaker.
Noboru Katabuchi, RX-8 program manager, insists that the RX-8 is "not the replacement for RX-7," the fabled sports car Mazda mothballed in the 1990s.
But a new RX-7 program almost certainly exists at Mazda. The company will say only that it is waiting for consumer reaction to the RX-8 before giving the green light to a new RX-7.
If Mazda makes it, the RX-7 would be more expensive and more powerful, but built on the same architecture as the RX-8, which Mazda calls its "next-generation sports car platform."
More future products based on the RX-8 could include coupe and convertible models, and a hot-rod Mazda Speed version.
In the RX-8, the Renesis rotary is mated to a six-speed manual transmission. An automatic transmission with wheel-mounted paddle shifters is available, too.
The car features center-opening doors, a front-midship engine placement -- which increases lateral rigidity for greater stability -- rear-wheel drive, a low center of gravity and 50-50, front-to-rear, weight distribution.
These dynamics allow the RX-8 to voice its soul through the steering wheel, pedals, and shifter. With some chassis work done at Mazda's Laguna Seca raceway in California, this car goes fast, and handles beautifully.
Rookie rotary drivers will have to get used to cruising at a significantly higher rpm rate, as rotary engines rev higher than traditional power plants.
But this should appeal to the same younger drivers who like "peaky" vehicles -- think the Honda Civic Si -- which also get power from high rpms.
Even without turbocharging, the RX-8 marshals about 250 horsepower, the same as the 1995 RX-7 turbo.
Hiroshi Kinoshita, of Mazda's RX-8 rotary engine engineering group, said there is only a "very small chance in the future" that Mazda will turbocharge the RX-8, mainly because the vehicle's engineers don't want a turbo lag in this car.
Still, Joseph Bakaj, head of product development, says the car has the "potential to go higher on the power in mid-cycle."
Inside, the RX-8 sports two-tone leather bucket seats. All-black leather is also available. Artful rotors grace the front fascia, seat backs, and shifter casing.
The instrument panel features a prominent tachometer and the speedometer is a tiny digital gauge in the lower corner of the tach.
Drivers command electric power-assist steering and a super-sleek gear shift wrapped in black leather, with a chic shifting pattern that looks like a gray-cased wristwatch.
The cockpit also features a nice circular audio system with piano black finish.
Two different chassis -- standard and high-power -- anchor the RX-8, which features a new double wishbone front suspension and a multilink rear. A Bosch stability control system is also a feature.
Mazda plans to make 30,000 copies a year, which are expected to sell for about $30,000 when they go on sale this summer. Key competitors include the BMW M3, Honda S2000, and Porsche Boxster.
By virtue of its engine, the RX-8 is the most iconoclastic car in this segment, and maybe the entire automotive world. Other companies have long since abandoned rotary engine programs, mainly because early Wankels were notoriously high-polluting lemons.
General Motors Corp. spent millions developing rotaries in the 1960s, planned to put them in Corvettes and Chevy Vegas, then walked away when fuel and emissions problems couldn't be solved.
But Mazda stuck with it.
"When Mazda bought that engine, they placed a very huge bet on it," said Charlie Hughes, president of Mazda in North America. "Getting that engine to work was essential to Mazda's growth, and at one point, its survival."
Mazda has relentlessly pushed the technology. No longer is the best descriptor for the engine "needs work" or "weird." And owing to an improved rotary, the RX-8, like its designer, is "pretty wild."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....