R.I.P. Rotary: Mazda's Little Engine That Could
Mazda announced that the engine at the heart of the RX-7, Rx-8 and the Cosmos has ceased production. We eulogize the rotary and take a look at what's in store for the future. My earliest memory of the engineering marvel that is the Wankel engine, was catching a ride in an all black 1987 Mazda RX-7 Turbo II with silver BBS mesh wheels. I was probably five years old, and though the interior pretty run of the mill, the red gauges instantly grabbed my attention and I knew this was kind of a special car. I strapped myself in and we took off.
The combination of turbo boost and the small rev happy motor sounded like a high powered vacuum cleaner trying to suck a thousand angry hornets from their hive. My stomach did summersaults as we barreled down twisty Long Island back roads. I could barely see over the dash but I knew when we were about to exit a turn when I would instinctively reach out to the right or left in desperate search for something to hold on to. I’ll never know how fast we went (I could barely count), but it felt fast and that’s all that matters.
Mazda officially ended production of its legendary rotary motor at the end of June. The little motor, which served as a testament to Mazda’s superior engineering since the late 1960’s, ultimately fell victim to its own ability to conspicuously consume dinosaur juice and spew it into the environment faster than the Deepwater Horizon.
Given that minor setback, it’s surprising that the Wankel motor lasted for as long is it did. Over the course 45 years, it was in a constant state of evolution. With each new development it sought to improve fuel consumption, increase power and meet the demands of modern driving. But we’d be lying if we said we weren’t surprised the Wankel lasted this long.
First there was the issue of horsepower and torque. There wasn’t a lot of it, but thanks to the extremely compact design of the motor, the Cosmos, RX-3 and RX-7 were pretty light cars. That meant they were pretty serious performers. The RX-7 is a notorious road course champ and canyon carver, and it's been incredibly popular with the drift crowd, second only to the 240sx, due to the light weight, availability of parts, and perfect weight distribution. Mazda attempted to remedy the horsepower issue by adding a turbo, and then a revolutionary sequential twin turbo system in the late 80’s. It was a disaster.
The last generation in the form of the Renesis motor was a major advancement. It made 238 horsepower from its 1.3-liter motor. That’s a whopping 183 horsepower per liter. To put that into context, the Ferrari 458 makes 126 hp per liter, the Porsche GT3 RS 4.0 makes 125, while the Lamborghini Aventador makes a measly 107 horsepower per liter. But the RX-8, hampered by modern safety equipment (weight), the lack of edge to make it a great track car out the box (cooling issues, tires), gutless performance under 5,000 rpm and increasing emission restrictions mean it’s gone the way of trans-fats and Nutrasweet.
Mazda hasn’t given up hope on the engine yet. It has plans to resurrect the scrappy Wankel as a hyrdrogen powerplant for a hybrid or electric car. It could be an interesting combination with the electric motors providing instant torque, and the rotary providing top end performance and smooth horsepower. Other rumors mention it could be return as part of Mazda’s Skyactiv diesel program, but we’re doubtful as forced induction and rotaries have been a nightmarish combination in the past.
We’re sad to see the old rotary go, but kind of glad, as it could reenergize interest in the RX-7 and RX-8, which is always a good thing. So, if you’re in the market for a cheap rear-wheel drive car, think of a meticulously well maintained RX-7 or RX-8 as a smart purchase. We say buy.
Hot Version- RX-7 Legend
A little bit of RX-7 history. The last generation RX-7 does battle against a stock NSX-R, Evo VIII and, Subaru STi, a pretty close tuner battle is also included:
Hot Version- Battles at 10,000 RPM- A naturally aspirated RX-7 goes to work against some tuned NSXs, S2000s and an angry CRX:
Photo Credit: SPEEDHUNTERS.com, Michael Flores Photography, Mazda