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Mazda's handsome new rotary RX-8 is a car like no other - brilliant and different in equal measure, says Andrew English
Want to drive something really different? How about an Audi TT coupe? Good idea, except that it's based on a Volkswagen Golf and therefore isn't all that radical.
Hello John, got a new rotor? The RX-8 has lost a few of the styling cues seen on pre-production prototypes
What else? The Jaguar X-type? Another sound suggestion but it features a whole heap of Ford Mondeo bits. Then there's Bentley's new Continental (basic engines and architecture shared with the VW Phaeton) or Aston Martin's Vanquish (Volvo air vents and a Ford-based engine). Under the skin of a Peugeot is a Citroen, VW's Beetle is a Golf and the Lupo is derived from the Seat Arosa, which was originally a toaster (or a microwave, or some such). So is there anything genuinely new under the sun?
What about a car with an engine with a mechanical principle unlike anything else? An individually-styled, four-door, four-seater sports model with its own special chassis/floorpan, reverse - aka suicide - doors (the kind of thing every manufacturer talks about but usually attaches only to motor show concept cars) and a distinctive soundtrack? Think no such car exists? Think again. Meet the Mazda RX-8.
When it first appeared as the RX-01 concept at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show, the RX-8 was a fresh vision of a how a rotary-engined car might look. Instead of single-minded, high-performance sports cars epitomised by the fiery RX-7 - for many years the only rotary car on the planet - this was a new, two-door, four-seat sports coupe.
By 1999, the thinking had become clearer. The follow-up concept, the RX-Evolve, featured the latest-generation "Renesis" naturally-aspirated rotary engine and the coupe body had taken on a sleek, one-box look with a second set of rear doors that opened backwards. As a father of two, I cheered. Here, at last, was a sports car for grown-up people with families and stuff to carry. A car for me, perhaps? I made a mental note to put the launch on my must-attend list.
With Ford's 33.4 per cent stake (and effective controlling interest) in the Japanese manufacturer, it was Detroit that made the decisions. Mazda was in financial trouble and its model range was sprawling and confused. Ford realised the rotary engine was part and parcel of what made Mazda special, however, and the RX-8 was given the green light.
Side impact: stylish doors have been reatined
It goes on sale in the UK next April, priced from £20,000 to £24,000 depending on trim and engine power, and six weeks ago Mazda flew a small group of journalists to its Miyoshi test track near Hiroshima to evaluate early examples of the new car.
First impressions are that the inspired concept has not made quite such an assured path into production. Gone are the flush-fitting door handles, gorgeous aluminium-framed seats, articulated front-door hinges and grand, wide stance, particularly at the rear. Instead the RX-8 is narrower, with a higher roofline, a distinct boot and rather more pedestrian appointments. Chief designer Ikuo Maeda admits this is partly the work of the dreaded accounts department, although it also owes something to the requirements of crash legislation, practicality and weight limits. He is proud that the bold wheelarches made it to production almost unaltered, less pleased that he had to make the RX-8 100mm narrower than the concept: "That extra width allowed the form to live a little more."
While the RX-8 is certainly handsome from the front and side, it has some staggeringly ugly perspectives and the rear is disappointingly like a family saloon. Those backward-sloping C-pillars are reminiscent of the unlamented Vauxhall Tigra or even Ford's Anglia, both of which I thought we'd wrapped in a binliner and buried for keeps in Epping Forest.
The designers have done a fair job of replicating the concept's sumptuous interior, even if aluminium is used only for trim panels instead of spars. The leather seats are well plumped, comfortable and supportive, while the long central tunnel is peppered with clever storage bins.
The rear seats might look cramped, but they can (just) accommodate two tall adults. Ingress is awkward, however, and is easier with the front seats slanted forward (although they don't have a quick-tilt mechanism). The rear doors cannot be opened unless the fronts are, too, so back-seat passengers are effectively imprisoned, staring out of a tiny side window that only hinges open by about an inch, until someone lets them out. Why didn't Mazda fit a mechanism to allow rear passengers to free themselves?
With a virtual B-pillar, integral crash beams, locking pins, clever latches, side and curtain airbags, the pillarless body is claimed to be safer in a side impact than that of a similarly sized four-door saloon. Mazda has thought through the details carefully and the doors work better than those on General Motors' Saturn coupe or any American pick-up truck.
The facia follows the pattern set by the recently launched Mazda6, with instruments in thick cowls, piano-black lacquer panels and high-tech circular displays for heating, air-conditioning and the ancillary controls. It's attractive, but perhaps a little too brittle and shiny for European tastes. It is practical, however, with lots of storage space and a deep boot that Mazda claims will take two golf bags (although on closer examination, we found the display bags were devoid of clubs). The driving position is good, even though the steering lacks fore-and-aft adjustability, and the seats provide excellent side support.
In a spin: the RX-8 rotary engine
Mazda has completely redesigned its twin-rotor engine. The exhaust ports have been reworked to improve economy and provide better emissions control. The seals have been modified, too, and have a target life of almost 150,000 miles rather than the previous rotary's 65,000. Throughout the launch, you could hear the crump of heavy hints being dropped. This isn't going to be the only sports car based on this floorpan There might be a turbo version of the engine It might power a reborn RX-7...
Mazda could never recoup its research investment on one model, so it's a fair bet we'll eventually see at least a couple more rotary-powered models.
Turn the key and you hear that typical rotary whirr. Blip the throttle and the rev-counter needle flips up and down with no increase in the noise level, just a change in pitch. You need to make full use of the available revs, but the relationship between engine management, clutch and throttle is refined and changing gear is never a hardship.
Performance isn't a patch on that of the old, sequentially-turbocharged RX-7, but the RX-8 wears its sports car tag with pride - particularly the 237bhp version, which is not only livelier but also easier to drive. However, it is debatable whether you need six gears in a car that revs to 9,000rpm and doesn't have a huge amount of torque. The more powerful RX-8 can just about accelerate in top gear, but essentially it's there to boost cruising economy. Top speed is probably going to be about 140mph and the dash from rest to 60mph will take 6sec. No one wanted to talk about fuel consumption because they are still working on it, but one engineer let slip earlier this year that a typical EC Combined figure (the average of EC Urban and EC Extra Urban) would be about 22.2mpg.
The global road circuit at Miyoshi features a wide variety of surfaces and many different types of corner - around the world in 3.4km (2.1 miles), basically. I completed seven laps and was mightily impressed with both car and track. Compared with its unwieldy and occasionally frightening predecessor, the RX-8 handles beautifully. It feels balanced and grips valiantly, even when cornering at high speed over Belgian-style cobbles and Italian-standard level crossings.
The electronic stability system allows the back to slide a little before it reins things in but, unlike many rival systems, it doesn't push the car straight on in corners. With the stability control switched off, the RX-8 proved to be very controllable machine, with none of the unpredictable oversteer that could make early RX-7s awkward to tame.
For a sports car, the RX-8 has a fair bit of body roll. While this would hold it back as a track-day machine, it provides feedback and comfort on the road without impeding handling. When pressing on, however, you need to brace yourself against the clutch foot rest and draw on the full support of the seats, which rather betrays the car's role as a carrier of precious cargo, such as children.
The quality of the test cars was a bit variable but, on the best models, the ride was excellent, especially over road ripples and small bumps. The electronically-assisted steering system doesn't provide the feedback of, say, a Ford Focus, but it is sensitive, accurate and lets you know what the front wheels are doing. The all-round disc brakes are powerful, despite the use of single-sided calipers, and there is good pedal feedback.
All the while the little engine, about the size of a beer barrel, whirred away. On a couple of occasions, I let the revs climb past the limiter's warning beep (shame they dropped the bell that did the same job on the RX-7) and it just kept going. At 9,100rpm my nerve gave out, but the engine remained willing. It is a remarkable thing and perhaps we should be thankful that Mazda has persevered with it.
The RX-8 is brilliant and different in equal measure.
As this year marks the 100th anniversary of rotary inventor Dr Felix Wankel's birth, he should be spinning in his grave with delight.
Price/availability: 189bhp version about £20,000, 237bhp version about £24,000. On sale April 2003
Engine/transmission: Wankel twin-rotor, naturally aspirated rotary engine with side porting; 189bhp at 7,000rpm, 162lb ft of torque at 5,000rpm or 237bhp at 8,200rpm and 156lb ft at 5,500rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox (189bhp) or six-speed manual (237bhp), rear-wheel drive.
Performance: top speed about 140mph, 0-60mph (237bhp model in 6sec, EC Combined fuel consumption about 22.2mpg, CO2 emissions n/a.
Worth considering: Audi TT coupe, from £24,100. BMW 3-series coupe, from £21,875. Honda S2000, from £25,995. Nissan 350Z, from about £24,000.
History of the Wankel
Invented by Dr Felix Wankel and pioneered by NSU, the rotary engine first ran in 1957 and was available commercially seven years later, when the NSU Spider went on sale. The rotary's early years were dogged by slow development, poor reliability and heavy fuel consumption. Although interest in the project was high, NSU was too small to underwrite full development costs. To raise funds it sold complicated and often conflicting licences to produce and develop the engine, which resulted in numerous companies doing nothing but banking cheques as middlemen.
The first real rotary disaster was the NSU Ro 80, which was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1967. Beautiful to look at and lauded as a visionary four-door saloon, the Ro 80's unreliability was soon apparent. The engine suffered a high rate of wear and was prone to failed seals and cracked gears.
It is said that just two companies ever mastered the Wankel rotary engine: Daimler-Benz and Mazda. Daimler's engineers developed it using friction-reducing coatings and silicon carbide seals, which represented cutting-edge technology at the time. The company's fuel-injected, three- and four-rotor engine was fitted into the futuristically-styled C111 sports car concept and shown around the world in 1968/69. Despite great interest from potential buyers, Daimler's conservative board decided the C111 should not be tested on the public and in 1973 the oil-price crisis finally sealed its fate.
Toyo Kogyo, as Mazda's manufacturing arm was then known, bought a licence to develop the Wankel in 1963. Under the leadership of inspirational engineer Kenichi Yamamoto, Mazda spent $50 million and experimented with aluminium-sintered carbon, a new material, to solve the sealing problem. In 1967 it launched its first rotary-engined car, the Cosmo 110S (below), and made 232 of them. By 1972, Mazda sold 42,609 rotary-engined RX-2 saloons in the US alone. General Motors drove investors into a frenzy by obtaining a licence from NSU. The influential Ward's Automotive Report was predicting that by 1980 the Wankel engine would power more than half of America's 13.5 million cars.
But it wasn't to be. The Wankel is thirsty and has a tendency to produce a lot of unburnt hydrocarbons in its exhaust. Stricter emissions legislation and rising fuel prices caused some of the world's biggest manufacturers to lose interest, although Mazda kept faith. It refined its operation and began using the rotary mainly in sports cars. It also powered the Le Mans 24 Hours winner in 1991.
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