ROTARY POWER TO RESTORE YOUR FAITH IN SPIN
4-door coupe scores as great drivers car at surprising price
First Wintonsworld 5 Star Award
A twin-rotor engine operates more smoothly than a 6-cylinder engine with hardly any vibrations at all
The likes of Alistair Campbell, new Labours odious propaganda meister, have given spinning a bit of a bad name lately. Maybe the rotary-engined Mazda RX-8 can do something about that.
This fabulous looking coupe is powered by a twin-rotor engine, which spins and whirls to thrust the RX-8 forward at Porsche Boxster-like speeds for Volkswagen prices.
Starting at £20,000, the RX-8 provides terrific performance, handsome looks, and four seats. It has two rear doors, hinged at the back, to ease entry for the rear passengers. The build-quality appears to match the likes of BMW and Mercedes.
And unique to Mazda (oh alright, not quite unique, Lada of Russia still apparently makes them) is the rotary engine.
Rotary engines produce a lot of power for their size, compared with conventional petrol or diesel engines, and they produce it quietly. They need fewer moving parts and are therefore cheaper to build, and more compact. The downside for these motors has been their unacceptable thirst for fuel, and their inability to curb noxious emissions, and meet standards set by governments.
Curbed The Thirst
Mazda says that its engineers have curbed the rotary engines great thirst the base 190 bhp model is said to deliver a combined 26.2 mpg, and the top-of-the-range 231 bhp car apparently does 24.8 mpg and have curbed emissions to meet upcoming Euro Stage IV.
Over the years, there have also been question marks about the reliability and longevity of rotary engines. In the 1960s, the rotary-powered NSU Ro80, and NSU Wankel Spider (Felix Wankel of Germany invented the rotary engine) wowed car buyers with performance and looks way ahead of their time. But the engines were unreliable, and were dropped after Volkswagen bought NSU in 1969.
Mazda of Japan also produced rotary engines in the 1960s including the Mazda R100 coupe, RX-2, and RX-3. It even used the engine in some small family cars like the RX-4. I drove an RX-4 in Belgium back in 1972 and its amazing performance belied its Nissan Micra or Ford Fiesta looks. It also shocked some high-performance car drivers. What was this little puddle-jumper doing in the rear-view mirrors at speeds of up to 120 mph? Alone amongst the big manufacturers, Mazda persisted with rotary power, with the RX-7 roadster the most recent iteration. Mazda won the Le Mans 24-hour sports car race in 1991 with the rotary-powered 787B.
Mazda has produced a total of over 1.8 million rotary engines, and claims they are as reliable as conventional power plants.
The Mazda RX-8 is powered by a twin-rotor engine, and using conventional measurements displaces only 1.3 litres, although other measures show it to be the equivalent of either a 2.6 litre, or even a 3.9. Unlike a conventional reciprocating engine with cylinders, the Mazda twin-rotor has triangular shaped rotors which spin to generate power. The design makes traditional crankshaft and valves unnecessary, and produces lots of power, very smoothly.
A twin-rotor engine operates more smoothly than a 6-cylinder engine with hardly any vibrations at all, according to Mazda.
50-50 Weight Distribution
The small size of the engine means it can be placed more towards the centre of the vehicle, giving a 50-50 weight distribution over the front and rear axles.
As soon as you start up the RX-8 you are aware that this is a unique machine. The rotary engine makes a strange whirring noise, which becomes more of a pleasant high-pitched but sophisticated-sounding, almost rasping whine as you move through the gears. The engine revs at much higher speeds than conventional engines, with the red line starting at about 7,000 revs and peaking at 9,400 rpm. The 192 bhp version produces maximum power at 5,000 rpm, while the 231 bhp version does this at 8,200 rpm. The lesser-powered version races from 0 to 62 mph in 7.2 seconds, the higher-powered car gets to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds. (The Boxster also does it in 6.4 seconds, although the Boxster S smashes the barrier in 5.7 seconds).
Sporty And Comfortable
The RX-8s handling is reassuring. The electric-power assisted steering feels precise and safe. The suspension double-wishbone at the front and multi-link rear does a fine job of camouflaging poor surfaces and holding the line in bends. It is both sporty, and comfortable.
The gearbox is top class 5 speeds on the cheaper version and 6 on the range-topper. The front-mounted engine powers the rear-wheels. Standard are ABS brakes, dynamic stability control with traction control, and limited slip differential.
Where Are The Speed Cameras?
Driving the car in north Wales showed the cars handling to be just fine, but it also illuminated another question. Mazda thoughtfully provide an electronic gizmo, which beeped when you approached a speed camera, and flashed the current speed limit on the screen. As you move into Wales from Manchester, towards the resort of Llandudno, the roads are littered with ugly, big- brother police signs warning you about the presence of speed cameras. Guess what; there werent any.
Driving in Wales, with its often-deserted roads, is a pleasure. But why have local governments spent huge amounts of money making sure all signs are in two languages Welsh and English? Surely there isnt a single soul in Wales who doesnt speak English? This pointless gesture is political correctness gone mad, at the expense of the poor old taxpayer.
Surely This Costs £30K Plus
Meanwhile inside the car, you would be forgiven for thinking that it must have cost way over £30,000. Leather seats fit snugly. The dashboard is classy and stylish. The big central instrument dial gives the engines revs, with a digital readout of your speed in the bottom right-hand side of the dial. The seats in the rear are a bit snug, but would be comfortable for a long journey. The rear-hinged rear doors mean that access is easy, unlike conventional coupes.
The 192 bhp version costs £20,000 on the road, including 6-disc CD auto-changer, 18-inch wheels, and climate control air-conditioning. For an extra £2,000 you get a 231 bhp engine, xenon headlights, 6-speed gearbox, and alloy foot-pedals. Leather seats cost £1,200. The boot passes the golf club test.
It might sound like spin, but this is a fantastic car, all the more amazing for its keen prices and generous equipment. The only negatives are questions about its actual fuel economy, and the less than positive implications of the Mazda brand name.
Engine - 1.3 litre rotary
Power - 231 bhp
Acceleration - 0 to 100 kph 6.4 seconds
Top Speed - 146 mph
Gearbox - 6-speed manual
CO2 - 284 g/km
Fuel consumption - Combined 24.8 mpg (claimed)
Length - 4,430 mm
Height - 1,340 mm
Width - 1,770 mm
Insurance group - 16E
Suspension - Front double wishbones
- Rear multi-link
Price - 31,000 euros
Pluses - Magnificent car, magnificent value
Minuses - Fuel consumption?
Score out of five - ***** - yes, thats 5!
Neil Winton, July 25, 2003