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Cars Worth Noting: Mazda RX-8

Mazda RX-8

Mazda made its name in America in the early 1970s with a Wankel rotary engine propelling most of its cars. By 1973, they had climbed to fifth in U.S. sales with 92 percent of its 119,000 sales, rotary powered.

With its only major moving part a triangular rotor spinning in a cocoon-shaped combustion chamber through intake, compression, combustion and exhaust cycles, the rotary’s appeal was a combination of compact size, smoothness, pleasing power and high-rpm zing. But it soon revealed a dark side: a drinking problem (fuel and oil consumption) combined with reliability, durability and emissions issues.

Bad word-of-mouth and the ’73 fuel crisis squashed U.S. sales to 61,000 in 1974, but the company moved quickly to proliferate piston power through its line while improving the rotary for performance models, striking gold in 1979 with the RX-7 sports car, the most successful model in IMSA racing history. Rotary-powered prototypes scored U.S. and international victories including the 1991 24-Hours of LeMan. But when Mazda dropped its third-generation RX-7 in the mid-’90s, the rotary was history.

Or was it? The ’03 debut of Mazda’s RX-8 4- seat sportster marked the rotary’s return in much-improved form after an 8-year hiatus. The 1.3L two-rotor RENESIS (Rotary-Engine Genesis) engine pumps 238 eager horses through a 6-speed manual, or 197 through a 4- speed automatic. The car’s shape is sinuously sexy, its front-facing rear doors and pillarless body offer easy access to a reasonable rear cabin, and its front mid-engine/RWD layout gives a low center of gravity and perfect 50/50 weight distribution for racer-like handling.

At roughly $27,000 and 18/24-mpg economy, the RX-8 still imbibes too much gas and (according to owners) oil as part of its unique character. But it’s a genuine driver’s delight.

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