- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2007

In this competitive automotive world, the big guys can afford to try to be most things to most everybody. But even they must distinguish themselves. For smaller operators, a distinction is almost a necessity.

As a result, different vehicle companies cherish certain characteristics. Porsche specializes in rear-engine sports cars. BMW sticks to in-line sixes over V-6 engines. Subaru (and Porsche, too), uses horizontally opposed engines. Toyota makes more hybrids than anybody. Jeep and Land Rover are known for off-road capability.

Over the years, Mazda has mustered a variety of power plants. Besides piston engines, it offered a Miller-cycle engine (in the now-defunct Millenia) and a rotary engine in the RX-7 and now the RX-8 sports cars.

The rotary was invented by a German, Felix Wankel, who produced the first running prototype 50 years ago. Unlike anything in the panoply of engines, it uses a curved triangular rotor in a figure-eight-shaped chamber.

More than four decades ago, Mazda — to distinguish itself — bought the rights to the Wankel rotary and became the only manufacturer to develop it. Its first model was the 1967 Cosmo Sport, a two-seat sports coupe, and now Mazda is celebrating its 40th anniversary as the only rotary-engine purveyor.

There have been potholes. The early cars backfired, spewed smoke and got lousy gas mileage. When the Arab cartel shut off the oil spigot in 1973, the rotaries tanked. But Mazda rescued itself with a small piston-engine car, the GLC (for “great little car”).

By 1978, Mazda was ready to have a go again, this time in a sports car: the RX-7. It was a leap in technology and popular with a small band of technology-minded enthusiasts. But it was ill-fated as well. Declining sales led Mazda to dump it in 1995.

But the rotary fans were not to be denied. After a hiatus of almost a decade, Mazda engineered a comeback with the 2004 RX-8. Once again, the company rolled to a different exhaust note. (Cliches aside, that”s the automotive equivalent of marching to a different drummer).

Three years later, sales are slipping again, but the RX-8 remains a technological marvel. The 2007 model”s engine displaces just 1.3 liters, with two rotors inside two combustion chambers. There are no valves. Somewhat like a two-cycle engine, the fuel-air mixture and exhaust gases get in and out through ports that are opened and closed as the rotor spins.

Unlike a two-stroke, however, Mazda“s rotary has power with low emissions. But the engine doesn”t develop a lot of torque, or low-rpm pulling power. Most of the energy develops as the revs build.

That requires a bit of skill with the clutch and shifter if you”re driving the six-speed manual-gearbox version, which at 232 horsepower is more powerful than the 212-horsepower model with the six-speed automatic transmission.

But on the automatic, the torque shortage is barely noticeable. Press the pedal, and the power simply comes on as the revs build. The automatic is well-matched to the engine, so the shifts are mostly unobtrusive. If you want a sporting feel, there are four paddles on the steering wheel. Use your fingers to upshift. Thumbs down gives you a downshift.

The beauty of the RX-8 is that it satisfies sportsters who can”t abide a two-seater. Either they have children or need to transport more than one passenger, whatever. The RX-8 has two honest rear seats, accessible through rear-hinged side doors that can only be opened after the front doors are opened.

There”s room back there for several adults, as long as the driver and front-seat passenger are willing to move their seats forward by a few inches or more. But the convenience of the four-door configuration cannot be overstated. Even if you”re not carrying extra passengers, those rear doors make it easy to toss a purse or a coat into the back seat.

There”s only eight cubic feet of trunk space, which is compromised by a spare tire and could be enhanced if Mazda changed to run-flat tires.

With the small rotary engine nestled low and toward the back of the engine compartment, the rear-drive RX-8 has the handling nirvana of 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution. Mazda“s engineers also managed to maintain a rigid body structure, despite the lack of a center pillar between the front and rear doors.

Inside, the driver and passengers sit low, as befits a sports car, protected by side air bags and side-curtain air bags.

Instruments and controls are laid out efficiently, though there”s only a digital speedometer. The test car also lacked automatic climate control, the steering wheel tilted but did not telescope, and there”s horrendous glare from sunlight reflecting off shiny trim on the dash.

The tester was the top-line Grand Touring model, which had a base price of $32,365. That included stability and traction control, antilock brakes, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a motorized sunroof and a six-disc CD changer. With options that included a rear spoiler, navigation system and Sirius satellite radio, the sticker came to $36,333.

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