The Joys of a Wankel
The Rotary engine broke with convention, struggled to find a home and is often overlooked.
The Rotary Engine has had its fair share of trials and tribulations, and from this has developed a dedicated enthusiast following. If you don’t want a car that eats oil, chomps petrol, and demands a strict maintenance schedule that would make a Ferrari glow a slightly pinker hue of red then you are probably already shaking your head. If above all else, you want an incredibly light engine, lots and lots and lots of revs, and a nimbleness that is hard to replicate in anything below six figures, then a Mazda RX7 or younger RX8 will feel like a soul mate when you turn the key.
The rotary engine also found a home in an eclectic mix of cars from the Citroen GS Birotor to the NSU Ro 80, but we will center in on Mazda due to their success with bringing the concept to the mass market.
First I have to sing the praises of the Mazda RX-8, especially the long-overlooked, almost unknown R3 edition, this was the last RX8 ever to be made, and between late 2009 and 2012, it was the only choice for those trying to etch out a place for the rotary engine. Now, it's much easier to take swings at the RX8 for being naturally aspirated, underpowered, and in desperate need of revs to make even mild progress. This is certainly the point when most potential buyers began to look away, mention the top tax bracket of the late RX-8’s and fuel economy to rival a Lamborghini and you wouldn’t see most people’s heels for dust. The RX-8 lived in a time when turbo hatchbacks had completely taken over, the Mk2 Focus RS lived in these years, so did the Mk6 Golf R and even Mazda themselves would sell you a more practical, more powerful, and more reliable car, the 3 MPS, for the same money.
Revving and then holding on for more power was tireless in the right circumstances
And so what of the RX-8, well it's easy to compare yourself to others but harder to accept your lot and get on with it, and RX-8 buyers were those kinds of people. The joy of 8,500rpm, and knowing that despite the horror stories, a well kept and well-maintained Wankel rotary unit is a good one, there’s a reason it won Le Mans, with so few moving parts, keep it fuelled and oiled and it should run, theoretically, forever. At least until the tips of the rotors wear out and need a replacement, this again something that Mazda worked hard on to improve on the R3 edition. I rarely make a case for a car's looks as it is course subjective, but the R3 did look like something special, added to the rareness and you could fool most people into believing you had something that was exclusive and exotic if you were so inclined.
The RX-7 was a hit for several reasons, not just the unique engine, but the mating of turbos meant that the Achilles heel of a rotary, low down torque, was never an issue. For many, this was why the RX-8 wasn’t all it should have been. The removal of turbos meant that driving at anything short of 7/10ths was relatively slow progress. There was also the smaller, lighter body of the RX-7 firmly dedicating it to an enthusiasts choice, whereas the RX-8 attempted to fit a broader audience. The inclusion of the RX-7 in the first fast and furious film gave it a glowing halo, similar to the Toyota Supra. A very tuneable and capable motor that was out of production by the time the film aired leaving a market without a product. Had the RX-8 arrived with turbo’s and stronger rotor tips when released in 2003 they probably wouldn’t be easy to buy today for less than a grand.
Aside from the application through the rotary engine should still be celebrated, having driven many, the naturally aspirated unit could be very rewarding if you were committed and the noise was unique. Standing out in a world of boxes with wheels and spoilers that were out of puff by 6,000rom, gave the rotary engine a charm. Revving and then holding on for more power was tireless in the right circumstances, unfortunately, the road doesn’t always offer up such a chance.
There is a common myth that the rotary engine needs a complete rebuild at a set mileage, some say 60 thousand, others 80. All I can say to this is that from selling them brand new there was no planned maintenance at these mileages that a dealer would do outside of consumables. One of the strengths of a rotary engine is in fact reliability. Many of you are currently chuckling, but hear me out. The concept of the design is to reduce moving parts to a minimum whilst extracting maximum power. In a four-cylinder combustion engine, there are four cylinders, four pistons, etc. In a rotary you have a triangle moving within a sculpted figure eight. The wear on components is minimized, however, the strength was a flaw. The tips of the triangle would get worn down from this movement and once this happened it could not hold compression. This is likely why a set mileage has done the rounds as a must for maintenance because at some point the rotor tips will wear and no longer be able to hold compression. This isn’t to say that all will fail, but essentially makes a very key part of the internal a consumable, and opening the engine up is the only way to remedy the situation. Regular oil popups and changes can mitigate some of this. If the oil is always creating a perfect amount of lubrication between the rotor and the figure eight then it shouldn’t wear, but any contamination or just old oil will reduce the lubrication and cause problems. Unlike a conventional engine that rarely suffers such problems.
Then there is the real reason to buy a rotary engine car, the race track, singing away at redline thousands of RPM above the peak power of its turbocharged hatchback contemporaries, then the lightness, no MX-5, but it wasn’t what anyone would describe as hefty.