Only NSU and Mazda have sold new Wankel-engine-powered production cars in the United States (no, gray-market Citroën GS Birotors don’t count), and those two companies worked together to develop their pistonless engines. That makes Mazda the all-time King of the Wankel, and the last new Mazda to hit American streets with Wankel power was the RX-8. Here’s one of those cars, found in a car graveyard in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Technically speaking, a Wankel engine is just one variety out of of many types of rotary engine, i.e., one without reciprocating components. Because so many early aircraft engines used a rotary design in which the crankshaft/piston assembly held still while the crankcase spun around it, the terminology got confusing when Mazda began using the rotary designation for its first production Wankel-engined cars in 1967. Eventually, though, nearly everybody came to accept Mazda’s usage, and we’ll switch to it now.
I’ve documented several types of rotary-powered Mazda during my junkyard travels, including the RX-2, REPU and, of course, the best-selling rotary car of all time: the RX-7. In Japan, car shoppers had many more options for Mazdas equipped with rotary power, including the mighty Roadpacer AP luxury sedan and the Eunos Cosmo sport coupe.
The engine in the RX-8 is the RENESIS two-rotor, which evolved from the 13B, an engine that traces its ancestry back to the Luce (aka RX-4) of the middle 1970s. According to Mazda, RENESIS stands for Rotary Engine Genesis, as in rebirth. I’m disappointed that they didn’t put in the work to make every letter of the acronym stand for something, as Toyota did with its BEAMS engine (Breakthrough Engine with Advanced Mechanism System) and Nissan did with the PLASMA engine (Powerful and economic, Lightweight, Accurate, Silent, Mighty, Advanced), because that deviates from decades of quality Japanese engine-naming tradition.
The power output you got in your ’05 RX-8 varied according to the type of transmission you selected. If you got the six-speed manual version, this 1.3-liter RENESIS made 239 horsepower and 159 pound-feet. Get the automatic and horsepower dropped to 197 while torque rose to 164 pound-feet.
This car has the automatic, which couldn’t have been much fun with a rotary engine (the RX-8 with manual is a wonderful driver). Unusually, the manual version cost more than the automatic: $26,875 versus $25,375, or about $42,752 and $40,366 in 2023 dollars. An engine that redlines at nine grand deserves three pedals.
The little suicide doors (which could be opened only after you first opened the corresponding front door) make the back seats very accessible for such a small car.
The rotor-shaped insets in the seat headrests look cool. There are Wankel-rotor-shaped decorations all over this car, in fact.
The miserable fuel economy — which barely beat that of the same-year Ford Explorer — deterred many potential RX-8 buyers, most of whom probably ended up buying Miatas. In the end, it was the nightmare of making a rotary engine pass increasingly strict government emissions standards that doomed the RX-8. The Wankel engine isn’t dead, though, especially not at Mazda. While you can’t buy a new vehicle with a rotary sending power directly to the wheels, Mazda now has a vehicle that uses a rotary to run a range-extending electrical generator, and Mazda keeps talking about hydrogen-burning rotary cars to be sold … someday.
Why is this car here? Maybe the apex seals gave up after 18 years, or perhaps it just got towed away due to unpaid parking tickets and failed to sell at the police auction.
It hugs you back!
This was during the height of Mazda’s “Zoom-Zoom” ad campaign. Mazda never did completely abandon Zoom-Zoom.
The JDM RX-8 TV commercials lack the shrieking tires and jet-engine noise that made home-market ads for Japanese cars so great during the 1970s and 1980s.