Mazda RX-8 Ends Production: Demise of the Rotary?

Mazda RX-8 Spirit R

Mazda has finally given up on the RX-8, a very good sports car with a pack of problems. The company sold only 2,896 last year, 1,245 of them in North America. Mazda, however, has sold almost 2 million rotary-engined cars in total over 45 years.

A limited edition (1,000 copies) RX-8 Spirit R (above) will be made and sold only in Japan as production ends in June 2012. It will be a trimmed-out, fancified RX-8, with tuned suspension, bigger brakes and wheels, etc.

The rotary, or Wankel, engine that has powered the RX series cars is a brilliant concept—simple, with very few moving parts, delivering very smooth power at high rpms. Mazda began development of the engine in 1961 and seemingly solved the engine’s biggest problem, compression seals on the rotor.

But there were a bunch of operating problems that never got solved—among them overheating, oil type and consumption, excessive gas consumption and poor low-speed torque.

But what seems to have killed the RX-8, finally, was Mazda’s attempt to dodge increasingly rigorous U.S. CAFE standards.

Wankel cycle animationThe Wankel engine can have a long life (200,000+ miles, per Mazda ads) if, and only if, the proper viscosity oil is used to protect the seals from failure and prevent blow-by damage to the catalytic converter.

Worldwide, the factory specifies 5W-30 oil; in the U.S., it requires 5W-20, in order to meet EPA fuel economy requirements. Web forums are full of documentation of many engine failures at 30,000 miles or less because 5W-20 oil is simply too thin to protect the engine, which will run very hot in traffic.

The company fudged the issue further by reducing the warranty from 5 years/50,000 miles to 3 years/36,000 miles in 2007 (now 5 years/60,000 miles for powertrain). All of which points to the fact that Mazda seems to have recommended thinner oil to meet U.S. fuel economy standards and keep their U.S. market open.

Now, this is a company that has produced good cars at good prices for many years. The new Mazda3 is priced even lower than last year’s model. The RX-7 burned a lot of gas but didn’t have these serious engine problems. I test-drove one in the ‘90s, and it was a blast.

But some RX-8 owners are considering a class action lawsuit, even as the company says it is working on a new rotary engine. Perhaps it finally realizes the damage that’s been done to its customer base.

Despite these problems, can the rotary engine survive? Or should Mazda just give up on it?

—jgoods

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5 Comments

  1. No, I don’t think Rotary is coming back, except for Atkinson cycle engines.
    Mazda’s “SKYACTIV-G” is strictly an OTTO cycle (Piston) engine. Direct injection and high compression ratios.

    It wasn’t very smart of them to lower the weight of the engine oil a notch in order to get a tiny bit more MPGs to help their MPG requirements, they could have just taken 50 pounds off the chassis somewhere or made a hybrid model.

  2. I’ll miss the RX8’s interesting styling. I bought an RX3 back in the early 1970’s when the rotary was fairly new on the mass production market. It was a fun car and Mazda replaced the engine for free about four years in when it failed, which was long after warranty expiration. I think the engineers were very interested in collecting long-term engineering data to make the engine better, but alas, the Wankel’s shortcomings will do it in in the long run. Too bad, I especially liked the engine’s performance when making those long runs at 90+ across the desert roads of Utah and Nevada.

  3. Sorry.. just saw you references the new engine too. I think it should survive, it’s a great engine and it would be a shame to see the rotary go.

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