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.
The 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?