Felix Wankel didn’t even have a driving licence, let alone an engineering degree. Despite lacking what might be judged pre-requisites for inventing new forms of automotive propulsion, Felix developed an engine that wasn’t compromised by the reciprocating mass of pistons, crankshafts or valves.
He developed an engine that used a triangular rotor, the points of which make contact with the walls of a chamber shaped like a pinched oval as it spins around a central cog. Beyond having a name that made schoolboys giggle, the Wankel rotary engine had the advantage of light weight and only one moving part – the rotor.
Mazda took over development of the Wankel in 1961 and have since sent 1.8 million of them spinning out into the world, most notably in the turbocharged RX-7. And while the ‘7 attracted a cult following, it never quite broke into mainstream conscience.
Mazda realised that many of its potential customers have friends or, worse, children. For the RX-7’s successor, they needed a four-door practical sports car with a sense of individualism.
The second Wolverine roared off-set in a blue Mazda RX-8 during X-Men 2, this car’s fate was sealed. Owning one would be the closest you could get to growing claws. Eager Hugh Jackman-wannabees forced their deposits into the hands of their ecstatic local dealer, keen to secure their place on the rapidly lengthening waiting list.
This latest incarnation of the Wankel rotary, dubbed Renesis, is available in two versions: the Standard Power edition, tuned for torque rather than out-and-out power, matches 189bhp with 162lb/ft at 5,000 rpm. The High Power edition produces 228bhp but less torque peaking higher up the rev range – 156lb/ft at 5,500rpm. While some buyers find the Standard Power more driveable, with only a £2,000 difference between the two around 80% of buyers opt for this, the High Power model.
Those 228 horses are channelled to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission, pushing the Mazda to 60mph in 6.4 seconds and on to a 146mph top speed. Not bad for a car with a 1.3-litre engine.
The Renesis rotary engine certainly produces one of the most unusual sounds you’ll hear in any car. There’s a turbine-like wail as you head towards the 9,000rpm redline, and a correspondingly glorious high-pitched whine on the overrun that’s not unlike a jet engine winding down.
Power delivery is almost perfectly linear and, with two rotary units mounted in 180 degree opposition to each other, remains smooth and vibration-free throughout.
As you’d expect for a power plant that’s light on torque, it’s best to keep it spinning to make the most of the available performance. While there’s no refinement penalty for doing so, it will quickly impact on fuel economy. Government figures show 25.2mpg on the combined cycle, but we achieved something between 15-20mpg on our test. Emissions are concerning, too, at 284g/km although both models are Euro IV-compliant.
Previous rotary units were plagued by concerns over rotor tip wear and oil consumption. Mazda engineers believe the Renesis unit has cured the rotor issues for good, but with an official recommendation to check the oil level every other fuel fill-up, it’s clear Felix’s creation still likes a drop or two of Castrol’s finest.
Out on the open road, it’s easy to leave fluid addiction issues behind you. While the ride is unquestionably on the sporty side of firm, it doesn’t cross the line into discomfort. The compact dimensions of Dr Wankel’s invention allows its fitment lower and further back in the chassis than a conventional engine, ensuring an ideal 50/50 front/rear weight distribution and a low centre of gravity. As a result, the chassis has a neutral stance, with the front end gripping decisively leading to rapid, roll-free changes of direction. With the traction control deactivated (pressing the DSC button once allows some loss of grip while holding the button for longer disables the system), power-on oversteer is available although provocation is required. Overall it’s safe, but grippy, fun.
From behind the wheel, the view ahead is dominated by the cowled central rev counter, with its embedded digital speedometer. The wheel itself adjusts only for height and not reach, and the handbrake hasn’t been relocated for right-hand drive so it creates a barrier with the steering wheel precisely where tall or long-legged drivers will want to place their left knee. There’s also a curious lump in the floor-pan either side of the transmission tunnel that can make entry tricky as it restricts where you can put your feet while climbing aboard.
Once installed, while the cabin feels narrow and headroom for tall drivers is eroded by the sloping sides of the roof, the seats are comfortable and there’s plenty of legroom, although the pedals are offset a touch to the right.
Access for rear seat passengers is through the rear-hinged suicide doors – dubbed ‘Freestyle’ by Mazda – made easier by tilting front seats. It’s a shame the front seats don’t return to their original position, and with the seat adjusted for a tall driver rear seat passenger space will be all but eliminated. There’s also nothing to stop the front and rear doors being shut in the wrong order, and on more than one occasion an uneducated passenger slammed the rear door into the already shut front door.
Elsewhere in the cabin, the triangular motif of the Wankel rotor pops up both inside (gearstick, head restraints) and out (bonnet, rear foglamp). The controls themselves are easy to find and understand, and the stereo, co-developed with Bose, is excellent, adjusting volume automatically based on road speed and interior noise.
The on-the-road price of £22,100 includes electric windows and mirrors, ABS with EBD, nine-speaker Bose stereo system with 6-disc changer, climate control, 18″ alloy wheels, xenon headlamps and alloy pedals. To that, we added satellite navigation (£1,500) which also bizarrely requires the optional leather seats to be added at another £1,500, and metallic paint (£300), bringing the total to £25,400.
Most dealers have pre-ordered stock available to choose from as long as you’re not too fussy about colour or spec, otherwise factory orders take 4-6 months.
Residual values are currently very firm for nearly-new vehicles, thanks to restricted supply and the RX-8’s standing with the fashionistas. Mazda targeted the company car driver with the RX-8 and have cleverly worked to keep the purchase price low to offset the high emissions and therefore reduce the tax liability. Private buyers may find the running costs too high to justify buying new, but with an excellent chassis, characterful and linear power delivery and space for four people, the RX-8 may prove itself as a canny second hand buy when the first used examples hit the market.
An agile chassis complements the unusual engine. It’s powerful, but peaky, and you’ll need to stir the stubby gearlever frequently to make useful progress. Mazda have worked hard to keep the price down. Could be dismissed as a toy for company car drivers, but they’ll no doubt enjoy every minute in it.