“Are you serious?!”
The incredulous PR team from Mazda and Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony all shrieked in unison. Surely I was joking.
“You’ve never driven a rotary before?”
I really hadn’t. I’d heard of them of course. I’d been on the fringe of hushed conversations about mighty, V8-slaying monsters of the past like the RX-3, RX-7 and even the RX-8. I’d grown up watching 80s era RX-7s take on monster Holden Commodores in the Australian Touring Car Championship (now V8 Supercars). I knew about the mythology behind the Wankel Rotary, but no, I had not driven one.
I didn’t think I’d get to either. The RX-8 debuted in 2003 for the 2004 model year, but by the time 2012 came around, declining interest and heightened emissions tests conspired to end Mazda’s run of rotaries. There hasn’t been a rotary engine since.
How fortunate then, that the history-minded folks at Mazda Canada would see fit to keep one in their collection. Even better, their shock at my admission seemed to make them forget who they were talking to – they were actually going to let me drive one!
Quickly, and excitedly I checked the stats – 232 hp didn’t really sound mind blowing to me at first. Then again it only weighs 1,373 kg. Also it’s only a 1.3L engine. Well, sort of. The two-rotor engine displaces 654cc in each rotor but a conventional four-stroke engine uses two revolutions to produce the power that a rotary produces in one.
“Wait, so a rotary is a lot like a two-stroke?” – I’ve ridden two-stroke motorbikes, they are brilliant. I’d heard the RX-8 was a lot more mild than the twin-turbo RX-7 rotaries, so I was a little bummed that I was trying the “soft” rotary, but not for long.
This particular RX-8 has the six-speed manual gearbox, with one of the cutest shift levers ever designed. It’s shaped like a rounded triangle, and for the first three days I had the car I kept thinking, “What’s this rounded triangle shape that keeps popping up in this car? There’s even one in the rear bumper… did the designer really like child-safe three-sided shapes?” It wasn’t until halfway through the week that I recognized the shape. It’s the holiest shape in the church of Mazda. It’s the shape of the rotors at the heart of this engine and all that came before it.
2011 Mazda MX-8, dashboard. Click image to enlarge
I was thinking of the lineage of rotary vehicles as I settled into my seat, thinking of the practical but potent little Mazdas of the 70s, and the fire-breathing RX-7s. Fondly, I remembered my friends in Australia from back in the day, many of whom quoted “Fast Fours and Rotaries” magazine like it was their bible. All of whom had a rotary poster of one kind or another blue-tac’d to their bedroom wall.
I was thinking about the fact that there are no rotaries in mainstream road cars anymore, and how this was the last of its kind. In that first moment of reflection, I found myself getting back out, taking time to walk around the car and take it in.