The Mazda RX-7: no more wrinkles in the Wankel engine

The Mazda RX-7 rolls merrily on its way, the only rotary-engine vehicle on the road. Even the huge Volkswagen organization in West Germany got out of the ``rotary business'' when it ran into problems with its own version of a Wankel-run vehicle a few years ago. General Motors backed away from the rotary after it spent an estimated $50 million on the project.

What it shows is the dedication and technological thrust of the Japanese carmaker to seize upon a new idea, improve on it, and make it work in the automotive society that exists today.

The rotary engine, brainchild of West Germany's Dr. Felix Wankel soon after the end of World War II, almost destroyed the stubborn Japanese carmaker in the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.

But Toyo Kogyo, as the company was known until a few months ago, refused to give up on the concept.

The company found a ready market in the United States for an unorthodox engine that went h-m-m-m-m. Remember the RX2, RX3, RX4, and the Cosmo?

In 1978, with all the other RXs gone, the company came out with the 2-seater RX-7, a super sport that quickly made the grade. And it's still on the move for the sports-car buff.

For '85, the RX-7 comes in four performance and trim levels: S, GS, GSL, and the all-new GSL-SE. The rotary power plant in the first three designations puts out 101 horselpower at 6,000 r.p.m. compared with the GSL-SE's 135 hp. at the same engine speed.

One fact about the Wankel engine is its fast, vibration-free performance. Even the smaller engine whisks the car from 0 to 60 miles an hour in less than 9 seconds.

Mazda also ships the front-drive GLC and the luxury-bent 626 to the United States, the former with a 1.5-liter, 86 hp. engine and the 626 with a 2-liter, 84-hp. engine. But it's the race-honed RX-7 that stirs all the excitement.

Indeed, the Wankel engine has come a long way from the oil-embargo days of more than a decade ago.

The limiting factor in the RX-7 is the fact that it's a 2-seater which, in turn, rules out a bunch of potential buyers. Lack of space!

As with any sports car, however -- open top or not -- it is exciting and fun to drive. It isn't just a Point-A-to-Point-B-type car, but something extra special with plenty of flair and handling that's top rate. The Mazda RX-7 easily fills the bill. Its styling is an eye-catcher on the highway. It's hard to miss.

The car has completely predictable performance, one of the first demands of a potential buyer. And the RX-7 also has a high level of engineering input.

Along with everyone else, Mazda had a lot of problems with the concept in the 1970s, including seals. Below-normal fuel economy was another major no-no. Today's RX-7 gives about the same level of fuel economy as the Nissan 300-ZX, give or take a mile or two. If you get 20 miles a gallon or better, you're doing well.

But the workmanship is high, as we've come to expect, and the price, while going up all the time, is still not bad for a car of this type.

It's a fact that Dr. Wankel's rotary-type engine is the only all-new and successful power plant in the 20th century. While Mazda has already built more than 1.3 million, the potential for further development remains.

Meanwhile, the man who headed up the Japanese company's research and development work for many years, including the original development and evolution of the RX-7, hasn't been forgotten in the aftermath of the car's success.

Kenichi Yamamoto has just been named president and chief executive office of Mazda Motor Corporation.

Long live the rotary-powered Mazda RX-7!

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.


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