Last year, Mazda showed us the RX Vision, a concept car which could bring rotary power back to reasonably priced sports cars.
Cool looking thing, but the cars which have led up to it are hardly shabby either. The rambunctious little group above is Mazda’s rotary road car family tree, and with the unusual drivetrain potentially set for a comeback, we thought we’d meet the ancestors to see what all the fuss is about.
So join us, for a whistle-stop tour from Cosmo to RX-8, on a Goodwood race circuit replete with wild weather conditions. There may have been some hair-raising moments.
Mazda Cosmo 110S
What a wicked little thing this is. And it really is little; the wee Cosmo seems to barely come up to hip height. Overtake one in a modern SUV and I doubt you’d be able to see it through the side window as you passed.
Introduced in 1967, it boasted a princely 110bhp from its twin-rotor engine, which displaces a total of 982cc. That’s smaller capacity than you get in a three-cylinder Fiesta. And yet with such a slim shape to carry, the Cosmo’s performance is hardly meek.
Nor does it sound meek. The sound of a rotary being revved to its last – 7000rpm, here – is plain odd compared to more traditional internal combustion engines, and utterly intoxicating as a result.
It’s a rare, exciting and beautiful oddball. Really rare, in fact: this is the only one registered in the UK, and with Goodwood doing its best impression of the world’s first underwater race circuit, we decide not to argue when its owner is keen not to relinquish the key.
This is one of the few cars where a passenger ride can provide a grasp of its character, though, its owner happy to keep wringing out what is the car’s original, 1968 engine. Top man.
He’s also not afraid of leaning on the grip of its skinny little tyres, which seem to exhibit absurd amounts of traction, even through the standing water that currently litters a circuit not known for being easy in the dry. It may be nearly 50 years old, but it doesn’t feel like an antiquated sports car.
There was an RX-2, too, but we’ve jumped straight to the smaller, sportier RX-3. What looks like a classic ‘70s two-door saloon – and therefore a car that might feel slow and a bit sorry for itself four decades on – is actually a real ball of energy, a wild but pint-sized muscle car.
It just feels a naughty thing to be in, from engaging first gear with its pool ball gear knob to the riotous backfire when you turn the engine off. This one is naughtier than standard, too, with a more common RX-7 engine in place of its original, harder-to-replace unit. That means 110bhp hustling along its 884kg.
As my first experience of driving a rotary engine, it takes some recalibration. It just keeps revving and revving, sounding more like a high-pitched motorbike as I do so. You have to keep going even beyond the point you think the engine may burst right through the front grille, changing gear a second or two before a burst ear drum is seeming like a real possibility.
There’s a lot to be said for an engine so welcoming to a thrashing. And the car as a whole is just a bundle of barely contained energy, its short wheelbase ensuring the front-engine/rear-drive layout is always exciting.
The larger, almost American looking RX-4 is similar: its performance seems to far outstrip its modest power output, and the noise it makes under hard acceleration seems unlike anything else with four wheels.
With its longer wheelbase, there’s an astonishing amount of grip, too. Rotary engines favour high-rev power over low-rev torque, and none of these Mazdas appear to require clumsy armfuls of lock out of corners, like other ‘70s sports cars might.
Mazda RX-7 MkI
The RX-7 name is one you no doubt know, but the old fashioned shape before you might be new. It’s the original RX-7, and it was introduced way back in 1978.
This is a 1983 example, but I’d argue it looks far fresher than that date suggests, despite its antiquated pop-up lights.
In the sodden conditions Goodwood has blessed us with, it’s a real livewire, despite not being hugely fast. It’s brisk enough, but the 100bhp of its 1.1-litre twin-rotor engine has a whole tonne to deal with here. I’d argue its claimed 8.4-second 0-62mph time feels a bit optimistic, 33 years after this one was born.
Like the littler RXs, though, the joy here is in revving beyond your own comfort zone. This is a car that thrives on being driven as hard as you can muster, and it improves as your confidence rises. Rather like all the best sports cars do.
Mazda RX-7 MkIII
This is the RX-7 we imagine you know well, not least because of its fame in both Gran Turismo and the Fast and Furious film series. After an angular approach to styling in its first two generations, the MkIII RX-7 got seriously curvy. It’s a piece of design that shrugs off its age way better than the other cars here.
It’s also a whole heap quicker, its 1.3-litre rotary engine getting a pair of turbochargers for a properly muscular 237bhp output.
And it drives rather like a faster version of the Mk1. In the deluge of rain here it asks of a slow in, slightly faster out approach to cornering, feeding power in very carefully and paying careful attention to the frequent communication from its rear tyres. Previous experience on a dry road revealed it to be a largely friendly car in more typical conditions, at least until you go really chasing its limits.
Overall, it feels just like a bigger, softer MX5, with the same dynamic behaviour. Its twin turbochargers mean when boost comes on, though, it can be a rather scarier car to deal with than the little roadster. Calm everything down, however, and it feels like it would be a very able GT car. For once, a rotary car that isn’t about revving until your ears bleed.
The character jump from RX-7 to RX-8 was large, not least because the UK market had been starved of Mazda’s rotary cars (officially, at least) for around seven years when the latter arrived.
The turbos disappeared – dropping power to below 200bhp, if you went for the lower of its two tunes – while the door count doubled, the RX-8 using the unconventional ‘suicide’ layout of rear-hinged back doors. It instantly become the most practical car in the coupe segment.
Running one, though, is not meant to be such a happy affair. Oil and fuel consumption are most politely described as ‘keen’, and maintenance needs to be tenacious if you’re to avoid trouble.
Which is a shame, as this is a brilliantly esoteric car. Its controls are wonderfully precise – its manual gearbox is in particular need of praise – and it’s so light and nimble, the joys of its 50:50 weight distribution and small, low-slung powertrain immediately evident.
It’s not a car for anyone who trades in 0-60 times at the pub, nor someone who likes to use turbodiesel torque to get away quickly from the lights. What I can say is its lack of torque is an absolute boon when you’re driving a bloody scary race circuit when the weather is terrible.
On a dry, open road, it might get a little tiresome when you can’t shake off a Golf TDI. But you can be in no doubt you’d be enjoying a more specialist car.
Mazda RX-7 Type R Bathurst
We end, though, on surely the greatest rotary Mazda of the lot. The RX-7 enjoyed numerous special editions in its domestic market, but the most riotous of the lot is this Bathurst.
Just 500 were made, with a ‘claimed’ 276bhp squeezed from its twin-turbo power unit. The quote marks reflect how far north of that I reckon this one is operating (its quoted 4.7sec 0-62mph time seems hopelessly pessimistic), something which can probably be said for quite a lot of RX-7s, such is its enduring appeal within the modifying fraternity.
While the standard MkIII feels a bit of a softy, this 2002 special is like a barely tamed track special. Its responses are so much sharper, and it asks of your reactions to be similarly precise.
Its turbos operate sequentially, and when the second kicks in, you’d better know which way the wheel is pointing and what you plan to do next. It’s a wild and exciting car, more so than anything with 1.3 litres of cubic capacity has a right to be. If Mazda is unsure which of its rotary road cars should best inform a production version of the RX Vision, it should look no further than this.