Although never officially sold in the United States, this particular car has a pretty fascinating backstory beyond being the very first rotary-powered Mazda on North American roads. This Cosmo was shipped from Japan to Woodridge, New Jersey, in November 1967 to Curtiss-Wright. Probably best known for building P-40 Warhawk fighters in World War II, the airplane manufacturer was hoping it could engineer its own rotary engines for general aviation airplanes and bought the Cosmo Sport to study the engineering behind its engine. In 2007, Mazda bought this right-hand-drive car to celebrate 40 years of rotary and shipped it west to its North American headquarters in Irvine, California.
Mazda's '67 Cosmo Sport is not only rare on American roads (it's believed that there are only about two or three in the U.S.. ), but it's also rare, period—the automaker only made 343 of these early short-wheelbase Series 1 Cosmo Sports before shifting production to a long-wheelbase version in July 1968.
These facts are wrapping themselves around my head as I approach the pint-sized Cosmo Sport 50 years later outside of the Mazda headquarters. Despite the inherent weirdness of the Cosmo's 110-hp 1.2-liter two-rotor Wankel, the little Mazda's design shows a remarkable amount of restraint. The Cosmo's design as a whole has aged well, with the Japanese sports car sporting some obvious influences from the European and American sports cars of the day, including the split jet-inspired taillights and the classic houndstooth checkered cloth seats.
With little more than some choke and a good stab of the throttle, the Cosmo's 0810 two-rotor fires right up, with the most fantastic racket coming from its tailpipes. That's remarkable for a car that's reached the half-century mark. With my right hand gripping the wood-rimmed steering wheel and my left on the wood-topped shifter, I slot the Cosmo's four-speed manual into gear and set off.
This 50-year-old car feels remarkably modern to drive. The clutch is easy to modulate with its a clear engagement point, and the shifter is light and precise. The unassisted steering is direct and talkative; there's a bit of play in the steering on center, but it weights up beautifully as you work the car through corners. If the Miata had made its debut in 1969 instead of 1989, this is what it'd be like to drive.
And that's all before we get to the Cosmo's engine. If you've never driven a rotary, here's what you need to know—they're at their happiest (and making their power) spinning at a high rpm. The Cosmo is no different. Try to baby the Mazda as you would a traditional classic piston-engine car by upshifting around 2,000 rpm, and the Cosmo's 0810 bogs down like it's in overdrive. No, the Cosmo, even at 50, begs to be revved. Like any good naturally aspirated engine, the Mazda gives the driver more the higher you explore in its powerband.
The Mazda Cosmo is an absolute joy to drive, but with four more decades of rotary to examine, it was time to move on.
1978 Mazda REPU: 130-hp 1.3-liter two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda REPU is a special truck, and one I've been scouring Craigslist for since I drove it. Short for "Rotary Engine Pick Up," the Mazda REPU was just that—a version of the automaker's B1600 pickup for North America with the rotary engine from an RX-4. The REPU was designed to be a tool, yes, but it was also designed to inject some sportiness into the Mazda lineup. Its 130-hp 1.3-liter two-rotor engine had nearly 50 horsepower more than the comparable Chevrolet LUV or Dodge Ram 50 of the day, and Mazda sought to improve handling by moving the battery from under the hood to under the bed, among other things.
Mazda's 1978 REPU is a vehicle Motor Trend is pretty familiar with, having driven it on the 2016 Touge California rally last year. It's been modified slightly; it's got a Racing Beat exhaust, which is a fair bit louder than stock, and it's had its stock four-speed manual replaced by a five-speed manual from an RX-7. (Later REPUs actually came from with a five-speed from the factory).
It's amazing to me how small compact pickups used to be; a new Mazda3 hatchback absolutely towers over the REPU and can probably haul just as much inside, but it has nothing on the REPU's personality.
The REPU's rotary is a monstrous little engine. It fires right up into this manic, high-pitched idle that's nothing like the loping idles of full-size American pickups of the era. The REPU's engine is an eager revver; its 130 hp comes on about midway through the tach at around 4,000 rpm, and it really rewards the driver for wringing the engine out for all its worth. It feels very similar in character to the Cosmo's engine, but it's as if Mazda's engineers at the time used every trick they had to extract every last horsepower out of the REPU's engine.
The rest of the REPU package is a testament to its era. The steering wheel feels only vaguely connected to the road, the brakes are wooden, and the vinyl- and wood-trimmed cabin has the typical creaks and rattles of the era. But who cares? The REPU, as it sits, is a remarkably charming truck and an important step in both the evolution of the rotary engine and in sport trucks like the GMC Syclone.
1988 Mazda RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Edition: 182-hp 1.3-liter turbocharged two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Edition celebrates just that, 10 years of the legendary RX-7 sports car. The RX-7 first appeared in 1978, with the second generation making its debut in 1985 and winning Motor Trend Import Car of the Year in 1986.
The second-gen car—like my lunchtime date, this 1988 RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Edition—was designed to compete head to head with sports cars of the day such as the Porsche 944. Its 13B 1.3-liter turbocharged two-rotor engine made 182 hp, a good 36 horsepower bump over the base naturally aspirated RX-7. A 1989 revision would boost power even further to an even 200 hp.
After getting out of the Cosmo and REPU and into the 1988 RX-7, I'm immediately blown away by just how quiet and comfortable it is. Two decades of rotary development really shine through because the 13B spins quieter and smoother than before yet with a not-at-all-insignificant power boost.
Turbocharged cars from the 1980s are known to be pretty laggy, and the RX-7 is no exception. Even with a small turbo mounted onto the two-rotor engine, the RX-7 doesn't make any power until about 3,000 rpm. Once you hit that limit, all bets are off as the Mazda surges forward, building speed as the tach needle races to the 7,000-rpm redline. As you approach the rev limiter, the car buzzes urging the driver to shift up.
The rest of the 1988 RX-7 experience is best described as "pretty '80s." The clutch is soft and mushy, and the gearshift only vaguely feels mechanically connected to the rest of the gearbox. Even still, it'd run circles around many fast cars of the day, such as the Camaro IROC-Z or the Merkur XR4Ti.
1993 Mazda RX-7: 255-hp 1.3-liter twin-turbo two-rotor Wankel
To those who grew up playing racing video games such as Gran Turismo, the third-generation Mazda RX-7 is the car that cemented the RX's legacy. I mean, look at it! Even 25 years after the "FD" RX-7 went into production in 1992, it's still beautiful to look at.
In many ways the third-gen RX-7, like the 1993 model in Mazda's collection, represents the pinnacle of rotary development in production cars. An evolution over the second-gen RX-7's engine, the RX-7 featured 1.3-liter twin-turbo two-rotor Wankel that produced 255 hp at 6,500 rpm in early versions like this clean, white 1993 model. After the RX-7 exited the U.S. in 1995, it produced as much as 280 hp in the final years of its production run. Torque peaks at 217 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm.
Many early '90s Japanese sports cars were complicated and technologically advanced for their day. The RX-7 was no exception. Its twin-turbochargers worked sequentially; the first spools up immediately, building power as the engine revs, and the second turbo comes online about halfway up the 9,000-rpm tach, supplying the two-rotor with about 10 psi of boost. The RX-7 also featured a Torsen limited-slip diff from the factory, one of the first street applications of the technology.
Intended as an NSX fighter, the RX-7 promised NSX-like numbers with a super fly 2,800-pound curb weight and a claimed sub-5.0-second sprint to 60 mph. We liked the thing enough to name it our 1993 Import Car of the Year.
Enough about how it was then—how is it now?
In a word, quick. The RX-7's twin-scroll rotary won't violently bash you over the head like a forced-induction V-8 will, but it's certainly going to throw you back in your seat and keep you there as the engine screams to its redline. Rotaries and turbos wouldn't seem like a good mix because both need revs to make power, but the sequential twin-turbos bring a lot of power to the table almost immediately off the bat. With the two turbos online, the Mazda comes alive. The RX-7 is the very definition of a cruise missile—it wants nothing more than to hit its 160-mph top speed and to just park the speedometer there.
Even at sane, street-legal speeds, the 1993 RX-7 is really fun to drive. The turbo lag is a fun challenge to drive around, and the slick five-speed manual is enjoyable to work as you do so. The ride is firm but not punishing, and the steering is sublime because the car feels one with the driver through bends.
The RX-7 was a car ahead of its time. It's a shame it's gone.
2011 Mazda RX-8 LM20: 230-hp 1.3-liter two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda RX-8 has been out of production for six years, and this exact 2011 Mazda RX-8 LM20—a special edition celebrating 20 years since Mazda's 1991 Le Mans victory—is the last rotary-engined car Mazda ever brought into the United States. That makes it a fitting bookend for the day.
In retrospect, the RX-8 appears to have been an attempt by Mazda to grow with RX-7 buyers. It had two main doors, two suicide-swinging clamshell doors, like an extended-cab pickup, and a child-friendly back seat. The twin-turbos from the RX-7 were gone, and in its place the RX-8 featured a 1.3-liter naturally aspirated two-rotor engine good for 230 hp and 159 lb-ft of torque, with a tach reading to sky-high 10,000 rpm. It was available with an automatic transmission, but a six-speed manual is the only transmission that's worth mentioning.
Compared to the insanity that was the twin-turbo RX-7, the RX-8 is a much more relaxed, sedate car. There's no power down low, but like all good naturally aspirated cars, the RX-8 is a treat to work high. No wonder fuel economy was so abysmal. Still, despite the Mazda's inherent balance, good shifter, and fun engine, there's no hiding the fact that it's slow for a sports car (a 2004 model we tested went from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds) and swills gasoline at the same rate as a comparable V-8-powered muscle car. I thoroughly enjoyed driving the RX-8 because it's a sweet, special car, but at the same time I completely get why it's no longer with us today.
Rotaries were left in a good place when the RX-8 went out of production. Still, the RX-8's 1.3-liter two-rotor consuming 16/22/18 mpg city/highway/combined on the EPA cycle and its equal thirst for oil made discontinuing the rotary a sound business decision in 2011.
But Mazda has never fully abandoned the Wankel engine. In 2012 it started testing Demio RE EVs—Mazda2 in the U.S.—powered by a front-mounted electric motor and batteries but backed up by a teeny trunk-mounted rotary range extender, which gave the car nearly 250 miles of range. More recently, the Mazda RX-Vision concept from the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show teased an RX-7 successor powered by a new-generation SkyActiv-R rotary engine. Since then, patent drawings have emerged showcasing a new generation of rotary engine, though Mazda has remained mum on what it plans to do with it.
When asked directly, Mazda reps admit that the future of the rotary engine is muddied by internal politics, but a small, extraordinarily dedicated team is hard at work in Japan keeping the dream spinning. With Mazda's 100-year anniversary fast approaching in 2020, I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a rebirth of the engine that 50 years ago kept Mazda alive.
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