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For those of you that don't have NYTimes usernames... why not? :)

Here's the text in case you're lazy.


Published: November 24, 2003

FEW attributes will catapult a sports car from mediocre to memorable faster than a great engine. Taking that knowledge to heart, Mazda created its RX-7 around a very different engine - its responsive and smooth-running rotary - and won a following among enthusiasts who had rarely paid attention to its cars.

No doubt Mazda is hoping that lightning will strike again with its 2004 RX-8, which brings back the rotary engine after a nine-year hiatus from the United States.

Of course, Mazda had used the rotary engine before it developed the RX-7 - in its Cosmo coupe, RX sedans and a small pickup truck. But it did not achieve the ideal combination until it developed the two-seat RX-7. It may be that an engine that lacks pistons and valves was too much for mainstream consumers to accept, but the rotary definitely struck a chord with enthusiasts.

Invented by Felix Wankel, a German engineer, the simple design and small size of the rotary engine attracted automakers from around the world. Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, among others, pressed ahead on research projects, hoping to integrate the rotary into future products, but only Mazda persevered to produce rotary-powered car in significant numbers .

The RX-7 made its American debut in April 1978 as a 1979 model. Proportioned for the tidy dimensions of the engine, the two-seater was a petite package in the nation's large-scale automotive landscape. The rotary's short overall length let engineers mount the engine farther back in the car than would be possible with a conventional piston engine, improving weight distribution.

The RX-7 arrived in a relatively grim era for automotive performance, and it delighted the automotive press with the performance of its 100-horsepower, 1,146-cubic-centimeter engine, designated the 12A by Mazda. "The two-place rotary rocket has more sex appeal than Charlie's Angels," Car and Driver magazine said. "You'd gladly trade your favorite fantasy for an RX-7 after one quick test drive."

Sports car fans read the reports and reached for their wallets, with sales for the 1980 calendar year reaching 43,731. The RX-7 was a success in motorsports, too. Don Sherman, the editor of Car and Driver, set speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats with a modified RX-7, eventually speeding to more than 238 miles an hour, and the cars made their mark in the road racing competition of the International Motor Sports Association.

Refinements tended to be minor during the run of the first-generation model, though a major upgrade came in '84, when the larger 13B engine was installed in the GSL-SE. About this 135-horsepower engine, Car and Driver said, "For the money, there still isn't a better fling-about, redline-hungry, tire-smoking sports car to be had."

This redemption of the rotary had been a long time coming, and was never certain. Mazda's fortunes had been linked to the rotary since 1961, when it reached a license agreement with NSU, the German motorcycle and car builder that owned the design rights. Later, in a move to avoid being merged with a larger automaker by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Mazda elected to develop the engine as its "technological charter."

Mazda worked out the kinks of the rotary and by 1972 was a world leader in development. Mazda went from boom to bust, however, when oil shocks of the 1970's hit. The company's rotary-powered sedans, while no worse than other cars of like performance, were castigated as fuel-thirsty and had a reputation as being unreliable. Prodded by its primary creditor bank, Mazda agreed to salvage its research efforts by installing the rotary in a sports car destined for the United States.

The success of that first generation RX-7 paved the way for an all-new model in 1986. Using the Porsche 944 as a benchmark, the RX grew in weight and in size.The standard 13B engine, a 1,308 cubic-centimeter rotary, was rated at 146 horsepower; with the addition of a turbocharger and intercooler it developed 182 horsepower.

Mazda mixed and matched components to make the more luxurious GXL and the sport-focused GTU S. A convertible, the first topless RX-7 from the factory, arrived in 1988.

There was no 1992 RX-7 as Mazda prepared to introduce its ultimate sports car. Fun for the dollar had been the RX-7's mantra, but for the third generation Mazda decided to meet the increasingly powerful competition head-on. The 13B engine was upgraded with twin turbochargers, now producing 255 horsepower for a top speed of 163 m.p.h., according to a Motor Trend test. Lighter, lower and blessed with a flowing body shape, the last RX-7 arrived amid a wave of high-performance sports cars, including the Nissan 300ZX Turbo and Toyota Supra Turbo.

But the base price of a 1994 RX-7 had risen to $36,000. While a bargain for the technology it delivered, at that price the car faced a dwindling audience. Though it remained available in Japan, Mazda discontinued sales in the United States sales after the '95 model year, taking the rotary engine out of play until it resurfaced in the 2004 RX-8.
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