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Mazda Officials Okay Rotary-Powered Car
Submitted by SuperUser on Thursday, October 4, 2001 - 12:00am

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By Roger Schreffler


HIROSHIMA, Japan ? With little fanfare in late July, Mazda Motor Corp.?s board of directors approved the company?s ballyhooed rotary powered car program.


The RX-8, a 4-seat "crossover" sports car first displayed at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show (as the RX-EVOLV) could hit dealer showrooms as soon as December 2002. Mazda eventually plans to sell the car in all major markets ? North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.


Mazda executive Phil Martens, who is managing director in charge of product strategy, design and product development, feels the model?s rear-drive platform could form the centerpiece for a new sports car family including, though not limited to, the MX Sports Tourer concept minivan (displayed at the Geneva Motor Show last year), a new Miata-like 2-seat roadster and even a future-generation RX-7 2-seat performance car.


Among the RX-8?s attributes, he says, are its 50/50 weight distribution, outstanding body structure, a scalable wheelbase, a 13-gal. (60 L) fuel tank, large trunk space (a major shortcoming of the Miata) ? and, of course, its naturally aspirated "RENESIS" rotary engine, which was first displayed at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show on the RX-01 concept sports car.


"Our thinking is to limit the engine?s usage to sports cars," says Mr. Martens, who adds: "Powertrain requirements have become extremely complicated. You?ve got to factor in so many variables ? emissions, fuel economy, performance. On top of this, economies of scale needed for any (new model) program to succeed have become so onerous that I do not envision the engine being adopted for models in other segments."


Thus, no rotary-powered sport/utility vehicle, pickup truck or sedan.


By giving the RX-8 the green light, Mazda management reversed a strategic decision made several years ago to de-emphasize its hallmark rotary, focusing instead on the award-winning Miller-cycle engine. That engine, both fuel efficient and offering high output, is currently available only on the North American export model of the Millenia sedan. But the Millenia ? at least the Miller cycle version ? appears headed for the scrap heap as Mazda works with part-owner Ford Motor Co. to consolidate and rationalize vehicle platforms and programs.


Kei Kado, senior managing director in charge of research and development and Mr. Martens? immediate superior, explains, "The Miller cycle engine was not well-accepted by the market. We can?t justify pouring more money into it. Cost depends on volume and, unfortunately in this case, demand failed to meet our market projections."


Since the Millenia?s 1995 launch, the automaker has sold only 47,000 Miller-cycle units. Mazda subsequently dropped the engine in the Japanese and European markets in July last year.


Looking just at the numbers, critics feel that the RX-8 could suffer the same fate. Mr. Martens disagrees and believes the new platform has potential to account for as much as 15% of Mazda sales in the future, though he warns that this is just a "gut feeling" and there is no market data to back it up.


"The RX-8?s value cannot be measured by some market or volume equation," he says. "If you go to the rotary websites, response to the car has been absolutely unbelievable. After the Detroit auto show (the North American International Auto Show), I received dozens of messages each week for more than four months: ?It?s a great car;? ?I love the car;? ?When will the car be available?? and so forth. More than 99% of responses were positive."


Mr. Kado, a rotary car owner dating back more than 20 years, adds, "The RX-8 allows us to express our uniqueness."

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