CARS IMPROVE with time and over six years you can expect great advances from most manufacturers. Except in the case of the sporting models from Mazda, which spent this period going backwards.
In 1968, when Mazda meant an electric light bulb rather than a motor-car, I drove the Wankel-engined LOLA 110S and had a very pleasant surprise, mainly because it handled uncommonly well, at all events by the standards of those days. Since then Mazda have continued with the Wankel engine when so many are pulling it apart. There have been the R100 and the RX-2, which I missed. From other reports I was assured that the present RX-3 incorporates a multitude of improvements. If this is the case I can only say I am not sorry I did not sample the earlier sporting Mazdas. The RX-3 coupé was definitely a disappointment.
The engine itself, a twin rotor of Mazda’s own conception, with a capacity of 491 c.c. per (equal to a swept volume of 1,964 c.c. in a conventional four-stroke engine) compartment, functions well, sounding like a two-stroke, running smoothly to 8,000 r.p.m. but seriously lacking torque, so that the gearbox, fortunately very nice to use, is frequently resorted to and the 3.7-to-1 top gear reserved as a kind of overdrive. Mazda will insist that this is a rotary engine, (even a rotary car) as labels on the body sides proclaim, but have named their British headquarters at Oxted more accurately “Rotor House”, for the Wankel has a static mourning, like any other current type of i.c. engine. It was pleasing to experience this unique form of power unit again, the only one of all the countless experimental engines down the ages available today in g production car, apart from Wartburg’s two-stroke survival. In the RX-3 it gives smooth, unburstable performance of average quality, 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration taking just over the desirable 10 seconds norm, and a standing 1/4-mile corning up in 17 1/2 seconds.
The rest of the car is not in keeping. It is plastered in speed embellishments and slogans, including that “Rotary” incorporated with the Wankel badge. It has light clutch, gear change and brakes, but it is a pity that third gear needed so often, whines loudly. The black reclining front seats are hard but comfortable but their tall head-protecting squabs make the cramped rear compartment of this two-door coupé very hemmed-in, while entry and exit thereto calls for strange contortions. Worse, the high-set back window, which can only be electrically heated if the very quiet heater fan is in one of its three working settings, obstructs rearward vision so that reversing is a nightmare, as I was to discover when using the Mazda to follow the VSCC Measham night rally. The inboard reversing lamps might just as well not be fitted.
The interior decor of the De Luxe model is neat and looks durable, but no radio is fitted. The gear lever and central handbrake are very well located and a r.h. stalk looks after all the minor functions, with a flick-action to dip or full-beam the small circular dual headlamps, after these and the sidelamps have been selected with a small l.h. stalk. The lamps beam is wide-spread and the dipped position gives adequate light. Facia knobs look after cigarette lighting, choke, which is needed for a while in cold-starts, the ventilators and on the test car I could find no way of quelling the wretched dazzle from the lit instruments. The 130 m.p.h. speedometer and tachometer are deeply buried in separate non-reflecting wells and the cluster of small dials cover alternator charge, heat and fuel contents and time (from a loudly-ticking clock, with confusing seconds’ hand) with a brake-on light to their left. The highest recommended engine speed is 6.500 r.p.m., marked on the tachometer. There are trip and total-with-decimal mileometers but the mirror is not of anti-dazzle type. A four-lever recirculatory heater is fitted and fresh-air input is powerful, through non-controllable facia vents. The small steering wheel has a grippy leather-like covering and a central hornpush. The rear-hinged bonnet opens easily, to reveal the interesting power unit with its two plugs per compartment fed from twin distributors and an extremely accessible oilfiller and dip-stick on the n/s.
It is in action that this Mazda disappoints. The ride is not only very lively and choppy to excess but gives a lurchy movement to the handling, which is not helped by the Bridgestone 13 in. radial-ply tyres, which can lose grip unexpectedly on slippery roads. The steering is heavy for parking, a trifle rubbery, but quick, at 3 1/2-turns lock-to-lock after sponge has been absorbed, with a small turning circle. On full lock disconcerting “clonks” intruded. The disc/drum non-servo brakes are adequate.
You can wind this “rotary” Mazda up to 109 m.p.h., with a remarkable 85 m.p.h. in third and it gives the impression of a lively performance, so is fun to drive, especially if you enjoy “living in the rev.-counter”. One should not complain of a rather small but unobstructed boot in a sports coupé. It needs the key to open it and as the vertical back panel gets covered in mud, it is fortunate that the lock is recessed. Luggage has to be humped over the high boot-sill and can be savaged by the boot-lid hinges and girders within the boot, where the backs of the lamps are vulnerable. The rear-end of the Mazda is ugly, as it carries triple circular lamp glasses. Within there are three tiers of shallow stowage wells before the front passenger, the upper one lidded but unlockable and ant to heat up if windscreen demisting is in use. Further small wells are provided behind and below the handbrake mounting, and the seat squabs have tight map pockets. The door locks and handles are well contrived, with forward-located sill interior-locks, while all the four side windows wind down. They tended to mist up.
Under the self-propping bonnet the small National six-cell storage battery is very easy to top-up and the Type 10A Wankel engine has useful lilt-out pick-ups. It burns two-star petrol and using it for varied work I got 19.8 m.p.g., which endorses the thirst of this type of engine. The tank, with a locked flap over the filler, holds 60 litres, or just over 13 gallons. The electric fuel-pump had a nasty habit of ticking long before the tank ran dry. Oil consumption was approx. 600 m.p.p. The sad thing about this RX-3 is that it relies on inefficient rear suspension of the hard leaf-spring supported live-axle type instead of the de Dion rear-end of the old but excellent 100S and the ride and handling are therefore rather horrible. Those who want to have the individuality of Wankel propulsion in a distinctive-looking coupe will probably regard this Hiroshima product as a worthwhile car at the price of £1,635 in de luxe guise. But its fuel consumption, even allowing for the lowgrade petrol it functions on, and its performance do not match up to that of normal less expensive 2-litre sports coupés and the ride and handling are distinctly dated, while the mechanical sounds become tiring on long journeys.—W. B.