A Wankel Reunion

My bond with one par­tic­u­lar exam­ple of Mazda’s best-sell­ing Wankel-pow­ered sports car began on the Mid­west­ern farm where I grew up. A 1980 mod­el LS-trimmed exam­ple, orig­i­nal­ly paint­ed in “Solar Gold” (one of only 500 made, it turns out). It had been sit­ting in a small shed, con­demned to rest only a few years after my birth from issues with its fuel deliv­ery sys­tem. The search for a mechan­ic will­ing and/or capa­ble of work­ing on the rotary engine with­out destroy­ing it was even­tu­al­ly giv­en up.

My father told me sto­ries of his flings with the car. He used to say the police would pull him over sim­ply because it “looked fast.” Nat­u­ral­ly — as a small boy — the sto­ries took ahold of my imag­i­na­tion. The RX-7 held a very spe­cial sort of allure. It’d quick­ly embody for me the race­car abstract. Its envi­ron­ment added to the intox­i­ca­tion — the lack of elec­tric pow­er to the car, its immo­bil­i­ty, and the sto­ries I was told com­bined to cre­ate the aura of a fad­ing, for­got­ten super­hero — tired and aban­doned, in need of noth­ing more than the help of a friend to bring it back to glo­ry.

It wasn’t very long after tod­dler­hood that I took to spend­ing a large por­tion of my free time in the RX-7 — row­ing through the gears, mak­ing engine nois­es with my mouth. I still remem­ber vivid­ly how delight­ful the expe­ri­ence of sim­ply exist­ing in that car was. The dash lay­out, the feel of the steer­ing wheel in my hands, and the smell of the inte­ri­or are all deeply etched into mem­o­ry. A young man’s mys­ti­cism formed a bond between souls.

Recent­ly, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet this hero, so to speak. I encoun­tered a par­tial­ly-restored 1983 Series 2 exam­ple, slight­ly dif­fer­ent than my RX-7. Dif­fer­ent enough to sub­due my wor­ries of adul­tery to the car I grew up with, but sim­i­lar enough to make the expe­ri­ence one of impor­tant dis­cov­ery.

I was treat­ed to the com­plete RX-7 own­er­ship expe­ri­ence — dead bat­tery, hard-chocked start and all. My host was kind enough to pay for the fuel for the dri­ve with mon­ey out of his own pock­et. After ensur­ing that we would not be walk­ing back, I point­ed that very long, very 80s nose toward some local back high­ways.

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I had nev­er dri­ven any­thing pow­ered by a Wankel, and the con­trast of the RX-7 com­pared to every­thing with wheels I had expe­ri­enced was stark, and notice­able imme­di­ate­ly. The feed­back nor­mal­ly received from a pis­ton engine is not felt, due to the fact that there is no more con­ver­sion from ver­ti­cal to rota­tion­al motion, a rotary engine (as implied by the name) involves no ver­ti­cal momen­tum. It’s not that the engine refus­es to com­mu­ni­cate with you, it’s just speak­ing an entire­ly dif­fer­ent lan­guage. The whiny exhaust note has an odd prop­er­ty to it that can be heard from no oth­er source. It con­jures up images of the mys­te­ri­ous, angry pair of tri­an­gles whirling about in their cage. Pure­ly imag­i­nary, of course.

Because the Wankel is so smooth, I found myself won­der­ing why I should shift up. A pis­ton engine makes you anx­ious when you push it close to the red­line. Most send the dri­ver a vari­ety of audi­to­ry and tac­tile mes­sages indi­cat­ing that they must either shift up, or face a molten tie rod to the head. The RX-7, how­ev­er, gives no such indi­ca­tion. When close to the red­line, one hears only an excit­ed whir. The result (for­give the upcom­ing Dis­ney anal­o­gy) is an almost mag­ic car­pet-like expe­ri­ence. It’s as though the pow­er sim­ply mate­ri­al­izes before you with no appar­ent source or sac­ri­fice.

For me, the tran­quil­i­ty of the engine elim­i­nat­ed the reser­va­tions I had for speed. It’s an incen­tive, in fact, to keep the nee­dle in the upper por­tion of the tachome­ter as much as pos­si­ble. The car had only 100 hp and 105 lb-ft. of torque in 1983, and has no doubt lost a few along its jour­ney. Frankly, I’m thank­ful it’s not more pow­er­ful. Oth­er­wise, there wouldn’t be room to ful­ly enjoy revving it to its lim­it.

Though I have decid­ed that a trans­mis­sion with mul­ti­ple ratios is unnec­es­sary when cou­pled to a Wankel, the 5-speed man­u­al in the RX-7 was quite a treat. It’s very notchy, with a mid-length throw. The well-spaced ratios paired with a very light, but engag­ing clutch made rev match­ing pleas­ant and nat­ur­al.

The dri­ving posi­tion is actu­al­ly more relaxed than it looks, and the inte­ri­or is a thor­ough­ly enjoy­able place to be in. This par­tic­u­lar car had a fac­to­ry-installed man­u­al­ly-adjustable equal­iz­er mount­ed beneath the stock head unit. A use­less, though inter­est­ing, nov­el­ty that quick­ly rids the occu­pants of any doubt as to when the car was built.

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The RX-7 is too often over­looked for what it is — a very spe­cial piece of auto­mo­tive his­to­ry. It’s an expe­ri­ence com­plete­ly unlike any pis­ton-pow­ered alter­na­tive and for myself, it’s much more than that. My RX-7 rep­re­sents most of a childhood’s dreams and a gen­e­sis to my rela­tion­ship with engi­neer­ing. My Wankel expe­ri­ence a very large influ­ence on my path in this career. No doubt, it changed my per­spec­tive, but not at all for the worse.

Honda: From Trendsetters to Just Another Car Company

The 1990s. Not the great­est time for the Unit­ed States auto indus­try. In those days, with a few excep­tions, Amer­i­can cars were all over­priced, devoid of qual­i­ty and gen­er­al­ly unre­li­able. The big three (along with many oth­er non-auto­mo­tive relat­ed cor­po­ra­tions in the U.S.) had an aging gen­er­a­tion of man­age­ment. This group decid­ed that the ide­al way to run their busi­ness involved expend­ing the least amount of effort into their prod­ucts as pos­si­ble, with­out reduc­ing the price paid by cus­tomers. Essen­tial­ly, they hoped to gain more prof­it from less prod­uct. I don’t have to tell you that this think­ing just…doesn’t work. I would the­o­rize that this men­tal­i­ty came from over­con­fi­dence and a lack of joy in pro­duc­tion. GM, Ford, and Dodge had been the top sell­ers of the auto­mo­bile in the Unit­ed States since its inven­tion. They orig­i­nal­ly sym­bol­ized the best in qual­i­ty, lux­u­ry and per­for­mance. Con­sumer and pro­duc­er shared the same val­ues, result­ing in a flour­ish­ing mar­ket. It was a joy­ous time. And then, some­where around the 1973 oil cri­sis, the joy began seep­ing out of our star shoot­ers. Maybe it was emis­sions reg­u­la­tions, a loss of those ide­al val­ues, or some oth­er fac­tor. Regard­less of the source, our home­grown auto indus­try lost its pas­sion. It reflect­ed in the cars that were built. Designs were reused, pro­gres­sion was halt­ed, the irrev­er­ence of qual­i­ty work­man­ship lost. “Amer­i­can depend­abil­i­ty” became an iron­ic state­ment.

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And then came along a com­pa­ny that had been build­ing lit­tle, noisy two-stroke engines to fit to bicy­cles only four decades ear­li­er, proud­ly dis­play­ing a ban­ner the chang­ing pub­lic couldn’t refuse. They offered a prod­uct that was sim­ple, hon­est, reli­able, durable and rea­son­ably priced. A con­coc­tion that smelled an awful lot like high val­ue. An odor that no doubt brought back old mem­o­ries. The Accord, sub­ur­ban America’s new fam­i­ly pet. And the Civic, con­ve­nient­ly debuted in 1972. The col­lege student’s great­est com­pan­ion. Both were con­ser­v­a­tive­ly styled and equipped, and thus quite eas­i­ly ignored, which was exact­ly what the coun­try want­ed. After all those years strand­ed on the shoul­ders of our aging inter­state sys­tem in lum­ber­ing, under­pow­ered beasts, the inde­struc­tible and depend­able qual­i­ties of the Hon­das came as a breath of fresh air. So. What made the new­com­ers so dif­fer­ent? What was the dri­ving force behind the val­ue of the prod­ucts? It was some­thing not unknown to the Amer­i­cans, and its pres­ence had been sore­ly missed. Pic­ture an ancient sage by the name of Soichi­ro Hon­da say­ing some­thing to the order of “lets build the best auto­mo­bile we can and sell it for as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.” Though the man is more a sym­bol than an actu­al influ­ence on the four-wheeled endeav­ors of the insti­tu­tion bear­ing his name, he rep­re­sents what led to the same group’s suc­cess. Hon­da was untaint­ed by an unre­al­is­tic atti­tude, and unaid­ed by a cen­tu­ry of her­itage and good rep­u­ta­tion. They suc­ceed­ed only because they built good cars.

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By 2008, Hon­da had more than made a name for itself. Over the past decade, though, the prices had been steadi­ly increas­ing, along with the lev­el of lux­u­ry and com­plex­i­ty avail­able in their cars. Both the Accord and Civic were best­sellers in their respec­tive class­es, and had held their titles for a rel­a­tive­ly long time. It was then that I per­son­al­ly the­o­rized they might take the same path Amer­i­can car­mak­ers had tak­en only a short while before. I don’t want to brag, but this was long before Ron Kiino’s bold­ly-titled “Is Hyundai the new Hon­da?” graced the pages of MotorTrend’s Octo­ber 2011 issue. And it was real­ly a far-fetched notion at the time. Sim­ply a sus­pi­cion. Con­fi­dent­ly and stub­born­ly, the Accord held its grip on mid-size sedan sales in the Unit­ed States, com­pli­ment­ed by the Toy­ota Cam­ry, a sim­i­lar-look­ing but even more ignor­able com­peti­tor. The for­mer still held appeal for some­one with the capac­i­ty to enjoy them­selves. The lat­ter, how­ev­er, has always been the most desir­able choice of indi­vid­u­als that absolute­ly despise dri­ving. They both held their slight­ly dif­fer­ent nich­es, with no real fear of los­ing their place. Then, Hon­da start­ed skimp­ing a bit on qual­i­ty. Motor­ing jour­nal­ists noticed a lack of improv­ing fuel econ­o­my, aging trans­mis­sions, and a gen­er­al loss in com­pet­i­tive edge in the 2011 Accord. Not the best time to start slack­ing on Honda’s part.

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This was the year that Hyundai unveiled the bril­liant­ly-updat­ed 6th gen­er­a­tion Sonata. I con­sid­er this to be the most sig­nif­i­cant car to come in the mid-sized seg­ment since the birth of the Accord/Camry duo. In pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, it had always been com­pet­i­tive­ly priced. The qual­i­ty, though, had been lack­ing. The Kore­ans were not afraid to design a car that was much less con­ser­v­a­tive than the two Japan­ese giants. How­ev­er, the designs were nev­er real­ly all that great look­ing. Inter­est­ing and dif­fer­ent? Yes. Attractive?….No. So these attrib­ut­es kept Hon­da and Toy­ota secure under their cozy com­forter of sales, not intim­i­dat­ed by Hyundai’s offer­ing. And that’s quite under­stand­able. The Sonata nev­er real­ly seemed a direct com­peti­tor to the giants. The new one, how­ev­er, com­plete­ly changed the game. For one thing, it’s gor­geous. Not con­ser­v­a­tive­ly pret­ty, but ridicu­lous, in the best sort of way. Poised and angu­lar, the exte­ri­or looks as if it should cost expo­nen­tial­ly more than it does. They man­aged to car­ry on the Sonata’s tra­di­tion of unique styling by reject­ing the old car com­plete­ly and replac­ing it with a stun­ner. The inte­ri­or reflects a sim­i­lar atti­tude. It’s not only good look­ing, but sig­nif­i­cant­ly more fuel effi­cient than any oth­er mid-sized car on the mar­ket. The dri­ve­train options are excel­lent. The best part, though, is the price. At a start­ing MSRP of 19,195 USD (£11,944), it is sev­er­al thou­sand less than any com­peti­tor.

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All of this real­ly just makes the Accord and Cam­ry look sil­ly. It’s inter­est­ing that Hyundai should take up Honda’s orig­i­nal niche, giv­en how dif­fer­ent their back­grounds are. Our orig­i­nal hero of prac­ti­cal­i­ty was cre­at­ed by a man tin­ker­ing with small motor­cy­cles. The for­mer, how­ev­er, was found­ed as a mas­sive con­struc­tion firm, only lat­er try­ing its hand in the realm of auto­mo­biles. Cars seemed an alter­na­tive for Hyundai, but cer­tain­ly not an after­thought. Regard­less of where they came from, these two com­pa­nies have had very sim­i­lar philoso­phies, if only sep­a­rat­ed by time. Also, both have had to rely on sheer inge­nu­ity for prof­it, with­out the foothold of her­itage in the Amer­i­can mar­ket. It could be said, though, that Hyundai is doing a bit bet­ter. High val­ue cars that are prac­ti­cal and inter­est­ing as an expe­ri­ence. Hon­da could nev­er get that last bit quite right. Or per­haps it’s just a sign of the times. Maybe Amer­i­cans have over­come the com­pul­sion to ignore our cars. My ques­tion is this; Has this flip-flop in pro­duc­tion atti­tude become a cycle? And if so, who will be in the hot spot next? My bet is on the big three, believe it or not. A new gen­er­a­tion of man­age­ment has brought about a huge improve­ment in our prod­ucts. It could even be one of the ris­ing Chi­nese com­pa­nies in the future. Who knows? I can tell you that right now, though, Hyundai has got the goods.

2011 Mitsubishi Eclipse Review

I want you to let your mind trav­el far back into the mythos of Eclipse Ethan. Close your eyes. Try to remem­ber the smell of his hood­ie and the ever­p­re­sent sound of his bass. Try to remem­ber the way it makes you feel to hear about his after-school plans — both by day and by grade. His wants are so opaque you can’t seem to under­stand them at all… His claims are so exag­ger­at­ed that’ve tran­scend­ed any need for account­abil­i­ty to real­i­ty what­so­ev­er.

My dad builds quad-tur­bo drag cars out of these… The one he’s got now got some­thin like 60 grand in it… He think he gonna get about 700 horse­pow­er

By the time grad­u­a­tion rolls around, you’re no longer amused with Eclipse Ethan’s Tall Tales, so you start to blow him off — ignor­ing his Face­book invites to his big brother’s girlfriend’s birth­day par­ty, then his texts solic­it­ing mov­ing help a few months lat­er. It’s not until your mid-twen­ties that you hap­pen to scroll over a pic­ture of Eclipse Ethan and his father next to some pur­pose­less waste of tun­ing tal­ent and resources and real­ize that he wasn’t lying after all and that his “Tall Tales” were in fact cries for help from a tor­tured cap­tive of a ter­ri­ble Bull­shit Lord.


There is noth­ing redeemable about the Mit­subishi Eclipse. This I have sus­pect­ed for years, and now con­firmed. It is vul­gar to look at, depress­ing to be around, and gen­uine­ly demean­ing to dri­ve. Excus­ing your own expen­di­ture on tun­ing an Eclipse with “well, I just like how they look” is like excus­ing your invest­ment in mod­i­fy­ing an idle buoy to race at the strip — though at least those are actu­al­ly well-engi­neered for their intend­ed pur­pose.

Deal with the wind noise and just watch the video. Or don’t — if you don’t heed these warn­ings, I can no longer save you.