The rotary engine Mazda RX-2 made quite an impact in the US. It was one of the first Japanese sedans/coupes available here that had genuine sporty ambitions. The Datsun 510 with its lively 96 hp SOHC four and four wheel independent suspension also fell into that category, but the appeal of the then-novel rotary was outsized, as it appeared then to be the engine of the future. GM had committed to the rotary, and Citroen in Europe, along with pioneer NSU.
In this comparison, R&T compares the cheaper RX-2 to two of Europe’s most vaunted sports sedans: the Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlinetta and the BMW2002tii. The latter was also new, a higher output fuel injected version of the 2002, but at considerable additional expense. The result is interesting, although somewhat predictable.
What an interesting comparison. I worked at Mazda for summer job in 1987 so I have a lot of knowledge about the RX series. The RX-2 had problems with apex seals and Mazda replace a whole lot of engines.
They stuck to rotary power as long as they could, but 15 mpg in a car this size wasn’t going to attract buyers in 1973. The rotary only soldiered on in the RX-7.
Driving a rotary was always fun. The Wankel motor was so smooth it felt more powerful than it was, and it made really fun whooshing noises..
I would take the Mazda first, a carbureted 2002 second, and somebody else can have the Alfa.
Today, yea I’d go for the 2002. The bumpers didn’t stick out too much yet. Still I’d source a European bumper and clean the car up. There are a lot engine swaps you could do, but I’m not sure it’s worth the money or effort. Those BMW parts are expensive.
BMW’s introduction of mechanical fuel injection to the 2002tii added something like 20% in power and even more in price. Had this been a comparison of the carbureted 2002 and the Mazda, the performance advantage of the rotary would have been dramatic while the price advantage of the Mazda would have been considerably smaller. For 1975, BMW gave up on mechanical fuel injection and only sold carbureted 2002s during their last two model years.
Car and Driver is synonymous with promoting BMWs and 2002s in particular in the US, but their reporting on Mazdas during the early ’70s suggested that they were getting a commission on every car sold. I’d like to see their comparison of these cars as the BMW’s price ballooned and their defense of Mazda’s gas guzzling, seal-challenged cars became positively rabid. Not that it would have been any more credible than Road & Track’s, but it would have been entertaining to compare the two articles.
Had a 1973 RX2 coupe. The huge backfires were quite entertaining.
I like these old Road Tests! They seem more informative and better-written.
That said, the more apt comparison would have been to 2002, not a tii.
Also, back in the day, the Alfa coupes were more expensive, but I think in terms of driving dynamics, R&T’s more adept drivers and erudite writers would have rated the Giulia coupe higher than the sedan, and possibly higher than the 2002, even the tii.
I would take a carbureted 2002 with a tachometer (were they standard yet?).
But if I had infinite resources, I’d take a dual headlamp 1960-something Alfa coupe.
Besides burning gas “like an American car” , I don’t like the Mazda’s rear 3/4 view.
The Wankel was novel, but the Mazda really should’ve been compared to the Capri, Celica, and Manta. When R&T says “the BMW is better, but not $1400 better”, this same statement applies to these 3 “supercoupes” (as C/D called them back in the day)
I poured over these road tests when I was a kid. As a thirteen year old, I thought the Car and Driver writers were just the coolest people on the planet. In those days, they even said bad things about cars.
Now I don’t even bother reading or watching any new car reviews. That’s because if you don’t sing the praises of the car you are reviewing, you won’t get invited back to the five star resort in South Africa, all expenses paid.
Page 44, bottom left, the 2002 is doing and indicated 110mph at 5900 rpm.
I miss those days…..
The Mazda RX-2 was difficult to categorize. In price, build specs (other than the engine), and overall quality and durability, it belonged roughly in the Datsun/Toyota/Opel/Pinto/Vega group. The engine’s characteristics pushed it up into the grouping with the BMW and the Alfa for R&T, from the looks of it.
In the real world, my secondhand RX-2 was a big performance step up from the cars of my teenage peers, which were from that Datsun/Toyota/etc. group. Sort of like a V8 running amongst straight sixes.
The rotary Mazdas started out like the Prius did a few years ago, a novel, interesting, unproven, alternative “car of the future”. Unlike the Prius, the rotary flamed out on reliability, efficiency, and the capability of being driven without frequent mechanical attention, just to keep things up and proper. Ordinary owners, and auto mechanics unfamiliar with rotaries, were vexed by the peculiar maintenance and tuning requirements of the things. Resale values plummeted, and used car dealers wanted nothing to do with them–too much potential trouble and too little value. Only better reliability, greater pride in ownership, and a different set of owner expectations made the RX-7 work out better, later on.
48 years latter the 2002Ti are fetching good money. A classic. The Alfa 1750. Nope ,just the Alfetta GTVs and Spiders. As for the RX2. Mazda didn’t sort out those rotary seals until the RX7 .
Priced an RX-2 in nice condition lately (if you can find one)?
I saw a 1972 Mazda RX-2 sell for $29,279 two weeks ago. Comparable examples of the 2002tii have increased in value by about the same percentage.
A Mazda rotary was dealer only. In fact, they were no more difficult to service than anything else and a lot easier than most.
The problem was they needed to be serviced. If that 4 bbl carb was not PERFECT, the car would run like crap. Same with spark plugs: these motors ate them. On the carb cars there was a horribly nasty catalytic set-up. When the RX-7 finally had fuel injection 1985, all this finnickiness went away.
By that time it was too late. The RX-2 was so unreliable it killed the rotary. Mazda kept trying with the RX-3 but the 808 was paying the bills. The RX-4 was a halo car just to prove they hadn’t given up on the Wankel motor.
The RX-7 has always been my favourite car. I had a lot of wheel time on a base, steel wheel, no a/c, no ps 1986, the Gen II. It was a fantastic car, one of the nicest I have ever driven.
The early rotaries ate spark plugs and point sets. There were also all sorts of little hoses that could loosen or crack, and then one got intake leaks and bad running.
Most importantly (IMO), they needed frequent oil changes and topping up, as well as those spark plugs and point sets. This was back in the days when people liked to have their tune-ups done at the gas stations, not the dealers or highly qualified mechanics, as people do today. Fastidious Mazda owners had reliable, fun cars. Most owners weren’t fastidious.
I remember this road test. They couldn’t seem to decide whether to evaluate the Mazda against the other two on an absolute basis, or on a value-for-money basis.
I have fond memories of the RX-2 (and -3), as I was living in Erie, PA, autocrossing a Vega GT in B-sedan, and those early Mazda’s were really seen as the ‘car of the future’ and ‘where we’re all going’. For about 2-3 years until gasoline passed $.50/gallon and you had lines at the pumps. Then, suddenly, not so much anymore.
The real fun was with the SCCA crowd, as in, what competition class do you stick the rotary engines in? The BMW (which was THE killer car in B-sedan autocross) crowd didn’t want them anywhere near their cars. They were too used to winning, and weren’t looking for any new serious competition. If my memory is reliable, I think it finally got settled by taking the engine displacement of the Wankel, doubling the figure, and that was the equivalency of going against a piston engine.
Despite the passionate arguments, the market took care of the controversy: The Mazda was damned for looking like a little Japanese tin box, but having the gas mileage of a Small Block Chevy. Which, of course, was unacceptable.
Used to autocross prepared RX-3s back in the day. When I went to events in new places, the locals would really give me the stink-eye. Mazda rotaries had a fearsome reputation, in the right hands. Down-and-dirty, nasty machines. Then the RX-7 showed up, everyone ran them, sort of like Miatas anytime in the last 30 years, and the rotaries were generally just another nice autocross car.
Wait, what? I’m pretty sure that’s wrong. Google searches on “1972 142E” and “1973 142E” bring up lots of US-spec cars.
Same name, different engine. US cars swapped the B20E for the cleaner B20F that year, and the compression ratio difference is 10.5:1 compared to 8.7:1. You can imagine the results on performance.
I could, yes, if that were the question at hand.
Check out the 1974 EPA ratings for the RX-2
Very rapid cars those RX2s but very expensive on fuel and parts to own and run, the fuel prices in the 70s did them no favours and Mazda even withdrew the RE option from the Aussie market, and yes they bounce all over the road at speed on our highways, but survivors are selling for big money here and they are few and far between
On the figures in this test, the “dirty” RE’s we got were much faster than the US got. I’m sure I recall low-16 quarter miles for these.
Oz got far more sedans than coupes, so there were never too many here.You’re not wrong about big money – I haven’t looked for a while, but last I did, you’d be approaching $100K AUD for an original now!
I can’t comment on the Alfa, other than to say it came in a very long line of oddly sullen and porridgey-looking sedans in their otherwise-sparkling history, but I’ve driven a version of the BM and the Mazda. R&T has it about right, though their bias shows in assessing the quality of build: Mazdas then were quite superb. Also, they understate the racket of the frameless BM through the air, and over-estimate the feelful but somewhat vague steering.
I would put the dynamic differentiation to the BM a bit more directly. Japanese cars of then had universally awful seats, steering, ride, damping and handling (other than on something glass smooth). They were just miles behind Europe. When you throw in gaudily-detailed style and interiors marred by the same excess of whirlygiggery, they all felt almost amateur by comparison. (The signs were there, though: the build as mentioned, the excellent, complete functionality of the HVAC and dashes generally, not to mention the superior reliability).
These rotaries were very, very cheap in the ’80’s, often in really excellent condition. The reliability was an issue, but it was more the fuel use (in this country). And for that reason, after nearly buying a few, I didn’t. I don’t regret it. The engines were ofcourse joyous – when flogged, anyway, a bit nasty driven in traffic – but the the vague and deadened and bouncy rest just lacked enough appeal to make up for it.
Hate to nitpick about teeny-weeny detail: Alfa Romeo 1750 is Berlina, not Berlinetta. My family owned a 1971 model, specifically with automatic gearbox.
The article is correct about no optional gearbox for 1750 in the United States, but 1750 did have automatic gearbox option for the international market, albeit in very limited quantity for 1971 model year only. Between 249 and 251 units were fitted with ZF 3-speed automatic gearboxes.
I have experience with 2 of these cars. In 1974, a year after I finished school I decided I was ready to move up in the automotive world. I replaced my 1969 Vauxhall Viva 1600 wagon (HB) with a 1969 Alfa 1750 Berlina. It had all the right specs for a fan of European cars: 5-speed, 4 wheel disc brakes, DOHC, sodium filled exhaust valves. Being a Canadian market car it had dual Webers instead of fuel injection. I was afraid that it would be tempermental, but the carbs never went out of tune, although it did prefer Sunoco super premium. The synchro on second was shot when I got it, but that gave me a chance to learn to double-clutch.
I really enjoyed the car. It handled and rode do much better than any previous car, and it had the feel of a premium car. It was quite quick and was a great highway car. One thing that really stood out was when driving in downtown Toronto on rainy days you could brake when driving on streetcar tracks and not slide all over the road.
Unfortunately the car I bought came from Nova Scotia and the salty sea air caused terminal rust by 1977 (or maybe they all rusted like that). Mechanically everything was great, but the body was shot and it was only 8 years old. I replaced it with a 1976 BMW 2002. The 3 series had just been introduced, but there were still a couple of 2002 demonstrators for sale in Toronto.
It felt a bit down market after the Alfa, but it was very well put together. It did not feel as fast as the Alfa and the 4-speed seemed a bit of a come down. Being a newer car than the Alfa, it had more pollution controls and BMW, like many others, did not really have them sorted out. It was the last year for carbs, and it really showed. For about a week after a tune-up it would idle properly, but most of the time it would stall if you didn’t keep on the throttle a bit.
It was my daily driver for 7 years. I actually kept it for 28 years, and then sold it to my mechanic, as his 2002 had been totaled in an accident.
Both great cars, but I preferred the Alfa.
There is something alluring about the Alfa sedan. I cant figure it out, but I’ve always liked the style. My head says BMW, but the Alfa tugs at my heart. When I visited Milan in ’84, small Alpha family cars, not Fiats, were everywhere.