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Kenichi Yamamoto has died (nytimes.com)
275 points by artsandsci 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

Not only is he the father of Mazda's rotary engine, he also recommended as president that Mazda build the Miata, arguably the best two seater sports car ever made. The Miata probably also kept Mazda in the spotlight and alive through the 90s.

Mazda is an interesting car company. Example: they have 0 electric or hybrid cars and don't have plans to make any afaik. They have a new 'X-Active' gasoline engine that also runs like a diesel at times to gain efficiency and power (https://jalopnik.com/mazdas-upcoming-skyactive-x-compression...). I'm not sure it's a great idea to continue working on gasoline engine technology considering the industry and market, but it is impressive engineering.

They've also managed to keep the Mazda Miata at nearly the same weight (only 300lbs more than the original) and size (3 inches wider, 1 inch shorter) after over 20 years of safety and convenience improvements. I can't think of any other car model that's done that.

Somehow this small car company always punches above its weight, which is impressive.

Having to stop production because you just got nuked and then turning around to become a major car manufacturer within a generation is remarkable.

Too bad the rotary engine never was reliable, practical or efficient but man are they fun cars. I fondly remember the RX-8 in 2004 my friend got for his birthday, that unique wailing rotary sound and go kart like experience is still in the back of my mind. RX-7 still has a ton of demand and held its value if not appreciated for spot clean low mileage cars. I prefer the older generation RX-7 but most of it is limited to Gran Turismo 2 experience.

... spot clean low mileage cars ...

Because the rotary engine has serious wear issues above 100K miles, even with proper maintenance. Which is a shame, really, because piston engines can double or triple that before running into the same sorts of problems (if well maintained).

Is that inherent, or part of having so much more research and experience with pistons? (Will we ever know?)

It's basically inherent.

At there are apex seals at the ends of the triangular rotor that need to stay in contact with the sides of the combustion chamber to prevent blow by and get a complete and efficient burn, so they have springs in them that press them against the walls of the engine. However, metal (or ceramic) to metal contact like that means that they also need to stay lubricated. Unlike the a piston engine's piston rings, there isn't a real easy way to get oil to where the seal is, so you must inject oil into the engine where it will be swept into the combustion chamber. Even then, the apex seals eventually wear out. They basically require a complete engine rebuild to replace.

The combustion chamber is quite long compared to a traditional piston driven engine, and that, combined with the apex seal blowby problem and oil burning problem, means the engine is actually quite inefficient. Rotary engines do not typically have good gas mileage. An RX-8 has a 1.3 L engine but only gets 18 mpg (13L/100km), although it produces 210–235 hp (157–175 kW). It's this poor efficiency that caused Mazda to cease production of Wenkel engines in 2012. They can't pass emissions tests. The Wankel rotary engine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wankel_engine) actually has comparatively poor fuel efficiency. It just also has a high power to weight ratio.

Additionally, the combustion chamber is on one side of the engine, meaning the engine heats up unevenly. That makes it wear unevenly and can make it difficult to get a seal that will work on both the hot side and the cold side.

So, the problems with the Wenkel engine:

1. Lubricate a part that you can't reach and is going to be constantly bathed in fire.

2. Make the combustion of a fuel/air mixture in a long, wide, narrow chamber as efficient as the same fuel/air mixture in a much more ideal cylindrical chamber.

The first paragraph above should begin "At the ends of the triangular rotor there are apex seals that...". I somehow transposed the words there while writing it.

Thanks for the detailed explanation !

It's somewhat inherent to the design.

In a piston engine, the cylinder walls and the sides of the piston form the seal that keeps the combustion contained. You have a lot of metal-oil-metal surface area to work with here, so it's relatively easy to get a good seal.

On a rotary engine, you have comparatively thin apex seals. These wear out quickly, and make it more difficult to get a good seal. Additionally, combustion always happens on the same side of the engine housing, so you tend to get warping, which also makes the sealing problems worse.

Reciprocating engines definitely have their own problems though (e.g. valves), and here I think you can safely argue that our longer history with them has helped a lot.

I had an RX-7 GSL-SE first gen. I never got it working well enough to race though. Damn vacuum tubes everywhere. I ended up selling it after University to some dude who wanted to put a V8 in it. :(

> wailing rotary sound

Instant throwback to the legendary 787B:



That was the one I was actually looking for: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40CXVrMf8bs

For non-US readers like me, the Miata is what we know as the MX-5. I just had to look it up!

Like a classic British sports-car, but affordable, reliable and still in production.

> Like a classic British sports-car, but affordable, reliable and still in production.

For those who aren't aware, Mazda famously bought some Lotus Elans (and some other British classics) and drove them, took them apart, and so on to help them capture the magic. They really did succeed.

Ironically, they were a lot more successful than Lotus was when they made their new Elan which shared a name with the original, and came out the same year as the first Miata.

IIRC the Miata/MX-5 was based upon the idea of the classic British sports car :)

And for importers, it's the Mazda Eunos.

And not just the Miata! Almost every Mazda is the best handler in its class. It’s somewhat tragic they don’t sell as well as they should. They are objectively better in many ways. It’s one of those that having an objectively superior product is not a guarantee to perform well in the market. I truly hope Mazda will be around for many decades to come.

The truth is that most car buyers do not want "objectively better". They want a mobile appliance that they spend no effort to maintain and won't take a significant loss on the resale. The want the Toyota Corolla (now Camry these days). For most people it is the correct buying decision, though driving a Mazda may convert them.

My wife has a Corolla. It's completely fine. It's so functional and inoffensive that I think they should simply call it the Toyota Car or something. That's not even an insult, exactly. It's just that... functional.

I have a Mazda 3. It is honestly a driver's car. Not in terms of raw performance. But I've been driving it since 2008 and it is still a joy to drive every single day.

(It's matched the Corolla for reliability, too! Aside from the damn wheels. 17" rims with low profile tires = rims perpetually getting banged out of whack by potholes. Annoying, but not exactly a mechanical issue with the drivetrain)

There are many times while daily driving the RX7 that I thought I should have just gotten a Corolla. It's an absolutely fantastic car.

But then I'm driving again and the smile is ear to ear.

My first car was an early generation MX3. As well has been incredibly fun to drive and also practical (it had a rear hatch), it was practically indestructible. I literally spent no effort to maintain it. Additionally, Mazda (at the time) had the interesting idea of introducing cars a low price and then increasing the price every year. This kept the resale price high.

I suspect that historically Mazda made a mistake of pricing their cars too low. The Toyota Corolla appealed to NA buyers because it was seen as a "good" car. Mazda cars, in comparison, were seen as "cheap" cars.

I'm looking to buy a new car. How do you measure goodness of a model of car objectively?

You can't really measure it objectively because your reason for buying a car won't be someone else's reason. The most important question is "what are you using the car for?"

Most people don't need a car that's fun to drive, they need a car that is safe, reliable, seats X number of people (depending on family size, carpooling, etc.) gets them and their stuff from point A to point B consistently (differs if you ski, or are a contractor, etc.), and does it at a minimum annual cost once maintenance, gas, insurance, etc. are factored in.

If you drive for fun or race, then reliability isn't your biggest concern, and you probably don't care whether it has more than two seats or any semblance of trunk space. You're going to care mainly about performance metrics.

And then there's aesthetics - which again depends on how much you care about those things.

I'd say for new folks I highly recommend Doug Demuro's youtube channel. Unlike other car reviews that focus on the high end market, I like how he still focuses on extreme details around ergonomics to performance and look. It's the only rating system where I trust.

If you are look for value go with a Hyundai. And I'm not saying this because I'm Korean (or the fact that my birth city is known as Republic of Hyundai due to their reach into every economic sector) but it just doesn't make sense to pay for a Toyota or Honda badge when all the stuff Hyundai gives you included with base costs extra at other dealership. Especially now with the release of i30N (possibly coming to N.A.), built by the guys who brought you Audi and Lamborghini cars (basically an Audi), it's hard to shrug off Hyundai for the extra options and value they include for the base price of competitors. TLDR: You want to go from A to Z for the best bang for your buck.

Having said that, stay away from KIAs if possible. No Korean I know will ever defend it.

> I'd say for new folks I highly recommend Doug Demuro's youtube channel. Unlike other car reviews that focus on the high end market, I like how he still focuses on extreme details around ergonomics to performance and look.

Are you talking about this channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsqjHFMB_JYTaEnf_vmTNqg/vid...

I'm guessing not, since it seems to be almost entirely focused on the high end market. Does he have another channel or something? What am I missing?

My preferred channels are Alex on Autos[1] and sometimes saabkyle04[2]...

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/user/TTACVideo/

[2]: https://www.youtube.com/user/saabkyle04/

There are way too many factors for there to be any single objective way to measure quality of a vehicle.

Personally, I look for an aggressive appearance, good utility in bad weather, and (now) plenty of cargo space.

I'm less concerned about safety and reliability, though obviously I don't want to be driving a deathtrap with loads of maintenance costs. To sanity-check the latter, I look at https://www.carcomplaints.com/ .

Out of curiosity, what drives the "plenty of cargo space" requirement? We're a family with three kids and bought a 6-seat Mazda 5 this year as our only car, on the theory that it has almost no trunk space, but mostly we're just bombing around town doing grocery runs anyway.

In cases of cargo moving (dump dropoff, IKEA pickup, Home Depot), it's typically adult-only trips, so it's really just vacation that's the case where we need a full load of both passengers and cargo. Since vacation is only a few times a year, we figured we'd optimize for the common case and plan to rent a larger van for those instances if necessary, or look at other alternatives, such as a roof box, trailer, whatever.

For my fiancée and me, we need cargo space for two primary use cases: 1. short-distance hauling of large objects and/or numerous objects, and 2. road trips. It's the frequency of both that encourages the purchase of a large vehicle rather than the rental of one.

You don't. It is subjective, to your personal use-case.

The choice of values (what to measure) certainly has many subjective components. That said, a good chunk of people tend to value (to some degree or another): cost of ownership, reliability, fuel economy, performance, appearance, seating/cargo capacity, and resale value. Many of these criteria can be measured, more-or-less, in objective ways. Some criteria tend to vary more across individuals (such as appearance or driver "feel").

I mention this because if a person states their preferences across the attributes they value in a vehicle, it is quite feasible to have a detailed (if not "objective" then at least a rather neutral-point-of-view) discussion about the matching set of vehicles and what they offer across the dimensions.

Major decision factor in buying a car for me is a reliability scores. Mazda's models usually quite low on those scores.

> Mazda's models usually quite low on those scores

I distinctly recall Mazda topped reliability charts in Germany (ADAC? TÜV report? memory fails me) a couple years ago.

I was about to say the same. Whenever I buy a used car I check and Mazda is never near the high end.

I'm on my 2nd Mazda (technically 3rd - had a ford laser which was a sub license of some sort of the Mazda 6 (or 3?)). They require very little maintenance, don't seem to have any problems, service is great, they are great cars.

> It’s somewhat tragic they don’t sell as well as they should. They are objectively better in many ways.

Mazda is basically loosing all comparisons tests in Europe. They do not beat competition with economy or performance. Build quality is also not the best. https://www.auto-motor-und-sport.de/vergleichstest/golf-octa...

Mazda has a plan for electric, they have a tech sharing agreement with Toyota. Mazda gets access to the most widely deployed electric powertrain (Priuses), and Toyota gets access to bleeding edge Mazda gasoline engines to replace their own one-gen-behind with no successor gasoline engine. Win-win for both.

“Win-win for both” is redundant.

(25 years after working as an editor and I’m still “that guy.”)

Mazda and Toyota have created a joint venture to work on electric vehicles [0]. Not sure if they plan to sell cars under the new brand, or if it's a technology company only. I suspect the latter.

[0] - https://www.reuters.com/article/us-toyota-electric-vehicles/...

I would call the Miata the most successful "driver's car". Other sports cars have better numbers and do better at the track, but the Miata is darn fun to drive.

I agree, they never are the fastest, but they know how to make a perfectly balanced in all factors, enjoyable driver's car. Source: I race cars and have driven a Miata on the track.

I read that they plan to introduce an electric in 2019 and use a rotary engine as a range extender. Apparently rotary engines startup much quieter which makes it less jarring when they turn on and off while driving.

Short little read describing the design philosophy behind miata.


I have owned RX-8 which was at the time perhaps only rotary engine car. Here's the thing... its cool engine and makes that great fun noise BUT its very inefficient + strictly requires premium gas and has a very short life. Ours was under warranty until 50K miles and engine died out exactly then. While searching the forums it appeared that this was rather common issue. So cost of the car alone was 0.5 cents per every mile driven, + expensive gas + maintenance.

> he also recommended as president that Mazda build the Miata, arguably the best two seater sports car ever made.

The BMW Z3 would like to have a word. (I was actually going to say the 911, but not being super familiar I had to look it up and it does have a rear seat. Who knew?)

But Mazda has always been a great innovator, especially for the cost. They are the last enthusiast car brand available for the average buyer.

I think the "best sports car ever made" title belongs to Porsche, but on the Cayman instead of the 911.

The Z3/Z4 is a different kind of sports car than the Miata/S2000 kind. It's heavier which required a stronger/heavier engine to maintain Miata-like power-to-weight. The suspension is softer and, due to the car's heavier weight, less nimble. It's closer to GT car than sports car.

I've driven both and I'll have to respectfully disagree here. The Z3 was plenty nimble and along with more get-up and go, it was tighter and less like a go-kart (not to knock go karts, I have an e30). Don't get me wrong, the Miata was great, I just don't think it was a Z3. Also, the Z3 M Coupe was the coolest looking car I've ever seen (Clownshoe!).

Interesting you would argue the Z3 was heavier when the Boxster (986) was only 100 kg lighter than the Z3 M roadster and the Z3 was basically the same as the Boxster. I've never driven a Boxster or Cayman, however, so I can't comment much further than that.

One of the nicer things to happen at Porsche in recent times was their realization that the Cayman could be more than the entry-level kid brother to the 911. Those racing Caymans are inspiring and what they've done with the fuel efficient four-cylinder engine in the production model is pretty great.

Not that there's anything wrong with the entry-level ones. It'd be incredibly fun to own a flat six Cayman, and they sell so cheaply used that I wonder why they aren't more popular.

Nobody is going to yell at you for calling the 911 a sports car (and they don't all have rear seats, I assure you). They'll regard you as an eccentric if your choice for best sports car has the engine in entirely the wrong place, however...

The Z3 is an interesting comparison. Inexpensiveness was part of the British formula that Mazda preserved, and it's not present with something like a Z3. I guess whether you regard that as important is a question of taste, or politics.

I'd watch yourself in certain parts of the Internet or certain meet-ups if you throw those words around about the 911.

I was responding mostly to the absolute statement "best two seater sports car ever made". I think the Miata is a great car, probably the best intro sports car if you are into grassroots racing or similar hobbyist activities, but I'd take the Z3 over it for most purposes.

You're a BMW enthusiast, though.. Of course you'd choose the Z3, haha.

But they really aren't in the same class. Z3's are tourers, not sports cars per se'. But then again, MX-5's are roadsters, not sports cars in the practical sense. They don't exist in the same market bracket and fulfil entirely different ownership purposes :)

My personal opinion however, after finally settling on a NA mx-5 for my weekend race car, is that the mx-5 is honestly one of the best bang-for-buck circuit cars you can get. With only ~$10k invested in mine, it happily outpaces cars 6-10x the value.

I have an air cooled 911, and I do try to have a sense of humor about them. It's true enough that people can be pretty sensitive/weird about cars.

The trouble with this sort of thing is, if you're going to remove practicality and low cost from the equation when making your "best sports car" assessment, you're competing against every sports car ever made by Ferrari, Porsche, Jaguar, etc. on their own terms. Pretty much all the reasons why you'd say a Z3 is a better sports car than, say, a Jaguar E-Type involve practicality and cost, I would think.

> I can't think of any other car model that's done that.

The VW beetle wants to have a talk with you. :)

Most ford cars use engine designs from Mazda, including the mustangs. I'm sure they do this for some of the other major auto manufacturers.

> They have a new 'X-Active' gasoline engine that also runs like a diesel at times to gain efficiency and power

And in terms of performance and economy matches a "classical" solution nowadays (direct injection + turbo): https://goo.gl/YWZs6v, https://goo.gl/zckvun

> Somehow this small car company always punches above its weight, which is impressive.

Mazdas look a little bit differently but in terms of technology there is nothing impressive about them.

The first commercial Wankel engine was brought by NSU in the 60s. They licensed the technology to other manufacturers, including a consortium (Comotor) of many well known manufacturers, that shared research results between them. Already in the early 1970s, Mercedes Benz solved the apex seal problem, created engines with side ports, and three-rotor racing Wankel engines (see Mercedes Benz C111). They concluded that the Wankel engine had an inherent, fundamental fuel efficiency problem and thus abandoned the project. Mazda realized the same conclusion in the early 2000s, it being the only problem of Wankel engines nowadays.

I'd say Mazda realized the fuel effiency problem much earlier than the early 2000s, but they still wanted to produce a car that was a symbol for the technology and the company's history. It was also unique and sold well enough because of that.

Right. The lack of of a rotary Mazda on the market right now is really more of a success story for politicians and government regulation. It is a good thing, but we are poorer some damn fun cars because of it. That said, you're not really going to truly enjoy it east of the Mississippi anyway...

Disclosure: RX-7 owner.

>is really more of a success story for politicians and government regulation.

Why? I thought the latest Mazda rotary engines were of very low emissions.

Not really; they're burning oil all the time because the seals need to be actively lubricated. And to the extent that "low emissions" can be claimed, it's achieved by burning the uncombusted fuel in the exhaust stream, which is cool but horrendously inefficient.

Then again, who knows: http://www.thedrive.com/new-cars/14064/mazda-confirms-rotary...

No and this may be inherently due to the rotary engines design.

> Right. The lack of of a rotary Mazda on the market right now is really more of a success story for politicians and government regulation.

I've heard that many RX-8s didn't keep factory spec after relatively short period of usage. They require also quite often (every 30-40000 km) the change of apex seals.

What is life?

It is the flash of a firefly in the night.

It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.

It is the little shadow which runs across

the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

   --Attributed to Crowfoot (ca 1830-1890), chief of the Canadian Blackfoot tribe.

Who downvoted this comment? This is a beautiful poem reminding how short life is. However you are achieved and done it passes like a flash. What is wrong with some people? They are trigger happy I guess, downvoting what they could not understood. Shissh!

I didn't downvote, but your comment has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the thread.

It is. We all live a life, like Kenichi, successful or not, full of achievement, but in the end we all die. The poem tells how short the life is regardless.

Some HN readers are one dimensional people, even worse can not ponder for a second and give the benefit of doubt.

Also, downvote should be for something negative, not just you think it is irrelevant.

As a car nut, Mazda holds the most special place in my heart. Affordable, reliable, and fun cars to drive. They proved you could have it all. And when driving them, you get the sense that it was made by happy, passionate engineers who never had to compromise their principles.

I think the NSU/Audi Ro-80 [0, 1] predates Mazda, isn't?

And Mazda (as well as Citroen and others) used this engine, I think.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSU_Ro_80

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wankel_engine#Early_developmen...

It says he is the father of Mazda´s rotary engine, not of all rotary engines.

no doubt the Takahashi brothers are mourning this one

Mr. Yamamoto deceased on Dec 20th, 2017. The title should probably be noted "(2017)

That would be misleading given that it was 17 days ago.

It's already misleading because the title made me think it happened today or at least this year.

The clear thing would have been to use the full date.

The purpose of these year doodads is to show something isn't recent news and how unrecent it is. This is recent news.

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