Mazda Motor Corporation used the Detroit auto show to unveil a four-door RX-8 sports car that it calls a ‘design and engineering model’ but is almost certain to put into production.

Based on the RX-Evolv concept car introduced at the 1999 Tokyo motor show, the RX-8 is considerably closer to a production car than its predecessor.

“With its four-door freestyle door system, four-passenger comfort and 250-horsepower Renesis rotary engine, the Mazda RX-8 is the next big thing in sports cars,” said Mazda president Mark Fields.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see this car – or something very close – on the world’s highways in the not-so-distant future.”

Specification highlights include the powerful, lightweight and compact rotary motor, a ‘mid-ship’ engine layout with 50:50 front/rear weight distribution said to dramatically enhance control and handling, a ‘freestyle’ door system, with front- and rear-hinged doors and no centre pillar, that makes getting into and out of the rear seats faster and easier, four seats and a stylish interior design, made from both traditional and newly-developed materials, that appears to wrap around the passengers

Mazda says the compact rotary engine allows for a coupe’s low hood, short overhangs, and sporty looks while providing interior room on par with a sports sedan.

After 40 years, Mazda is the only automobile manufacturer in the world that still offers a pure rotational internal combustion engine.

“It all starts with the rotary engine,” said Phil Martens, the Ford subsidiary’s managing director in charge of product strategy, design and product and powertrain development.

“The new Renesis unit is naturally aspirated, and it is 30% lighter and more compact than the turbocharged rotary engine (13B-REW) in the current RX-7. The engine’s weight, size, low centre of gravity, and positioning in the vehicle give the car excellent manoeuvrability and high-end performance.”

The central mid-mounted powertrain layout positions the engine behind the front axle, even closer to the centre of the car than with Mazda’s typical front mid-ship rotary engine layout.

The engine will develop up to 280 horsepower at 9,000 RPM, Martens said, and will meet Stage IV emissions in Europe at launch.

The RX-8 protoype is the 8th car in Mazda’s RX sports car series, and follows the famous and long-lived RX-7 coupe.