The NSU Ro80 is quite an uncommon car. Some will say that its rotary engine, badly made during the first few years of production, is the main reason why NSU doesn’t exist anymore, bankrupting the company, engines failing after 10000km while still under warranty. “Some” might very well be right. But what about the car itself? What if all this was just a big misunderstanding?
Full disclosure: Yup, I like rotaries.So much actually that I convinced a friend to order this one from me. Convincing someone to buy a rotary... I did it!
Exterior - 6/10
The NSU Ro80 is a big, slightly goofy looking executive car from the 60's. Wait... From the 60's??? I actually had to write those words to realize how advanced the design of the Ro80 really is. The line of the car is pure, elegant, the car seems to have been made solely to crush through the West-German air of the autobahn at high speed. But why does it still look somewhat weird? I think the part of the design that ruins it is the rear. I know some like it, but it’s really not my cup of tea... Claus Luthe, its designer, started with the 3/4 front view of the car, then decided that it was time to go back home and butchered the rear. A shame, I think the car could have become one of those intemporal design that last decennies, like the Mercedes 300D, if it wasn’t for this boot design.
Interior - 9/10
This is where we approach 1960's perfection and why the car ended up being built for a bit over a decade without any change. The interior just genuinely looks good. The cloth seats of my specific car are almost just as nice as when it came out from the factory. The whole thing is extremely well built and feels solid. That, and you have space, A LOT of space, whether you’re on the front seats or on the rear seats of the car. So let’s get over this again: spacious, well-built, good looking and rather unique. That’s a win in my book.
Toys - 4/10
Lots of buttons, along with a couple of extra custom ones to activate the fan manually in the summer or in traffic, gauges and warning lights you have to try and figure out. So not bad... Sure it’s not aModel S, but that’s still quite a lot to toy with for the time!
Audio - 7/10
Not only do you have a decent radio (and factory fitted at that!!) but you also have the noise of the secret weapon that is fitted in this car. I guess it is now time to let you know: Instead of the 2-rotor Comotor engine that was fitted originally, it has a 2-rotor tuned NA 13b Mazda engine developing around 175hp instead of the original 115 that the car made coming out of factory. This thing screams all the way to 7500/8000 rpm and damn does it sound nice! Sure some of you might not like it compare it to a weird 2-stroke engine noise, but I don’t care, I love it!
Acceleration - 8/10
8 out of 10?? This thing must do 0 to 60 in less than 5s!! Let me be clear with you on that, no it doesn’t. Maybe 7s at best if you’re lucky, downhill with a strong tailwind. It’s not so much how fast it accelerates, as it is how smooth it does. The car is coupled with a 3 speed gearbox. This means that gears are loooooooooong, very loooooooooong and this is exactly why it is so nice! Combined with the never ending revs of the tuned 175hp 13b engine that was swapped in a few years ago, it’s a non-stop pull, as if you were driving a single gear car. You can even start in 3rd and pull yourself all the way to 230kph (don’t ask how I know it) in just that gear if you want. Smooth, torquey enough (yes, “torquey” I said it!), with never ending revs. That’s how I like my accelerations to be when I drive a West-German cruising boat!
Brakes - 6/10
Disc brakes on all corners was a rare sight at the time and despite maybe lacking a bit of bite compared to modern cars, they do their job “in an appropriate manner”, granted that I haven’t really pushed the car enough to see what happens on a long downhill run. The lack of engine brakes of the rotary would most likely not help. They are great for daily, regular use though.
Ride - 8/10
I know. This picture has nothing to do in the “Ride” section. I just didn’t know where to put it.
We are nearly reaching “Citroen DS” levels of comforts on this one. It glides on the road like a modern German saloon car would. The whole thing gets very small bodyroll for a car of this era and combines comfort with decent handling which is also quite surprising. Combination of great comfortable seats and softish suspension make a car that I had no problem driving for close to 1500km in a couple of days last november.
Gearbox - 8/10
The gearbox on the car is part of what makes the Ro80 unique. It’s not exactly an automatic, but it’s not really a manual either. The whole clutch system is vacuum based. The mere fact of touching the gear knob activates the clutch. It’s not really a button, as you don’t even feel like you’re doing anything other than touching a regular shifter, but it works like one. Put your hand on the gear lever and shift. It works like a manual (minus the clutch pedal), it’s just as reactive, you don’t have to wait for a kick down like with automatics nor will it shift by itself when you don’t want it to. It’s a lot better and smoother than a Saab clutch less gearbox equivalent for example. And when you come to a stop, no problem, it works like an automatic. If you are used to drive with your hand on the gear shift though, you might be in for surprises along the trip. Soon after getting the car, I ended up being stuck at a gas station one morning, shifting into first and trying to move, not understanding what the hell was going on. After 2 minutes or so, not figuring out why the car wouldn’t move, I realized that I was getting mad at the car while holding the shifter, therefore activating the clutch this whole time. I felt VERY stupid. Also: dogleg shifter with a 3-speed. THAT is cool.
Handling - 6/10
Onboard video shot in the south of France, where I bought the car.
I would qualify the handling as sufficient. It is a bit floaty at times, especially if you start pushing it a little. The direction is not very precise, neither are the 10 year old tires currently fitted on the car. But, just like brakes, handling is “appropriate” for such a car. Like most FF setups in this category, it will under-steer constantly and no amount of throttle lift-off will make it change its mind. Nothing too extreme, but don’t forget that the upgraded engine makes the car a lot faster than it was supposed to go. Don’t rush it, don’t push it too hard and everything will be alright!
Value - 6/10
I paid 7600€ for this car in near pristine condition. Cars like this are rare and fairly unique but they don’t have a very big following base. It might not be a good investment, especially considering that it won’t really go under 20 US mpg, as rotaries, even NA ones, tend to be a bit thirsty. But it’s fun, fast, comfortable, and chances are that you won’t lose too much money on one if you take good care of it. Yes, rotaries ARE reliable if you know what you’re doing, maintain them, don’t rush them when cold and don’t try to get 600hp out of their small displacement.
A great big car that proves that rotaries could also have been great engines in non-sport oriented cars. Smoothness, comfort, all this while buzzing around France’s country roads is a great experience and probably one of the best place to drive such a car! A lot of fun and a car I recommend to anyone who can take care of it properly. A car that could have been... But hey, it’s never too late!
Special thanks to Richard Flower, the previous owner of this car, who bombarded me with so much interesting history and technical infos about this car and kept crazy good care of it for all these years!