Mazda and the Rotary Tease Posted on 08 Dec 15:53


     It seems to have become an almost yearly occurrence, rumors of a new rotary powered sports car.  The latest fervor of news came when Mazda released the RX-Vision, the most blatant tease yet that there may be yet another rotary powered sports car.  Media outlets all gushed over the design, and rightfully so, it had all the right lines.  Long rakish body, a signature modern Mazda front fascia (their so-called Kodo design), and even a nod to the RX-7 heritage can be seen in the tail lights.  Everything seemed right with the world and even Mazda themselves confirmed this would be a rotary powered machine, being dubbed the Skyactiv-R drivetrain.  So the news this week of Mazda's CEO Masamichi Kogai splashing cold water on the idea in an interview with Automotive News where he shot down the possibility of a new rotary powered sports car, comes as quite a surprise.  It is a huge reversal and Kogai not only rescinds the short term possibility of rotary power, but also signals a potential move toward hybrid electric power within the line up.  This too is a major about face, considering Mazda years ago took the stance of optimizing gas engines to the highest level possible instead of seeking out electric band-aids to achieve efficiency.  So what gives?

      Mazda is in the midst of a significant strategy shift.  The company's focus seems to be more intent on creating not only the fun, enjoyable driving experience that has become the identity of the brand, but to also impart more refinement and upscale feel.  The added posh-ness is an effort to bring pricing up for the brand.  Their new full size SUV the CX-9, is a clear indicator with an interior that is quite un-Mazda like and more akin to brands in the premium price spectrum.  This is a fairly understandable move on their part, Mazda is a small company competing with manufacturing behemoths.  There may be some limitations to how much more market share they can gain (ie: sales increases), so the only option to keep profits healthy would be naturally to charge more.  Sales have flattened a bit, the stock price has been stagnant at best, so the large cost and commitment required to develop a new model, let alone a niche one such as the RX-9 would be a pretty big risk. 

     My speculation, is that any advancements that have been made regarding the Skyactiv-R engine were still limited.  It has been long believed an increase in displacement was step one, with the old 1.3 liter model being upped to a 1.6 liter version dubbed the 16x in earlier development years.  This might cover the power side of the equation, but it certainly wouldn't help emissions.  There have been rumors of everything from direct injection, to laser ignition, and everything in between but at face value it would seem that there still has not been the magic breakthrough necessary to make the rotary feasible again.  Here we get back to the size of Mazda, they are small and limited.  They must be commended for committing to developing the Wankel engine, but with limited resources and being the ONLY ones doing it, there is no doubt progress moves at a snail's pace.  Relative to the advances in traditional piston engines, which has moved at light speed in comparison thanks to basically everyone else in the world innovating, researching and doggedly competing to make the best engine there is (Mazda included).  Given these conditions, I do not know that Mazda can ever catch up and bring the rotary into the future, because it is chasing a moving target that frankly moves faster than their small company could ever hope to.  I would speculate this is what Kogai is referencing when he mentions the next rotary would need to be a long term prospect (read 5-7 years).  The Renesis engine was the last iteration of the rotary to be feasible, but it really never advanced throughout it's run, it was just too restricted by emissions needs.  A turbocharged Renesis never happened, and throughout its 9 year run, never saw any significant increase in power.  That's a tough proposition, as most cars (certainly sports cars) see some type of power bump in mid-generation.  

     So what scenarios could give rotorheads some hope?  I've considered a few, and one is the "super car" scenario.  Now this seems most unlikely for Mazda, but it would require that the RX-9 be something to rival the new NSX or the R35 GT-R before it.  Something that promises incredible performance, a certain amount of refinement, much more limited production numbers, and of course a fairly hefty price tag that would exceed anything like the RX cars of old.  An RX-9 that came in at, or close to 6 figures, might better justify or cover the expense of developing such a car.  A lack of fuel efficiency is probably much more likely to be overlooked in this segment as well, but the huge caveat is whether it could make the big horsepower demands of a super car and still pass emissions.  That is quite a big "if" indeed.  The only bigger "if", is would anyone even buy a hundred thousand dollar Mazda to begin with? 

     Being able to beat emissions is a huge hurdle, which brings scenario two; alien technology.  OK, I say that in jest, but the reality is there would need to be some kind of technological breakthrough in that basement filled with Wankel headed engineers working away on the Skyactiv-R, that transcends anything that has come before it.  The inherent design disadvantages to the rotary would almost require some kind of "magic" solution such as this, but I won't pretend to be clever enough to even speculate on what that magic would entail. 

     The last scenario, is one that Kogai may have hinted at, hybrid electric technology. Truth be told, I would rather see either of the previous two scenarios than this.  I would rather see the rotary never return in fact, over becoming a hybrid "range extender".  Does that make any other rotary fans vomit in their mouth a little too?  This would be a shame, essentially an electric car, with the rotary engine only on board to provide greater range and make fun noises.  A sad end to a once proud and truly unique legacy that saw fire breathing powerhouses propelling screaming drag cars, LeMans 24 hour winners, and drift cars, reduced to a neutered novelty of a selling point.  If that really is the only way Mazda, it pains me to say it, but let the rotary die.  Maybe the MX-5 really is enough?

-written by: Robert Sixto