Spinning in Circles: Mazda's Rotary Ambitions Still Very Much Alive

spinning in circles mazdas rotary ambitions still very much alive

It seems like we get a new update about Mazda’s plan for the rotary engine every few months. The automaker kept tinkering with the technology after the RX-8’s demise, but efficiency mandates left the high-revving Wankel on the sidelines, prohibiting the introduction of a true successor to the rotary coupe. Yet the motor hung around as the company’s likely solution for hybrid cars, recharging the battery while electric propulsion takes care of forward momentum.

While that makes the probability of an RX-9 sound rather bleak, the company doesn’t want anyone to give up hope. Mazda still desires such a vehicle and the company’s European vice president of communications, Wojciech Halarewicz, has basically said it will be a done deal if they can find enough money in the budget for a flagship sports car.

“We know that electric cars will be important in 2020 to 2025, but also that EVs are not the answer for everything,” Halarewicz told Piston Heads. “Combustion engines will still play a part, and if you asked me if I want a rotary sports car at the top of the range, I’d say yes I’d love to have one. Many of my colleagues would too. So it’s a matter of keeping the sales growth going to make sure we can do one in the future.”

That’s not exactly a definitive promise, but with Mazda having spent good money to advance rotary technology, primarily in the service of range extension and prospective hydrogen applications, it would be silly to presume they haven’t learned a few tricks along the way. Maybe there’s already an upsized rotary waiting in a warehouse somewhere, ready for action.

Mitsuo Hitomi, Mazda’s head of engine development, has already hyped the rotary’s potential as a gasoline-driven energy supplement for EVs. While it’s not the most efficient design, it can be made dead silent when operated at a constant speed. Last year, Hitomi said Mazda was working hard to make the setup work as an effective range extender. He noted that the automaker would continue developing a full-sized rotary even if it failed in that role.

Around the same time, Mazda admitted it wanted another RX model, but said it had to be careful. “We have twice had bad experience for rotary engines for our financial situation, therefore we have to carefully consider and carefully decide how to do that,” explained Kiyoshi Fujiwara, Mazda’s head of research and development. “Some of the stakeholders and shareholders cannot allow it at this moment. If we can get more robust business structure, I can explain it, I can get approval. If it’s needed.”

None of this would be noteworthy if we didn’t keep hearing everyone at Mazda saying the exact same thing. Once Mazda has a little extra cash to burn, it can build the RX-9 and its electric push will be a major deciding factor. Mazda’s first EV in scheduled to launch in 2020, thanks to help from Toyota, and more models are to follow. Meanwhile, brand sales have remained robust within Europe and North America, slipping ever so slightly (globally) in 2017 and coming back relatively strong for the first half of 2018.

We’ll have to see how Mazda’s EV sales pan out before we allow ourselves to become preoccupied with the concept of rotary-powered performance model. However, the automaker made patience a difficult virtue to maintain with 2015’s RX-Vision Concept. Mazda’s designs are frequently incredibly sexy and the hypothetical RX-9 remains one of the best-looking automobiles we’ve ever seen.

[Images: Mazda]

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  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Sep 04, 2018

    I'm old enough to remember when the turbine engine failed as a replacement for the ICE. It turned out the turbo was better suited as a forced induction add-on to the ICE, not a replacement for it. I'm still waiting for a smart engineer to realize the CVT should be a component of a transmission too, and not the transmission itself, maybe to reduce losses in shifting by replacing the clutch. Could it be that Wankel's idea has a better future as another component of the ICE, and not a replacement? How about applying it to the valve train instead of the combustion chamber?

  • Erikstrawn Erikstrawn on Sep 04, 2018

    "Mitsuo Hitomi, Mazda’s head of engine development, has already hyped the rotary’s potential as a gasoline-driven energy supplement for EVs. While it’s not the most efficient design, it can be made dead silent when operated at a constant speed." When operated at a constant speed, most of the rotary's deficiencies can be designed away. The piston engine is great for dynamic engine speeds, but rotarys and turbines are great at constant speeds. That would also take away any aspect of fun from a rotary engine. They are incredible motors with dynamic engine speeds, but that just comes with bad emissions and mileage. I think a rotary hybrid would be near soulless compared to an RX-7, but it's a practical application of rotary technology. I'm interested.

  • MaintenanceCosts The sweet spot of this generation isn't made anymore: the SRT 392. The Scat Pack is more or less filling the same space but it lacks a lot of the goodies, including SRT suspension, brakes, and seats. The Hellcat is too much and isn't available with a manual anymore.
  • Arthur Dailey I am normally a fan of Exner's designs but by this time the front end on the Stutz like most of the rest of the vehicle is a laughable monstrosity of gauche. The interior finishes suit the rest of the vehicle. Corey please put this series out of its misery. This is one vehicle manufacturer best left on the scrap heap of history.
  • Art Vandelay I always thought what my Challenger really needed was a convertible top to make it heavier and make visability worse.
  • Dlc65688410 Please stop, we can't take anymore of this. Think about doing something on the Spanish Pegaso.
  • MaintenanceCosts A few bits of context largely missing from this article:(1) For complicated historical reasons, the feds already end up paying much of the cost of buying new transit buses of all types. It is easier legally and politically to put capital funds than operating funds into the federal budget, so the model that has developed in most US agencies is that operational costs are raised from a combination of local taxes and fares while the feds pick up much of the agencies' capital needs. So this is not really new spending but a new direction for spending that's been going on for a long time.(2) Current electric buses are range-challenged. Depending on type of service they can realistically do 100-150 miles on a charge. That's just fine for commuter service where the buses typically do one or two trips in the morning, park through the midday, and do one or two trips in the evening. It doesn't work well for all-day service. Instead of having one bus that can stay out from early in the morning until late at night (with a driver change or two) you need to bring the bus back to the garage once or twice during the day. That means you need quite a few more buses and also increases operating costs. Many agencies are saying for political reasons that they are going to go electric in this replacement cycle but the more realistic outcome is that half the buses can go electric while the other half need one more replacement cycle for battery density to improve. Once the buses can go 300 miles in all weather they will be fine for the vast majority of service.(3) With all that said, the transition to electric will be very good. Moving from straight diesel to hybrid already cut down substantially on emissions, but even reduced diesel emissions cause real public health damage in city settings. Transitioning both these buses and much of the urban truck fleet to electric will have measurable and meaningful impacts on public health.