In With the Old, In With the New: Mazda's Rotary Return Might Leave RX-7/RX-8 Fans Disappointed

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Mazda, an automaker that lacks even the mildest of hybrid vehicles, has announced a plan to change its gas-obsessed image. In doing so, the “fun” Japanese brand will return a novel internal combustion engine to the automotive landscape: the rotary engine.

We’ve talked up this possibility ad nauseum in the past, but the plan’s now official. Announced Tuesday, Mazda will add a rotary engine as a range extender for its electrification program, with the first rotary-equipped hybrid production vehicle appearing in 2020.

Traditionally, range extenders appear in the form of an existing engine from the automaker’s car line. Take the 1.5-liter four-cylinder in the Chevrolet Volt, for example. Other automakers, in the interest of packaging, use something smaller. BMW uses a 700cc two-cylinder for its i3 REx.

Mazda feels the flat profile of a rotary engine, coupled with its inherent smoothness, makes it the perfect unobtrusive powerplant for range-extended electric vehicles. Appearing alongside the rotary-equipped “hybrid” in 2020 will be a full-on electric vehicle. The automaker’s last production application for a rotary engine was the RX-8, which disappeared in 2012.

Despite recent attempts to squeeze extra MPGs out of the ICE (the brand’s Skyactiv-X compression-ignition gasoline engine appears next year), Mazda can’t ignore the need for zero-emission vehicles in certain markets. Electrification couldn’t be ignored forever. Nor can range anxiety. In this application, the sole responsibility of Mazda’s new rotary is to recharge the EV’s battery on the fly, with the drive wheels remaining perpetually out of its reach.

“The concept behind the rotary-powered range extender was to leverage the rotary engine’s small size and high power output to make multiple electrification technology solutions possible via a shared packaging layout,” the automaker stated in a release.

By 2030, 95 percent of new Mazda vehicles will employ “some form of electrification,” with the remaining 5 percent made up of pure battery-electric vehicles. The automaker claims its rotary is also compatible with liquefied petroleum gas. A more traditional mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid will appear in 2019 and 2021, respectively, Automotive News reports.

As a smaller automaker, Mazda found itself with meager resources for its electrification program. A strategic partnership with Toyota, supplier Denso, and other Japanese automakers changed that. Through the partnership (EV Common Architecture Spirit Co.), the OEMs plan to collaborate on the development of electrified powertrain components that can be used in any number of vehicle segments.

“We’ve seen drastic changes in automotive-related environmental policies all over the world,” CEO Akira Marumoto said at a Tokyo news conference. “We at Mazda are keeping an eye on what is going on in the industry as we move forward with our strategy.”

For rotary purists, Marumoto again offered a ray of hope. A conventional rotary-powered vehicle is still a possibility, he said, but Mazda is in no position to greenlight its development.

“That is the dream of Mazda,” Marumoto said. “So, my role is to make Mazda prosper so we can release such a model.”

[Image: © 2018 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Boff Boff on Oct 02, 2018

    "Might" leave rotary fans disappointed??? That's like saying a thermonuclear exchange "might" cause some loss of life. I'm disappointed, but not surprised. But if Mazda releases another rotary-powered sports car (i.e. one where the rotary engine drives the wheels directly and makes a lot of noise doing it), I'll be one of the first in line.

  • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Oct 02, 2018

    Tesla does not make rotary engine or any other "range extender". And iMac does not have floppy disk drive and even DVD drive. That's all you need to know.

  • ToolGuy Tungsten trim? I am holding out for the Depleted Uranium trim.
  • Proud2BUnion Mr. Allen Wrench needs tungsten to live!
  • Lorenzo All the efforts made over decades to reduce/eliminate NVH in ICE cars, and now they're putting noise and vibration into electric cars. It reminds me of efforts to make veggie burgers taste like meat. Vegetarians don't want the taste of meat, and meat eaters will want meat, not veggie burgers.
  • Jalop1991 A true golf cart.Sure, it's a penalty box inside. But you're not in it for more than a few minutes at a time during commutes and in between charging stops.Ergo, it's the cart.
  • Zipper69 I'm sure it will sell just fine at all trim levels.I'd only note that IMHO the dashboard is a bit of a busy mess.