It’s been nearly seven years since the last time a new Mazda with a rotary engine graced the carmaker’s showrooms. That was the RX-8, an odd-looking four-door coupe with a highfalutin’, high-revving powertrain beneath its hood and a sweetly balanced chassis. Since then, Mazda fanatics have spent many an hour clamoring for a new rotary-powered sports car, sustained only by the endless trickle of rumors that such a vehicle was just beyond the horizon.
We already knew Mazda was planning on resurrecting the rotary; that much was made clear by the company’s head honcho Mitsuo Hitomi earlier in 2019, when he revealed a new version of the company’s iconic powerplant would be used as a range-extending generator for Mazda’s first electric car, the MX-30 crossover. But the engine became famous for its appearances in sporty cars like the RX-8 and its RX-7 predecessor, so perhaps unsurprisingly, the carmaker’s own higher-ups still want to build a lithe, entertaining car with this engine beneath its hood.
“We never give up on that dream,” Mazda design boss Ikuo Maeda told Australia’s Which Car at the Tokyo Auto Show this month, on the subject of creating a new rotary-powered sports car. “I understand the clock is ticking and the environment can change. We have to see if the future environment will accept a sports car with open arms. So we understand we are racing against time.”
That “race against time” Maeda mentioned, presumably, refers to the rapid global push towards automotive electrification which threatens to render internal combustion irrelevant. Carmakers across every continent are slashing development budgets for gas-powered vehicles and their powerplants in order to dump cash into EV development — and Mazda, as a small automaker, has less cash than many of its competitors, forcing it to be more strategic about its expenditures.
One way the carmaker could cut down on costs, of course, is through platform-sharing — building a sports car with another brand, the way Toyota has with its 86 and Supra. That’s not in the cards right now, however.
“We currently do not have such plans at all,” Maeda said. But, he added, “I think we probably need to explore various different ways to actually realize it, because what’s important is actually [getting] the sports car to market.”
What, exactly, is a rotary engine?
A rotary engine, simply put, is an internal combustion engine where the priamry moving parts spin around instead of pumping up and down.
In conventional piston-powered engines — basically, almost every gas- or diesel-powered car, truck, train, or motorcycle you’ve ever used — power is generated by detonating fuel inside a cylinder to generate pressure; that pressure pushes a metal piston inside that cylinder down, creating the mechanical force that eventually makes its way out of the engine to do work (drive the wheels, spin the alternator to generate electricity, etc.). A rotary engine is also powered by combustion, but in it, the cylinders are replaced by a rotor or rotors that spin around its center inside a combustion chamber.
The rotary engine (also known as a Wankel engine, after inventor Felix Wankel) spins very fast by combustion engine standards, and generates higher power per unit of displacement than piston-based engines; the RX-8’s engine was just 1.3 liters in size, yet cranked out 238 horsepower at 8,250 rpm. But the design means they achieve worse fuel economy and pump out more emissions than piston engines of similar size and power; the RX-8’s fuel economy figures are comparable to a V-8-powered pickup truck. The engine also consumes oil at a faster rate than piston engines, further preventing it from achieving widespread use.
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Pictured at top: Mazda RX-Vision Concept