2009 Mazda RX-8

2009 Mazda RX-8

No automaker in history has done more to further the rotary-engine design of Felix Wankel than Mazda. Originally used by Mazda in the 1967 Mazda Cosmo, the rotary engine has powered numerous Mazda cars over the years, including the RX-2, RX-3, RX-7 and RX-8. Mazda even sold a rotary-powered pickup truck between 1974 and 1977.

The company praised the advantages of the rotary’s design, including smooth power delivery, light weight and fewer moving parts. That may have been the case, but the rotary has had a few significant flaws since day one: it doesn’t burn as clean as a traditional piston engine, it consumes oil in order to lubricate engine seals and it gulps gasoline when pushed hard.

Mazda’s latest rotary engine, the Renesis, was developed for use in its RX-8 sports car. Fans praised the cars handling, while critics panned its incessant thirst for gasoline, especially when the RX-8 was driven aggressively. Though sales of the RX-8 never met Mazda’s expectations, the car has soldiered on in Mazda’s catalog for eight years, but the RX-8 is now end of life after the 2011 model year.

For years, rumors had circulated about a Mazda RX-9, which was rumored to be more of a “pure” sports car than the four-seat RX-8. Power would come from a revised and cleaner-burning rotary engine, possibly as part of a hybrid drivetrain. Development of the new car and engine had been stalled by the 2008 industry collapse, and again by this year’s earthquake and tsunami.

Now comes word from Mazda’s executive officer for powertrain development, Kiyoshi Fujiwara, that the automaker is currently engaged in a “huge discussion” over the continuation of its rotary program. Development has even been officially halted for now, for both engineering and budgetary reasons.

On the engineering side, Fujiwara admits that only two of three significant engineering challenges for the new rotary engine have been overcome; however, he would not address what the issues were or what obstacle remained.

On the financial side of things, Mazda is focused on the development and launch of its upcoming Skyactiv products, which the automaker hopes will prove a commercial success. If Skyactiv brings in money, then there may be development funding for a new rotary after all. If it doesn’t, the future for the rotary engine looks bleak at Mazda.

If there's a glimmer of hope, it's this: Fujiwara and other Mazda executives view the rotary engine as part of Mazda's soul, and an essential ingredient in the mix that separates Mazda from other automakers. Still, passion may not be enough to overcome all the financial and technical challenges to future rotary engine development at Mazda, and shelving the project for the time being is another likely possibility.

That’s not to say that the rotary is dead in the industry. Audi showed the A1 e-tron extended-range electric vehicle prototype at this year's Geneva Motor Show, featuring a rotary engine used to power the generator. Since the rotary can be tuned for a specific load and RPM, its compact size and light weight may make it the ideal engine for such applications. Perhaps the rotary engine has a future after all.

[Ward's Auto]