To many purists, Mazda will forever be linked to the rotary engine that the company first launched in the 1968 Familia Rotary Coupe.

Throughout the years, rotary engines have played a significant part in the company’s history, and the current death of the rotary engine is particularly painful to fans of its RX series sports cars.

Ironically, the engine so strongly tied to Mazda’s past may also represent its path into the future. Thanks to its compact size and light weight, the rotary engine may be the best choice to power the onboard generator used in future extended range electric vehicles (EREVs).

Rotary engines have some obstacles to overcome first. Fuel efficiency needs to be improved, which will also lower the rotary engine’s high emissions output.

Low end torque from a rotary is notoriously lacking, but Mazda is looking to improve that  by going with a larger bore. Both the fuel efficiency and low-end torque issues may be addressed by a SkyActiv rotary engine that Mazda is rumored to be working on.

Mazda wasn’t the first to proceed down the rotary-powered EREV development path. Instead, it was Audi that showed the rotary-powered A1 e-tron EREV at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show.

That allegedly led to talks between Audi and Mazda, and rumors that Mazda was developing a special-purpose rotary engine for the Audi A1 e-tron. It’s likely that such an  engine could also be used to power future Mazda EREVs.

As Automotive News (subscription required) points out, the rotary engine may still have a future in conventional automobiles, but only if Mazda can work out the issues around fuel economy, emissions and drivability. Developing new engines costs money, and much of Mazda’s R&D budget has been used to develop the conventional Sky Active engines and transmissions.

That really brings it full circle, with funding of future rotary programs dependent upon the sales success of Mazda’s new Sky Activ products. For the rotary engine to pave the way to Mazda’s future, first the convention engine must pave the way to future rotary designs.