Mazda rotary engine not dead, RX-8 production not finished

Assembling Mazda rotary engine

A Mazda worker assembles a rotary engine. Mazda photo, author archives.

Contrary to reports by assorted crepe-hangers, the Mazda will not stop developing of the rotary engine. According to a statement by Mazda in Japan, the Mazda RX-8 will remain in production with a special Spirit R model until June, 2012, but Takashi Yamanouchi, chairman of the board, president and CEO, added, “Although RX-8 production is ending, the rotary engine will always represent the spirit of Mazda and Mazda remains committed to its ongoing development.”

Yamanouchi cited Mazda’s racing successes with the rotary engine, notably at Le Mans, saying “Throughout 2011, we have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of that victory by demonstrating the winning 787B racecar at Le Mans’ Circuit de La Sarthe and various other events around the world.”

However, Mazda’s involvement with the rotary engine dates back to 1963, when then-president Tsuneji Matsuda assigned Kenichi Yamamoto to head up Mazda’s development of the mechanical novelty seemingly destined not to go farther than the cover of Mechanix Illustrated. Matsuda didn’t hold any particular brief for the then wildly unproven rotary, but told Yamamoto that Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) intended to merge Toyo Kogyo (as Mazda was then known and then still family-owned) out of existence as a part of a general plan to consolidate the country’s automotive industry.

1991 Mazda HR-X concept

The peculiar 1991 Mazda HR-X concept vehicle was powered by a hydrogen-fueled rotary engine, Mazda already looking into alternative fuels. Mazda photo, author archives.

Matsuda believed that by adopting the rotary, Toyo Kogyo would have a “technological charter” and therefore a reason to maintain its autonomy. As Yamamoto later explained to Automotive News, “Rather than profit, we went after an identity and independence.” If for no other reason than honoring one’s ancestors and loyalty to the machine that saved the company, Mazda will continue to work on the rotary.

A need to devote engineering resources on Skyactiv technologies has slowed progress on the rotary engine, for example keeping a new larger, redesigned rotary, the 16X first revealed at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, like Annie’s tomorrow always a day away. That engine had a narrower rotor with a greater “stroke”, and along with direct injection was said to improve the engine’s thermal efficiency, which would address one to the rotary’s greatest hurdles, fuel economy, as we noted in our review of the 2011 Mazda RX-8.

Reports have the rotary engine returning optimistically as early as 2017 in whatever form, although the “13B”dimensions that date back to the early 1970s are likely history. Mazda must also determine which vehicle type—in the past Mazda even powered a bus and a pickup truck with the rotary engine—would suit the new rotary.

2012 Mazda RX-8 Spirit R

2012 Mazda RX-8 Spirit R, the last Mazda RX-8 series

Mazda has ended export of the Mazda RX-8, and expects to build about 1,000 of the final series of the four-seat sports car. Dubbed the Mazda RX-8 Spirit R—named after the last edition of the Mazda RX-7 in Japan—the last RX-8s will be specially trimmed and equipped Japan-market RX-8 Type RS (with six-speed manual transmission) and RX-8 Type E (with six-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission) models.

With imports to the U.S. having ended, the only way to get a new Mazda RX-8 in America is to buy one of the about 200 cars left on dealers’ lots. Fans of the rotary engine need not despair, then, only be patient and not give up on the rotary engine. Mazda hasn’t.