Mazda RX-VISION sport car concept heralds return of rotary power

Mazda RX-VISION 2015 Tokyo Motor Show concept

The Mazda RX-VISION concept sport car at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show heralds the return of the rotary engine.

Sometimes we like to be wrong…and this is one of them. When Mazda teased us with a cryptic rendering of the concept car it would debut at the Tokyo Motor Show, we figured sure, a sports car, but probably not powered by a rotary engine. It’s a good thing we put the “probably” in there, because the Mazda RX-VISION is indeed, as its “RX” cognomen indicates, rotary powered.

It represents, per Mazda’s prepared text, “a vision of the future that Mazda hopes to one day make into reality; a front-engine, rear-wheel drive sports car with exquisite, KODO design-based proportions only Mazda could envision, and powered by the next-generation SKYACTIV-R rotary engine.”

Mazda RX-VISION

The Mazda RX-VISION shares the sleek look of the third generation RX-7 with the grille of the Mazda6. (click to enlarge)

The RX-VISION would be startling enough even if its power remained a mystery. It’s a stunning design, reminiscent of the fluid lines of third generation RX-7, more so than the edgier Mazda RX-8. Also unlike the RX-8, the RX-VISION is a true two-door, two-seater rather than the two-and-a-half-door that was the RX-8’s unfortunate compromise to allow access to what passed as rear seats. But while the double-bubble roof of the RX-VISION comes from the RX-7, the grille is current Mazda KODO design, directly from the Mazda Mazda6 (although it appears the RX-VISION has popup headlights, though not as large, say, as the first generation Mazda Miata’s).

Although skeptics suspected otherwise, Mazda has maintained that the rotary engine, after the final withdrawal for the Mazda RX-8 from production in 2012, was still on the back burner even while engineering talent was focused on other areas, including its Skyactiv gas and diesel engines development. Apparently Mazda wasn’t fooling.

Mazda’s statement about the rotary engine indicates that Mazda hasn’t given up yet.

“Rotary engines feature a unique construction, generating power through the rotational motion of a triangular rotor. Overcoming numerous technical difficulties, Mazda succeeded in commercializing the rotary engine, fitting it in the Cosmo Sport (known as Mazda 110S overseas) in 1967. As the only automaker to mass-produce the rotary engine, Mazda continued efforts to improve power output, fuel economy and durability, and in 1991 took overall victory at 24 Hours of Le Mans with a rotary engine-powered race car. Over the years, the rotary engine has come to symbolize Mazda’s creativity and tireless endeavor in the face of difficult challenges.

“While mass production is currently on hold, Mazda has never stopped research and development efforts towards the rotary engine. The next rotary engine has been named SKYACTIV-R, expressing the company’s determination to take on challenges with convention-defying aspirations and the latest technology, just as it did when developing SKAYCTIV TECHNOLOGY.”

Mazda head of research and development Kiyoshi Fujiwara told the British publication Autocar, “People think rotary can not meet modern Eco demands. The Skyactiv engineers worked on rotary and have it cutting edge tech.”

It needs to be. Mazda rotary engines are notorious for being thirsty and of suspect reliability, particularly when not stringently maintained. Mazda president and CEO Masamichi Kogai told Autocar, “Initial targets for rotary were set higher than gasoline. I said before it would be difficult for mass production, and this encouraged our engineers to work harder to achieve these targets. I believe one day our engineers can overcome those challenges and meet targets”

Mazda_RX-VISION headlight

The Mazda RX-VISION predicts the return of the rotary engine…and perhaps the pop-up headlight? (clic to enlarge)

How important is the rotary engine to Mazda? Kogai called it “an essential part of our DNA.” Indeed, Mazda has been developing the rotary engine almost as long as it has been making automobiles. The company had only begun making cars in 1960 (after having been the premier motor vehicle manufacturer in Japan by virtue of its production of three-wheel trucks meant for the narrow streets of Japan’s industrial districts). Within a couple years of making cars, Mazda owned two-thirds of the Japanese kei-class microcar market.

However, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was intent on consolidating Japan’s menagerie of automotive manufacturers, and had designs on leveraging Mazda into Toyota. Tsuneji Matsuda, then president of Mazda (at that time actually Toyo Kogyo), an old family-owned company, wanted nothing of that, and to maintain the company’s independence, decided to take up the rotary engine. According to Kenichi Yamamoto, who started Mazda’s rotary engine project in 1963 and later became chairman of Mazda Motor Corporation, the rotary engine was Mazda’s “technological charter,” and enabled Mazda to maintain its independence.

Now, says Kogai, the rotary engine is “synonymous with the brand. Some time in the future it will return and be called SkyActiv-R.”

Mazda RX-VISION rear

The Mazda RX-VISION has something of the double-bubble roof of the third-generation Mazda RX-7. (click to enlarge)

Why now? Kogai told Autocar it represents “stepping up Mazda’s brand and expressing how we intend to survive and live in the future. We wanted to express the most unique technology Mazda has and the challenges we want to pick up in the future.”

It’s appropriate, in a way, that Mazda is returning to the rotary engine to maintain its independence today. Kogai inherited a resurgent Mazda that had undergone years of losses, but the company is tiny compared crosstown behemoths Nissan and Toyota, and is dependent on exports—about 80 percent of cars it builds are sent out of the country—and therefore vulnerable to currency fluctuations. Mundane, at least from a car enthusiast standpoint, the new factory in Mexico that makes Mazda2 (and the Scion iA) will help provide financial stability.

But it’s cars like the recently introduced fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 Miata that are the frosting that makes the cake, and as Kogai told Autocar about the Mazda RX-VISION, “One day rotary will make a comeback. This gives form to our brand’s vision of the future. It expresses our intention to make rotary. There are many issues to overcome but we will continue our efforts. We’re working steadily. Keep your eyes on Mazda.”

Don’t worry, Kogai-san, we’ll be watching. We won’t be wrong again. At least about this.

The rotary engine itself is something of a mystery. Mazda gave no information about it other than it being a “next-generation SKYACTIV-R” rotary. We’ll take it that the “R” represents “rotary,” but the rest purposely obtuse. Mazda has maintained the basic “13B” configuration since the early ‘70s, with the same width and 1.3-liter chamber size. All Mazdas imported for road use have had two rotors, though at least on domestic model had a three-rotor arrangement, and three and four rotors have been “stacked” for competition. The Mazda RX sports cars have always been the least powerful of their competition, even though making up some of the difference with less weight. But with the current trend towards mega-horsepower outputs, has the 1.3-liter displacement finally met its limits?