Although development of a future Mazda rotary engine was shelved due to the global economic crisis, company engineers and executives still plan to launch a new rotary engine by 2017. That’s the latest in a long line of rumors on the future of Mazda’s piston-free engines, courtesy of new reports from The Detroit Bureau and Ward’s Auto.
The Mazda RX-8, currently the only rotary-powered car on sale in America, goes out of production after the end of this year. As of yet, Mazda has no plans for a successor sports car with a rotary mill. Among the problems facing the current engine are poor fuel-economy and relatively high emissions, plus notoriety for variable reliability and excessive oil consumption.
According to Ward’s, Mazda executives nixed the rotary-engine development program to save money as automakers had to tighten their metaphorical belts during the economic turndown. However, insiders are apparently hopeful that development will resume at a later date. “I’ve always said rotary engines literally are part of our [Mazda’s] soul,” Mazda executive Kiyoshi Fujiwara told Ward’s.
If it were developed, the new rotary engine would debut by 2017 and should be far more economical than the version currently in the RX-8. The Detroit Bureau claims that the next rotary will use lessons learned from Mazda’s new, efficient SkyActiv engines -- like direct fuel injection -- to provide improved fuel economy.
This shouldn’t exactly strike anyone as earth-shaking news. Back at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, Mazda unveiled its next-generation RENESIS 16X rotary engine. Displacing 1.6 liters, up from 1.3 in the RX-8, with direct injection and aluminum construction, the company promised the 16X would make more torque and be more efficient. The company even said it would build a hydrogen-powered version. The rotary engine design, it turns out, is ideally suited for burning hydrogen fuel.
As if to prove that point, Mazda later rolled out a hydrogen-powered RX-8 prototype in Japan. The RX-8 Hydrogen RE offered just 107 hp and 103 lb-ft of torque, and could travel just 62 miles on a tank of fuel. The company also demonstrated the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid minivan. It used a hydrogen-fueled rotary engine to provide power for an electric motor, which powered an electric motor to turn the front wheels. The basic technology was designed to be used in plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Fast forward to the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show, and Mazda’s RENESIS 16X engine is notably absent. Though Mazda had promised we’d have a new rotary-powered sports car on the market by late 2010, economic strife had meant the end of the program.
Where do things stand today? Well, in October 2010, a Mazda executive told Automotive News that he might have an on-sale date for a new rotary car “maybe within two years.” More recently, reports from Europe indicated that Mazda was still planning to build a car dubbed RX-7 or RX-9 in a few years’ time. It was said to use a 1.6-liter rotary mill based on the RENESIS 16X concept -- meaning aluminum construction, direct injection, and so on. Rumors even suggested that Mazda would improve efficiency by using concentrated laser beams, rather than spark plugs, to ignite the air-fuel mixture.
The Detroit Bureau believes that Mazda will launch a sports car powered by a new rotary engine in 2017. To do so, Mazda may have to subsidize rotary development with sales of more pedestrian cars: Ward’s suggests that strong sales of efficient SkyActiv cars and engines will bring in the profits needed to fund a new rotary program. We’re not holding our breath just yet.