If your local gearhead is getting a little misty this week, he/she’s got a good reason: Mazda just ended production of its Renesis rotary engine at its Hiroshima, Japan production facility.
The Renesis, which famously powered Mazda’s RX series of cars, has had a relatively long and storied life. Mazda first licensed the design for the rotary engine (commonly referred to as the Wankel) in 1961 and has been in production more or less since then. While 2002 spelled the end of the RX-7 sports car, the RX-8 replacement debuted in 2004 and was on sale until the 2012 model year.
Along the way the Wankel (which took on the name Renesis in 2004) has served a long series of cars from the Mazda Cosmo of the 1960s to the RX-7 and RX-8 of the ’90s and 2000s. It also served duty under the hood of the infamous Mazda 787B, the only Asian racecar and the only non-piston engined car to score an overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Today, however, the tides have turned for the rotary engine. The current-generation RX-8 loses to cars like the Subaru BRZ and Hyundai Genesis Coupe in fuel economy, and failed to meet the European Union’s Euro 5 emissions regulations, excluding it from European sale. Demand for the customer car has waned in recent years–sales of the RX-8 hit their zenith in 2004, with about 24,000 sales, but hit a low of 2,896 last year–and Le Mans regulations for 2014 ban non-piston engines outright. Mazda created 2000 special edition cars to commemorate the RX-8’s production run ending, and built the last Renesis engine this week.
If there’s any hope for the Renesis, it’s that Mazda engineers are still just as interested in the engine as the enthusiasts who use it every day. The rotary engine can run on Hydrogen–Mazda made eight RX-8 Hydrogen cars that it leases to local governments in Japan–and could serve as a range-extender for a future plug-in hybrid.
In the meantime, Mazda says it will return to the Circuit de la Sarthe next year for the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As a sign of the times, it won’t bring a rotary-powered car, instead opting for a diesel-powered LMP2 racer that showcases its new headline weight-saving and fuel-efficiency-boosting technology suite, SkyActiv.