Don’t write off rotary engine just yet, hints Mazda CEO

Carmaker rumoured to be working on new RX-7 electric with small rotary engine to extend range

Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai with the company’s new Axela vehicle at the Tokyo Motor Show last week. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai with the company’s new Axela vehicle at the Tokyo Motor Show last week. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 01:00

In news that will bring a tear to the eye of many a car enthusiast, it seems as if Mazda has finally given up on trying to make the Wankel rotary engine a commercially viable product.

Mazda has been producing rotary-engined cars since the 1960s, starting with the Cosmo Coupe, and really made a mark in the 1980s and early 1990s with a succession of high-performance RX-7 models which, for a time, were considered as a viable alternative to a Porsche 944.

With the demise of the RX-8 coupe, though, Mazda’s rotary production came to an end and it was looking as if there was no chance of a revival. Rotaries aren’t great for either emissions or fuel consumption, and continuing problems with burning too much oil and general mechanical frailty seemed to have killed off entirely the chances of a revival.

We have been teased and tempted over the past couple of years with news and rumours that Mazda has finally cracked it and created a truly viable, low-emissions, low-consumption rotary, but sadly, just last week, Mazda’s new CEO Masamichi Kogai told industry publisher Autonews: “It has to be a viable commercial proposition. If we are going to adopt it, it has to be a product that can generate at least sales of 100,000 units a year. We have to be able to achieve a profit.” That would seem then, to be the end.

Well, not quite. There Kogai did end his statement with a tantalising “please allow us to continue our research” and the good old rumour mill has kicked into high gear lately about a possible new life for the rotary. It turns out that small rotary engines make excellent power generators for range-extender electric vehicles, and there are stories emanating from Mazda’s Hiroshima HQ that a new RX-7, with battery power and a tiny, light rotary on board to extend the range of those batteries, is being planned.