Retiring the Rotary?

There is talk now at Mazda, as in the past, about discontinuing development of rotary engines for use in production cars. At this point the only model to still use a rotary is RX8, which will cease production after this year. However, the rotary power plant has been the staple of Mazda’s flagship RX sports cars all along, so there is a bit of identity issue at play here as well.   

Mazda Cosmo Prototype, the first application of Mazda’s rotary engine.

In my opinion it would be a mistake to get rid of the rotary in the RX line, it is too embedded in the brand’s identity. The rotary is the anchor of their ship, which would be cast adrift without it, still floating but lost in the sea of the market without a base to fall back on. All companies have some sort of base feature that defines their identity; for some, it is in their method, others it might be something specific about their products. Imagine, for a second, if Porsche were to stop building the 911. they would be completely lost because their entire brand is founded on that model. While Mazda is certainly less reliant on RX sales than Porsche is on 911 sales, the rotary cars still do hold the brand’s foundations in a similar way. Just look at their history.

The problem with rotary power is that Mazda has tried to make it into something that it cannot really be, a practical, everyday power plant in a rather normal car. The rotary, by its nature, is extremely inefficient with fuel and naturally burns its oil. The RX8 had the same power as a 4 cylinder Honda S2000, but consumed fuel like a V8 Dodge Magnum. Rotaries are also notoriously difficult to maintain due to their unorthodox design and scarcity of knowledgeable mechanics. The dealership is usually the only place, and even there it is usually one or two people who know how, so if they’re sick that day, you are out of luck. Yet despite all of this, Mazda tried to make the RX8 more practical to appeal to a wider range when compared to the RX7, something that I think goes against the nature of the beast.

Rotaries have one big advantage: performance. They basically only have one moving part and can safely rev much higher than a piston engine because the internal parts aren’t changing direction. The rotary makes power extremely efficiently; the RX8 pulls 240hp out of just 1.3L, without a turbocharger. So, the rotary has great power and performance, but is crap on gas and difficult to maintain; sounds like more like a high performance racing car than an everyday car with some sport. That is the point here, Mazda has been doing it completely wrong with the RX8.

The Mazda 787B that won LeMans in 1991 (Orange and Green)

That point is also quite evident when you drive the RX8 as well. The engine needs to be winded out to high revs, even in normal traffic, the clutch is either in or out (due to the lack of low end torque), and the gearbox is extremely tight (precision is needed for 9k rpm shifts). All of this is great for a focused racing car, but for something marketed as a street focused, “4 door coupe” for the masses it is really out of its element.

Mazda needs to realize this and design the next RX sports car to fit the rotary’s more racing focused characteristics. Enough of this watered down, “made for normal people” BS because it does not work. The next RX should be an extremely focused, high performance sports car that should be able to knock the socks of a Nissan 370Z and run with a BMW M3 and a Mustang 5.0 GT. I would like to see a larger naturally aspirated rotary engine over something boosted, because boost doesn’t fit the rotary as well as the piston engine in my opinion. If 1.3L can get us 240hp, then I’d like to see something like a 2.0L rotary with 350-400hp. This increase in power should of course be met with a harder (but streetable) suspension, proper brakes, a solid transmission, lower curb weight, and a more performance focused design overall. It needs to be a car that rewards all of the rotary sacrifices with exceptional performance–something the RX8 failed to do.

The First gen RX7, the car that lead off the most successful line of rotary powered cars in history.

On top of all this, the new RX model should offer some good value for money compared to its competition. Prices shouldn’t exceed $35k even fully loaded. This should be possible because Mazda’s money should be spent focusing on the car’s performance; hence, a run of the mill interior will suffice. This new model should be produced in lower numbers than the RX8 and used more as a halo car to boost the brand’s reputation. The market gap where the RX8 was should be filled by a 230-260hp, turbocharged Mazdaspeed MX5, and a new Mazdaspeed6 with 300hp or so. Both of these models would use iterations of the turbo 2.3L inline 4 from the current Mazdaspeed3. The Mazdaspeed MX5 would take on cars like the Lotus Elise, Porsche Boxter, and BMW Z4 at a far lower price point, and the Mazdaspeed6 would take on the Subaru STi, Mitsubishi Evo, and Audi S4.

If Mazda were to implement all of this, their brand image would skyrocket. They would be drooled over by the automotive press and all of that buzz would bring in more customers for their normal cars as well. On top of that, the value offered by their new performance models would likely grant them a decent share of that market segment as well. So Mazda, if you’re listening, don’t kill the rotary, but definitely change your approach to using it. Then just fill in the market gap using parts you already have. The costs would be low and the benefits would be high.

-Nick

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3 thoughts on “Retiring the Rotary?”

  1. I really don’t know what’s the purpose of this article, last I checked when one wrote an article you had to have knowledge of what your writing about. There are several inaccuracies in this article; there are more than 1 moving part in the engine, and since when did rotaries did not do well under boost? if that was the case why was the first generation RX-7 was sold in Japan with the 12A turbo engine, and in the US they sold a second generation TII model with a single turbo set up (13BT) and all third generation models had a sequential twin-turbo set up (13BT-REW). It’s not that rotaries are unreliable, problem lies in the fact that people don’t know how to take care of them, they are a lot more complicated that your typical 4 cylinder engine.
    Also you don’t have to drive in high RPMs, yes the power band is high but you don’t have to drive inside the power band all the time, that’s just unnecessary fuel consumption and wear on the engine.
    There are several reasons why Mazda is contemplating on canning the rotary engine, one being that the RX-8 has sold poorly, and that’s because the car was marketed as sports car when it’s more of a sporty family car for, for lack of a better term; Another being that the rotary engine produces a lot of emissions, and as we all know emissions get tighter every year and Mazda hasn’t figured out how to lower it, hence why they’re thinking of making a Hybrid with a rotary engine powering a electric motor to propel the vehicle.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, get your facts straight before you climb on to your soap box.

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  2. It’s too bad they are thinking this way, although no surprise….they don’t do well in cold starts either. I remember hearing a friend start his older RX-7 when temps got really cold and I thought parts were going to come through the hood.

    There are rotary conversions for homebuilt aircraft engines that work pretty well…nice and smooth. I think this technology has legs yet…..

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  3. To the H8ter, arguing 1 moving part is semantics. 2 rotors, eccentric cam… big deal. I own an 09 RX-8, and the thing is nearly my daughter. However, just as having a daughter is a handful, so is the car. $700 on new front tires, alignment, upper and lower plugs, and (free) full inspection… granted, this was a 30k mile inspection, and the tires are my own damned fault 🙂

    Mazda’s issue with the RX-8 is that they timed it horribly… just like Pontiac with the G8, they hit a market right as it was going away. I enjoy my drive to work EVERY day in my car (60 on an on-ramp is always fun) but $75 every two weeks for gas is NOT fun. They are trying to use the ‘new’ skyactiv technology to make a more fuel efficient rotary, but base design kinda speaks against fuel efficiency. While ~225hp at the rear wheels from an ~240hp 1.3L is impressive, you can’t get too much hp without a loss of mpg 🙂 Typical IC engines do better, but not as buttery smooth as the 8.

    Are there a lot of “issues” with the RX-8? As long as you don’t expect your apex seals to last more than 200k miles, not really. There are a lot of market issues, a lot of cost issues, but from what I’ve seen… almost everyone who owns one (myself included) is obsessed 🙂

    To thefoolfoldshisarms RX-8’s do a lot better for startup etc than the 7’s. It is annoying having to let it warm up to protect the seals, but I’ve been daily driving mine from cold (keeping it under 3k until it warms up) and there are no problems.

    Nick- Mazda has the 20B and the 24B motors with about what you said for HP, and while I will never put a turbo on mine (for similar reasons Mazda doesn’t), they do work. A supercharger is a much better idea, and from the wizards on rx8forums.com, they’ve come to that conclusion as well. A 9K rpm car will have a turbo going near 100krpm… bad idea, but it works… as long as you’re willing to do the time tuning and maintaining it properly… but that takes race-car like devotion, like Mad Mike Whiddett and his team in New Zealand.
    ( http://www.performancecar.co.nz/news-5900/mad-mikes-rx-8-complete )

    An official Mazda post (don’t have the reference unfortunately) said they are ‘temporarily’ retiring the rotary engine and RX line, but they refuse to kill it completely. Mazda is devoted to the rotary engine… its half of the heart and soul of ‘zoom zoom’, the other half being incredible handling. My dream car, and favorite example of such is the Furai
    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Furai )

    While the rotary may be out for a rework, it is far from dead.

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