With its lineup of fun-to-drive models, numerous awards, and a number of exciting new models on the way, Mazda is firing on all cylinders – except, it doesn’t exactly want to be: Because Mazda made a name for itself championing rotary engine technology, a novel alternative to the piston-driven internal combustion engine. In the early ’70s, virtually every Mazda was available with a Rotary. By the ’90s, it was limited to the RX-7 model, and after a brief hiatus, was revived for the ’04 to ’11 RX-8 sports car. Now, the company has rotary fever again and has recently filed patents to put a new version of the unorthodox powerplant into future cars.
If you’ve been following the company lately, this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, though it doesn’t make it any less exciting. At last year’s Tokyo Auto Show, it debuted the RX-Vision, a concept that the brand is working to bring to production. And as fans of Mazda sports cars know, RX stands for “Rotary eXperimental,” so without a rotary under hood, no RX- title.
Which isn’t to say we weren’t skeptical. We discussed whether or not Mazda would ever bring back the iconic RX designation, concluding (and we’ve never been happier to be wrong):
The final-generation RX-7 has since become one of the most coveted sports cars of the 1990s, but the rotary design itself always had serious problems. Despite being quieter, more power-dense, and having far fewer moving parts than a standard gas engine, it ran hot, was markedly worse on gas, and had a tendency to eat engine seals well before 100,000 miles. Still, Mazda brought the problematic rotary back for the 2004-’12 RX-8, and rumor has it the company still has a team of engineers dedicated to working the fatal flaws out of the engine once and for all…Could it have finally ironed out the 50+ year old problems of the rotary? Is what we’re looking at the revived RX-7?
From here, it looks like we can cautiously say yes. Auto Evolution reported that the company filed a patent for a “Rotary Piston Engine Mounted on Vehicle” back in December. On March 24, it was granted, meaning the engine – known as Skyactiv-R – is now one step closer to reality.
Compared to the standard cylinder engine found in your car, the rotary is a different beast. And despite Mazda’s 40-plus years of working with them, it could never quite conquer the rotary’s unfortunate reliability issues. Skeptics thought the company would have to completely rethink Felix Wankel’s original design, and looking over the patent, it might have done just that.
Mazda has rotated the engine 180 degrees, placing the air intake below the block, and the exhaust port on top of the engine, all in the name of lower engine temperatures and better breathing. From Auto Evolution:
Provided that the intake is located below the engine and the inlet manifold is long enough, performance should be top tier. As for the exhaust port mounted on top of the engine, this should offer a shorter passage for the exhaust gas to exit the engine into the turbocharger(s). And yes, the turbo housing is mounted on top of the exhaust port. Now that’s innovation. The engineers sure deserve a big fat Christmas bonus.
So performance and cooling should be vastly better than any previous rotary. No word on how the company plans to build stronger apex seals (the rotary’s achilles heel), or address fuel or oil consumption yet, but if the project has made it this far, it must’ve made some serious progress with the Skyactiv-R.
Despite the rotary’s well-known flaws, it offers a driving experience unlike anything else in the world, and that’s why enthusiasts all over the world cherish Mazda’s non-Miata sports cars nearly as much as they do the iconic roadster. The RX-8 had an 8,500 RPM redline, a great five-speed manual, and Mazda’s famous handling. But its Renesis II motor also only made 232 horsepower and 159 pound-feet of torque, and zero to 60 came in a good-but-not-great 6.7 seconds. So Mazda’s hinted 275-plus horsepower, turbocharged grand-tourer sounds like music to our ears. The simplicity of the rotary engine makes it too good to abandon outright, and it’s only proper that Mazda would be the one to figure it out once and for all.