After toying with our hearts, Mazda has made the executive decision to not build a successor to the RX-8.
Let’s start out talking about the Mazda Eunos Cosmo. Born from the legendary Cosmo coupe of the 1960s, it boasted a GPS embedded in the center stack (the world’s first mass production system), a touchscreen display known as the “Car Communication System,” which pulled duty as the main control for the navi, radio, climate control, optional cellular phone, and even a built-in television receiver, according to Japanese Nostalgic Car. Oh, and this was 26 years ago, in 1990.
But the Eunos Cosmo was well ahead of its time not only in terms of cabin comforts — it was also powered by a tri-rotor Wankel rotary engine with not only twin, but sequential turbos, and was the only three-rotor Wankel ever fitted into a production automobile. If the early navigation and touchscreens didn’t set the Eunos apart from the luxury sedan conventions, the powertrain certainly did.
The point of this is that Mazda has always done things a little bit differently. Though the Eunos Cosmo phased out, the rotary lived on in some form or another in the RX-7, to be followed up by the RX-8, before the model — and the engine — was retired from the Mazda lineup for the indefinite future.
That future started to gain some clarity when Mazda debuted the knee-weakening RX Vision concept that was — in theory — powered by a rotary engine. Though the concept was instrumental in guiding Mazda’s design language, there were hiccups with moving it to production. Namely, the engine.
Wankel motors use a rotating triangular rotor in place of pistons. Instead of using a wide and/or tall V- or flat-bank of cylinders, rotaries can extract a terrific amount of power out of a relatively small package and can rev happily past the point that most internal combustion engines would be comfortable.
However, this comes with some compromises: The sacrifice of fuel economy, considerable oil consumption, and the occasional and unfortunate habit of chewing through apex seals has all but doomed the Wankel engine’s mass-market chances.
It was therefore particularly exciting when it was determined that Mazda had been researching ways to make the rotary engine palatable for the car-buying public at large. But Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai recently laid those hopes to rest, stating that there were no plans for a larger sports car entry above the MX-5 Miata. Don’t get us wrong; we adore the MX-5. It’s as close to a perfect car as you’re going to get in its price bracket. But it’s hard to argue that it has the same kind of oddball uniqueness that set the RX-7, RX-8, and Eunos Cosmo apart.
However, Kogai didn’t kibosh the rotary outright; he said that there might still be room for it in the lineup, though as a range-extending engine for a hybrid vehicle layout. While that’s still exciting (more so because Mazda doesn’t currently sell an electrified vehicle), it’s not the RX Vision-based RX-9 hoon-mobile that many (including us) had lofty hopes for.
At the end of the day, Mazda has to make money. Although it fields one of the best and most cohesive lineups available, Mazda doesn’t have the sales volume to invest in a high-end, unconventional sports car. With Toyota working with BMW to bring a successor to the Supra to fruition, we’ll get a good litmus test of how the mass market will respond to that segment.
Mazda is hardly alone in not delivering on card-carrying enthusiast cars in the vein of the RX-8/Supra/Z. Though Toyota is finally getting back in the game, Nissan has no clear path for its aging Z cars. Honda hasn’t shown any indication in reviving a successor the S2000. It doesn’t seem like the beancounters at Mazda are too eager to make a move there either.
A revival of the glory days of Japan’s intense automotive rivalry would be incredible: The Toyota Supra, Nissan Z, Mazda RX, Honda S2000, and Mitsubishi 3000GT together made for some of the most exciting times in automotive history. But although horsepower is available at its cheapest levels ever, R&D isn’t — and bringing enthusiast cars to market is now a luxury that can only work under auspicious circumstances.
For the rotary, it’s a perfect storm of bad news: They tend to be poor on emissions, large consumers of oil (and fuel) relative to their size, and unreliable once drivers start putting miles on them — virtually every major current trend in automobiles is meant to remedy those three things. But if anyone is going to bring a rotary engine to market, it’ll be Mazda. And we sincerely hope they do, when the time is right.