Mazda says the rotary is coming back (again), but it’s not for a sports car

Mazda's famous rotary engine will return as an EV range extender in 2019


We’ve been getting some mixed messages from Mazda lately about its iconic rotary engine. Though Mazda guarantees its working on new rotary technology, it says it isn’t building an RX-7 successor with such an engine.

That would be fine, yet Mazda keeps building rotary-powered sports car concepts. First, there was the RX-Vision, and a new rotary-powered concept — the next evolution of the RX-Vision — is coming to October’s Tokyo Motor Show. Despite these teases, Mazda’s rotary will likely serve a more pedestrian purpose when it spins its way back into production. Mitsuo Hitomi, the brand’s global powertrain chief, recently told Automotive News the rotary will return in 2019 as a range extender for electric vehicles.

On paper, the rotary engine would perform the same function as the 600cc two-cylinder available at an extra cost on the BMW i3. It wouldn’t directly drive the wheels, but it would generate enough electricity to charge the battery pack on-the-go. An electric car equipped with a gasoline-burning range extender inevitably emits a little bit of CO2, but it’s able to drive much further on a single charge.

A few drawbacks have prevented the Wankel engine from truly rivaling the piston engine. Notably, it uses more fuel and it typically produces less torque than a comparable four-cylinder. But, its advantages are well-suited to range-extending duties. It’s compact, which clears up more space for passengers, cargo, and in this application batteries, it’s light, quiet, and vibration-free. Mazda is even developing an advanced start-stop system to keep fuel economy in check, according to patent applications uncovered by Autoblog.

Mazda experimented with using a rotary engine in an electric car four years ago when it introduced the experimental Mazda2 RE concept. It never reached production, but engineers are using the data gathered over the course of the project to develop a series-produced electric vehicle.

Those drooling over the idea of an RX-7 successor have some hope, though. Hitomi confirmed Mazda is developing a larger rotary engine that could power a sports car, but the brand hasn’t settled on its application just yet. Mazda is a small outfit compared to most automakers, so slotting in another performance vehicle alongside the MX-5 is a task that cannot be rushed.

Either way, stay tuned for an update as soon as Mazda lifts the sheet on its new concept. If the RX-Vision is any indicator, there’s a handsome car awaiting us.

Update: Added that Mazda plans to utilize rotary engines as range extenders for electric vehicles .