Made in Japan: Mazda’s Rotary-Powered Sports Cars

  • Mazda may be known in the automotive industry as a small car maker from Hiroshima with a history of ups and downs, but for die-hard auto enthusiasts, they are known for one thing, the rotary engine. Unlike the conventional internal combustion engine, the rotary engine does not utilise a piston and a crankshaft to create the rotating motion needed to propel a vehicle forward.

    Instead, it uses an eccentric rotary design to convert pressure into a rotating force. Although the RX-8, the last rotary-powered production vehicle on the market, was discontinued in 2012, automakers continue to do research and development for future uses of the rotary.

    The rotary engine is known for its high power output relative to its small size and weight. Turbocharged variants have been known to produce as much horsepower as those of piston engines with double the engine size. Due to the nature of its design, it emits fewer vibrations so the acceleration is incredibly smooth throughout the power range.

    Don’t be fooled, however, there are drawbacks to this special unit. One of its major criticisms comes from its fuel consumption. The rotary system burns fuel like there’s an endless supply of oil from the ground below us. Another disadvantage is its lack of torque in lower RPM’s. Recent non-turbocharged variants can scream to its 9,000 RPM redline, something unseen in modern piston engines, but has a tendency to produce little torque from low down. Nonetheless, its ability to deliver smooth power in a lightweight package has proven popular with car fans.

    Also known as the Wankel engine, it was first developed by German engineer Felix Wankel in the 1960’s. In theory, the Wankel engine was a marvelous engineering feat but faced dozens of obstacles for it to work in real life. Mazda, however, took on the challenge to engineer a Wankel engine that would work in real life and even be applied to everyday use. Though that path would be full of trial and error, the automaker would succeed in introducing the world’s first rotary-powered car with the Cosmo Sport in 1967.

    Around the world, news of the development of a practical rotary engine by a Japanese carmaker spread. Such news would be received with great surprise and curiosity. Mazda had demonstrated its technological prowess to the world. In 1967, Japan entered an era of high economic growth while also seeing the development of motorization in the country. National income would increase rapidly, roads and expressway networks began to expand. Riding the wave of prosperity, Mazda introduced the Familia Rotary Coupe as the second rotary-engined vehicle in 1968.

    To test them and prove the company’s ability, Mazda would take the rotary-powered sports cars racing around the world. Most notably, a pair of Familia Rotary Coupes entered the Spa 24 Hours, a 24-hour endurance race held in Belgium, in 1969. The Japanese racers would actually lead the pack for most of the race, but a non-engine related problem would push them back, leaving the pair to finish the race in fifth and sixth overall. Mazda knew they had something special with them and would continue to further refine the rotary engine for motorsports and production use.

    In 1978, Mazda premiered the RX-7, a mass production rotary engine-powered sports car, marking the advent of a new era of rotary engines. The RX-7 competed in various motor races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the World Rally Championship. Mazda would continue to produce 3 generations of said model and sell it globally.

    In 1991, Mazda’s motorsports endeavour culminated in the coveted “triple crown” in the world’s ultimate endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The four-rotor 700 horsepower Mazda 787B marked the first victory at Le Mans for a Japanese automaker, ever. This would be one for the history books.

    Following the discontinuation of the RX-7 in 2002, Mazda made a comeback with the RX-8 in 2003 featuring a new generation of rotary engines, the RENESIS engine. By taking the rotary engine’s key characteristics of compact size, light weight and high performance to the next level, the RENESIS engine made it possible to realize the RX-8’s whole new concept – a full-fledged sports car with a four-door, four-seater layout. The arrival of the RX-8 ushered in the renaissance of the rotary engine. Production of the model would continue on to 2012 showing favorable sales figures for its class.

    Since production of the RX-8 has ended, Mazda has not introduced a new rotary-powered vehicle but has recently announced at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show that the Wankel engine will make a return in a sleek sports car in the near future. Automotive fans around the world were thrilled to hear that the rotary engine will once again see the light of day.

    Although only a concept, the RX-Vision, shows a new path for Mazda in terms of rotary development. The company has announced that it is working to offer the unique engine in a packaging that will pass emissions around the globe. Named the SKYACTIV-R, car fanatics around the globe can only wait patiently until the production model hits showroom floors in the near future.

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