Let's Put the Mazda RX-9 Rumours to Rest and Move On

Like Schrodinger’s cat, Mazda always seems to be constantly hovering between a state of developing a new RX-7 successor, and doing no such thing. Its current state depends on who is answering that question, and when.

For years the ‘rotary powered sports car from Mazda’ rumour mill has been spinning as fast as one of its rotors, only with more reliability than its apex seals. It is one of those rumours that has been brought up, propagated around, killed, and brought up again.

Speaking of which, rumours of the development of an RX-9 surfaced again earlier this year, only for proper motoring news site Automotive News, to put a lid on the whole rumour last week with Mazda’s head honcho, Masamichi Kogai, stressing that there won’t be a sports car above the MX-5 nor a rotary powered performance car.

As much as we bemoan another non-starter rumour, we have to owe up to the fact that the rotary-powered sports car is dead. ‘Dead’ as in nobody is going to take the risk of reviving it, but ‘dead’ as in I’m not certain who is going to seriously consider buying it today.  Because all things considered, in today’s context, the rotary engine is what my eloquent friend would describe as a TPOS (torqueless piece of….well you get the idea).

Let’s be honest for a moment and admit that the rotary engine was a proverbial thorn in Mazda’s side. And we must acknowledge Mazda’s valiant efforts in pushing on with the engine in hopes that it will become the defining engine that would set them apart from their, otherwise conservative, compatriots.

Yes, the rotary engine is very compact, lightweight, relatively simple in its design, impeccably smooth running, rev-happy, and displacement-wise it produced way more power than a what conventional piston engine could manage. If you were to do a survey of all the most desirable engine characteristics amongst engineers and motoring enthusiasts, the rotary engine would score a round 12 out of 10.

However, like the NEDC emissions test, out in the real world, things aren’t as rosy for the rotary engine. Its gutless torque output meant that you had to squeeze the engine to get it moving, wring it out to get some decent pace out of it. Its design on the other hand, meant that it wasn’t all that efficient in its combustion process, which led to its reputation of having a potentially ruinous appetite for fuel. And those aren’t counting in the frequent engine rebuilds, which is bound to test the patience of even the most ardent of rotary believers.

Those weren’t deal-breaking issues when Mazda adopted the technology in the 1960s with the release of the 1967 Cosmo Sport. It was a time when the biggest car market in the world, the United States, was still drunk on cheap oil with the good times rolling and cruising around on Eldorados.

Times were a lot simpler back then. Fuel was cheap and abundant, American manufacturers were cramming big V8s into anything that rolled off the production line, and likewise Mazda was dropping the rotary engine into everything from sporty coupes, to big family sedans, and even a pickup truck. Like that one friend who spent tens of thousands of dollars on a fancy bicycle and commutes with it in the rain to show it wasn’t entirely a big waste of money.

Credit where credit is due, in the late 60s and early 70s, Mazda’s use of rotary engines did help them stand apart from the rest of the crowd, that is until the 1973 oil crisis hit hard and strangled the American auto industry while helping the Japanese - with their tiny little fuel-efficient cars - flourish. Sadly Mazda’s proliferation of rotary engines throughout their model range set themselves up for a big fall, and with too much of their chips put into the United States auto market, the company was brought to the edge of bankruptcy in 1975, only to be saved by the Sumitomo Bank.

From then on Mazda had relegated the rotary engine to its RX range of sports cars, but it was never going to progress much from there. Mazda became the sole producer of rotary engines by virtue of persistence on not giving up on an interesting engineering avenue, while other manufacturers like Audi, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and even the Soviets gave up on the idea. Without other manufacturers working on pushing the development of the rotary engine, progress was glacial, whereas conventional piston engines progressed rapidly.

What’s more building a specific engine for use on a specific low-volume model wasn’t going to make financial sense, and the RX-7 managed to soldier on because of Japan’s booming economy in the 1980s  emboldened the country’s car manufacturers to create ambitious and unique standalone models to capitalise on it the nation’s new found wealth.  

But like the oil crisis of the 1970s, the bubble era of the Japanese economy popped in the early 1990s, bringing down with it that Japanese optimism that some may point out, hasn’t been seen since.

With the company’s fortunes taking a severe battering, and the rise of the modern environmental movement, the future of Mazda’s rotary engines was bleak. The 2003 RX-8, the last rotary-powered model from Mazda, came with an improved rotary engine that released cleaner emissions and boasted better reliability. However it didn’t boast the firecracker performance that defined its RX-7 predecessor nor its immense thirst. Even so, despite earning praise for its balance and handling, the RX-8 couldn’t live up to the RX-7’s legendary pace, nor squeeze through ever tightening emission regulations. By 2012 Mazda axed the RX-8, ending the company’s beautiful but tragic business experiment with the rotary engine.

Ever since then rumours of a rotary sports car revival has surfaced, torpedoed by business suits, sank, and only to surface again ad infinitum. The latest rumour mill was started with last years’ gorgeous RX-Vision concept that had got the industry buzzing about a rotary revival. That concept car, coupled with Mazda’s newly-found independence from Ford and the brand’s recent resurgence, sparked rumours that perhaps Mazda is preparing an RX comeback. After all, why not? Nissan is still building the GT-R, Toyota has partnered with BMW to develop the next Supra, and Honda created a successor to the NSX at enormous expense. Perhaps the good times of the 1980s are coming back.

As much as I admire the rotary engine’s qualities, and am pretty confident that with enough development poured their way they could improve its emissions and reduce its appetite for fuel, I don’t think a rotary engine is a right fit for a performance car of today.

It might produce a lot of power when you rev up those rotors, but its low torque outputs won’t appeal to the masses who have grown accustomed to effortless torque delivered by today’s crop of turbocharged engines. Even your average modern direct-injection engine is able to deliver most of its torque from low-rpm.

Drive an RX-8 and that gutless low-end power delivery becomes the car’s Achilles’ heel in today’s context. It just feels pedestrian at any speed that isn’t full-tilt banzai mode, in a world where every performance car feels full-tilt banzai mode even when it is being driven out of the driveway.

A rotary engine is perfect if you are on a circuit or a familiar bit of road. In the real world of intersections, traffic, and imperfect roads, the rotary engine can be a bit unwilling to lug you around. It is a challenging engine to live with, but your average driver expects something that poses less of a challenge and flatters them instead.

I did imagine that engineers could pair an electric motor with a rotary engine to compensate for the low-end torque - and aid in delivering cleaner emissions - while still being able to give drivers that surge of power when they really wring out that engine.

Mazda’s engineers on the other hand, who are way more qualified and brilliant than a hack like me, sought to relinquish the rotary engine of its powertrain duties and put it to good use as a range-extender instead. This was demonstrated back in 2013 with a Mazda 2 TPEV with a rotary range extender, which had a vertically installed rotary engine slipped beneath the compact car’s tiny boot. Needed only to spin a generator for electricity, instead of having to move the whole car, being a range-extender played to all of the rotary engine strengths in its size, weight, and smoothness.

More than a curiosity, Kogai says that the company is pretty committed to charting the next chapter of the rotary engine in this direction, until a time when their engineers could overcome the rotary’s emission limitations. And while it might be on the opposite end of the scale from the legendary RX-7, this might be the one avenue that would finally give the rotary engine a place in the world.