Mazda has signalled its intent to embrace rotary engine technology again with a dramatic sports car concept at the Tokyo Motor Show.
The RX-Vision is a sleek front-engined, rear-wheel drive two-seater that points to a possible future RX-9 production model in 2017 from the Japanese brand, and is sure to be welcomed by fans who lamented the axing of the RX-8 four-door coupe in 2012.
The RX-8 was hugely popular and great fun to drive, revving to 9,000rpm, but was hobbled by generally poor efficiency and high running costs. And Mazda now says addressing concerns about “fuel economy, emissions and reliability,” will be key to how its rotary engine technology evolves.
The company has only issued sketchy details about the RX-Vision – and none whatsoever about the engine that powers it. But the model boasts striking styling and measures 4,389mm by 1,925mm by 1,160mm (slightly shorter, wider and lower than the RX-8, which is 4,430mm, 1,846mm and 1,340mm respectively). The wheelbase is 2,200mm.
A wide body, short overhangs and compact cabin are complemented by the low height, and a particularly low bonnet, made possible by the small dimensions and light weight of the SkyActiv-R rotary engine.
The styling follows the company’s now familiar Kodo design language, with a flowing, minimalist look with obvious cues from some of Mazda’s more recent production cars. However, Mazda has also been keen to ensure that it maintains clear lineage with its sports cars from the past.
A bold red paintjob made the show car look even more dramatic on the Tokyo stand, while motifs that hint at some of Mazda’s previous sports cars are incorporated into the design too.
President and CEO Masamichi Kogai said: “It is a two-door, two-seater, a pure sports car design. It encapsulates the front-engine rear wheel drive design of the sports car. It embodies our Japanese aesthetics.”
Big wheels – 9.5J at the front and 11J at the rear – shod with 245/40R20 and 285/35R20 tyres respectively, complete the look. Inside, the back-to-basics approach continues with a simple instrument panel and saddle-stitched leather.
At a dinner prior to the show, head of research and development Kiyoshi Fujiwara explained to Auto Express why the time is right for the rotary engine to make a comeback. He said: “We want to return the rotary engine to the market some day soon. It’s our heart and soul.
“In 2017 it is the 50th anniversary of the Cosmo Sport [Mazda’s first production rotary]. Therefore we want to announce something in 2017 – and not a concept car.”
The concept is said to hint strongly at what might be expected from a production car. Continued Fujiwara: “The concept car is not completely [the look of the production car], but some visions of it is in it.”
Mazda RX-Vision concept 1
Although no technical data is available for the engine in the concept yet, it is understood it will be a pure rotary, with no electric assistance, as had been speculated. But Fujiwara says advances in technology will allow for superior efficiency – always a big criticism of rotary power.
He contined: “We realise the fundamental structural problem of the rotary, but recently new materials have been developed and also some measuring, sensing, technology has been updated. We can analyse the combustion in the engine by computer. We can control the ignition system or the injection system in the computer, and [see] what kind of economy can occur in the engine. That kind of technology can help us to new materials, a new ignition system or a new shape for the rotary.
“Hybrid is one future possibility for rotary engines but at first we have to show the rotary engine itself to the fans. Two years ago we showed a kind of usage of the rotary as a range extender, but many of the fans complained.
“They said firstly you have to develop a car itself with a rotary engine. [After that], then I can expand some of the business for rotary engines – that is the request from the fans.”
Kogai added that a new rotary engined car would have to meet strict emissions targets for carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, but was unwilling to speculate on launch dates. “Saying anything puts too much pressure on our engineers and I want to avoid that.”
And he also said no decision has been made as to where a rotary coupe would fit into the company’s product range. “We haven’t really talked about where the vehicle sits, whether it is going to be more upmarket than the RX-8 or below it.”
Mazda’s interest in rotary engine technology dates back 54 years to 1961, when it first started investigating the possibility of making a rotary commercially available. However, it wasn’t until 1967 that the first production car was unveiled – the Cosmo, with its two rotor Wankel rotary engine. Over the next 35 years, the company launched a succession of rotary-engined RX models, with the RX-7 of 1978 among the most successful.
Rotary power reached a peak when Mazda’s 787B won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1991. The last new rotary-engined production sports car was the RX-8 of 2003, but Mazda has continued to research and develop its signature technology since that model’s demise in 2012. And Auto Express drove a rotary-engined Mazda 2 hybrid in 2013.