For many years, Mazda was the sole automaker producing a rotary engine, a type of motor normally employed in airplanes. The company was practically defined by it, but the last Mazda rotary engine has rolled off the assembly line for the time being.
Out of rotation
Mazda has long been known for using the Wankel rotary engine in its cars. The motor is unique, in that it employs only a single cylinder. Conceived after the second world war by Felix Wankel, a German engineer, Mazda licensed the engine design from Audi in 1961, according to BusinessWeek.
The engine employs three-sided pistons, resembling a triangle with rounded sides, rotating inside the engine and producing the same four-stroke Otto cycle used by virtually all automotive engines. The advantages are more power at higher revolutions per minute, reduced weight and smoother, less complicated operation. However, it also produces more emissions and is less fuel efficient as less of the injected fuel is burned.
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The first Mazda car to use it was the Cosmo Sport, released in 1967. However, use dwindled during the 1980s until the only Mazda with a rotary motor was the RX-8, which ceased production this year.
No more rotaries
Emissions regulations turned out to be the death knell for the RX-8, according to AutoGuide, as emissions requirements in the Euro5 regulations couldn’t be met by the engine when the took effect in 2010. Combined with lagging sales of the RX-8, Mazda opted to pull the plug on the model, wrapping up production this year.
The RX-8 also wasn’t the most economical regarding the fuel tank, as its fuel economy was 40 percent less than that of the Scion FR-S, according to BusinessWeek, and half that of a Toyota Corrolla.
However, it did have a following and the company decided to give the RX-8 a proper send-off with a special edition called the Spirit-R, according to Fox News. The Spirit-R was such a success that Mazda extended production by another 1,000 units. The last has just left the factory, ending a 45-year run of cars with rotary engines from Mazda and some legendary models including the original Cosmo Sport and the RX-7. The rotary engine also produced the only victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by a Japanese automaker, which Mazda accomplished in 1991 with the rotary-powered 787B.
Hope for the future
For the moment, Mazda is committed to its SkyActiv systems, which it hopes to install in 80 percent of its vehicles by 2016, according to AutoGuide. However, there is hope for the rotary yet.
According to Fox, one role Mazda has possibly slated for a future rotary model is for a range-extending generator in a plug-in hybrid vehicle. The company also, according to BusinessWeek, has developed eight hydrogen-powered cars, which use rotary engines to generate electricity. Current CEO of Mazda, Takashi Yamanoushi, according to AutoBlog, has vowed that as long as he is in charge of the company, a rotary engine is going to be part of the Mazda lineup.