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As the Eccentric Shaft Turns

August 6, 2011 by Matt

Mazda 12A Turbo Engine Wankel Rotary

Well, that answers that.

Autoblog reports the Mazda rotary hasn’t been shelved, like I had feared, although it seems to be in a sort of cryogenic suspended animation:

Mazda execs have apparently confirmed that engineers are working on a more efficient and more powerful version of the Wankel. While the project was technically back-burnered during the economic downturn, the research wasn’t canned outright.

The “more efficient and powerful version of the Wankel” is presumably the 16X, the long-awaited longer “stroke” (read: torquier) successor to the prolific 13B, a variant of which has been installed in every top-of-the-line Mazda sports car since 1986.

Unfortunately, the report goes on to point out:

A rotary does pair well with an extended-range electric vehicle platform, however, as the high-revving nature is perfect for turning a generator. While that may be a far cry from the low-slung RX-8, it’s at least reassuring to know that the engine design could have a future.

Again, yes and no. While it would be gratifying on some level to know that Felix Wankel’s internal-combustion epiphany wouldn’t be utterly tossed into the dustbin of history, being relegated to some sort of “prop” for an up-and-coming alternative propulsion technology just seems, well…demeaning to an engine configuration with so much character and untapped potential—in standalone, gasoline-burning form.

In my perfect world, Mazda would build a new front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car and a high-end sports sedan around the 16X, their development of the rotary having cracked its fuel consumption and low-end torque issues. The automotive press would hoist the new pair of models on their collective shoulders, rhapsodizing that Mazda had finally found the perfect engine to complement their peerless chassis tuning, and buyers would flock to Mazda showrooms in droves. The unexpected success would at last convince other manufacturers to give the Wankel a fresh look, and Mazda would license the technology to another automaker or two. The engine wouldn’t take over the world, so to speak, but would perform a sort of Apple-in-the-late-’90s-style comeback, slowing gaining legitimacy and a sort of non-conformist cool (more than it already has, that is) on the way to establishing a secure beachhead in the market.

To put it mildly, that’s a bit much to extrapolate from this latest confirmation that the rotary is not, in fact, dead. But I have a feeling my pipe dream is shared by more than a few rotary enthusiasts out there.

Filed under: Mazda, News, Rotary, Technical


  1. John D says:

    I would love to see a turbo charged rotary engine that puts out about 380hp in stock form safely tunable to deliver ~480hp (not too far a stretch from the previously produced 20B) but with enhanced bottom end torque and a 25% improvement in gas mileage. I think if they begin with a larger displacement (ie 3rd rotor ala 20B), refine the chamber design, fit it with some variable intake/exhaust wizardry, use some sort of modern variable twin scroll turbocharger and direct injection tech, this could be easily attainable. Part of the reason the older 13B-REW had such a bad reputation is because 1) it was the turbo technology of tomorrow implemented using the largely unsuitable means and materials of the day, and 2) it inspired a very passionate following of enthusiasts who asked more from the engine than it was ever intended to deliver; and, since it was a unique technology, most enthusiasts were ignorant about how to take proper care of the engine so that such extreme performance could be sustained.

    If Mazda decided to do this engine up right, I believe that they now have the technology and means to do so. The biggest strike against this concept is that it was never developed in such a way as to extract respectable mileage…but I’m convinced that it could be put on par with most modern sports car fuel economy figures if Mazda decided it would be worthwhile to pursue it. I mean, really…who wouldn’t want to see Mazda make another Japanese muscle car (or GT car, if you prefer) along the lines of the 3rd gen RX-7 that would compete with the top of the line Camaro and Mustang trim levels in straight line and sticker price, but stick to the road like a Porsche or Lotus? I mean honestly…who WOULDN’T want that???

    I would definitely be the first in line for a sports sedan that handles and responds like a Mazda, but motivated by the latest in rotary forced induction internal combustion technology. Maybe they could even base the lines on the old FD body shape…? Now I’m really dreaming…but I hope I never wake up. ;)

  2. John D says:

    I also believe that it would be a mistake for Mazda to try and develop this engine for anything other than either a sports coupe/sedan, or as propulsion for an electric generator. I believe that if they tried to put it in your average midsize or compact economy car at this time, that it will not be playing to the inherent strengths and characteristics of the engine, resulting in being compared unfavorably to the current crop of like cars (either for having weak low end torque or relatively bad fuel economy). But if developed and positioned to be compared against the larger displacement piston engines or, other micro engines that power generators for electric cars, it could certainly be an attractive alternative to those of us who do not want to compromise performance, but like the idea that there is another option to choose when it comes to picking a vehicle that suits our particular and discerning preference for the exact character we envision for our own personal vehicle.

    • Matt says:

      All good observations. Especially from an ex-FD owner.

      I definitely agree that the rotary’s shortcomings can be lessened, or even eliminated altogether. In retrospect, it’s amazing the Wankel engine has been developed to the level it has by one company on an often shoestring budget set against the entire remainder of the automotive industry developing piston engines for more than twice as long. Imagine where the rotary would be if just one more company had decided to help Mazda carry the weight. And yet they were able to get it to the point where it could win Le Mans in ’91, among other things.

      The really unfortunate thing is that they’re not only fighting the entire industry’s inertia, they’re battling 40 years of pre-conceived notions about the rotary. Maybe if its “first impressions” had been better…

      Ah well.

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