Mazda’s pledge to produce more electric vehicles may not spell the end of the company’s illustrious rotary engine. According to reports, the company is working on a hydrogen-burning Wankel that could power a successor to the RX-8.
According to the Japanese magazine Best Car, Mazda has never completely stopped developing the rotary engine. After the RX-8’s production ended in 2012, the programme was significantly scaled back, but reports circulated and even patents for rotary technology appeared in the intervening years. It was expanded once more in the late 2010s to create a range extender for the MX-30 electric crossover. According to the same report, the development team’s focus has now shifted to creating a Wankel capable of burning hydrogen.
Details such as horsepower, torque, and the number of rotors have yet to be released, most likely due to the engine’s infancy, but it’s a solution with several technical advantages. One of hydrogen’s flaws is that it ignites at hot spots inside the cylinders. Because Wankel engines use rotors rather than pistons, there are no hot spots, making them well suited to burning hydrogen, according to Best Car.
Igniting hydrogen is unusual; most carmakers that experiment with the technology use the fuel to generate electricity, which then powers one or more electric motors. It is, however, not unprecedented. In the 2000s, Mazda tested and even leased experimental RX-8s with engines that could run on either gasoline or hydrogen, but the system took up the entire trunk and weighed nearly 200 pounds. The engine was even used in some Mazda5 minivan test vehicles. Toyota (which is collaborating with Mazda on several projects) recently developed a Corolla endurance race car powered by a turbocharged three-cylinder that burned hydrogen.
There’s no word on what the new rotary will power just yet. The RX-Vision concept-like coupe, which appeared in trademark filings in August 2021, is one possibility. It could be a hybrid with two in-wheel electric motors. Fans would undoubtedly welcome it as the RX-8’s heir if it looks anything like the 2015 concept (pictured).
“If we go ahead with it, the prototype will be ready in three years. The most likely system is one that combines an electric turbo, an electric motor, and an electric generator “Best Car was told by an unnamed Mazda official. Making a prototype is relatively simple; creating a viable business case is much more difficult. Finally, whether or not the project is approved for production is determined by how much development will cost and whether or not enough people will buy the car.
Mazda has not responded to the report, and its plans for the rotary engine are, at best, hazy. Some reports suggested that the range extender may have been frozen, but subsequent reports indicate that it is still operational.