Mazda to Revive Rotary Engine in Push to Electrify Entire Lineup

A Mazda2 hatchback prototype, shown in late 2013, ran as an electric vehicle, with an electric motor powering the wheels. But it was also equipped with a gasoline-powered 0.33-liter rotary engine in the rear that generated power to recharge the car’s lithium ion battery when the charge runs low.

TOKYO — Mazda Motor Corp. says it will revive its famed rotary engine to power a range-extender hybrid vehicle as part of a wider plan to electrify its entire lineup by 2030.

The plan, announced Tuesday, signals a diversification away from the Japanese carmaker’s dependence on traditional internal combustion engines as it reacts to increasingly stringent fuel economy rules. Mazda said it will deploy some form of electrification in all vehicles by 2030.

By that year, pure electric vehicles and range extenders will account for 5 percent of Mazda’s lineup, with the balance being combustion engines paired with some form of electrification.

“We’ve seen drastic changes in automotive-related environmental policies all over the world,” CEO Akira Marumoto said at a news conference here outlining the plan. “We at Mazda are keeping an eye on what is going on in the industry as we move forward with our strategy.”

As part of the push, Mazda will develop one pure electric vehicle and another range-extender hybrid. The range extender will drive like a normal battery-powered electric vehicle but have a compact rotary engine to recharge the battery and give the car a longer cruising range.

Mazda says its rotary engine is well suited to the task because it is compact, powerful and quiet. For an extra touch of green, it can also burn liquefied petroleum gas, Mazda said.

Incremental-improvement strategy

Mazda has dutifully stuck to incremental improvements in the internal combustion engine as the cornerstone of its powertrain strategy, even as rivals rapidly switch to EVs and hybrids.

The Hiroshima-based automaker is promising a major breakthrough in gasoline engine technology next year when it introduces its Skyactiv-X engine. That powerplant, Mazda says, will feature a variant of compression ignition for more power and better fuel economy.

But Mazda is also beefing up its electrification footprint in several ways, including the upcoming pure electric and range extender. Last year, it also partnered with Toyota Motor Corp., auto parts supplier Denso Corp. and other Japanese automakers in an EV joint venture.

Through that new company, called EV Common Architecture Spirit Co., Mazda and its partners will cooperate in developing the architecture and components of electric cars for use in a wide range of segments, from minivehicles to light trucks.

Mazda says it plans to bring a mild hybrid mated to market in 2019 followed by an EV in 2020. A plug-in hybrid is slated for around 2021. By 2030, Mazda says 5 percent of its lineup will be “battery EVs,” which it says includes pure electrics and range extenders.

The EV arriving in 2020 will be a vehicle developed in-house by Mazda. The EV technologies developed through the EV joint venture with Toyota and other partners will be available for commercialization after 2020 and will be worked into other vehicles, Mazda said.

Executives had long hinted that the rotary might be resurrected as a range extender.

Akira Kyomen, Mazda’s program manager for vehicle development, said last year that the EV will come in two forms, one a pure electric, the other the range extender.

The pure electric would target markets such as Japan, Europe and China, where an EV can get by with a shorter range. But a range extender is seen as necessary for North America and other markets where daily drives are much longer, Kyomen said at the time.

Signature engine

The rotary engine had been a Mazda bragging point since the company became the first to market the technology in 1967 in its Cosmo Sport/Mazda S110. Mazda’s prowess with rotary engines was crucial to its 787B race car, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 1991, the only victory for a Japanese brand or a car with a rotary engine.

Mazda retired the rotary engine with the RX-8 in 2012 amid slumping sales.

But in 2013, it revived the technology in prototype form as a gasoline-powered 0.33-liter range extender in a Mazda2 hatchback reconfigured to run on an electric motor. That vehicle’s name: RE Range Extender, short for Rotary Engine Range Extender.

Marumoto said the company still hopes to eventually develop another rotary engine that can function as the vehicle’s main powerplant as it did in the RX-8.

But he did not offer specifics about a timeline or the likelihood. “That is the dream of Mazda,” he said. “So, my role is to make Mazda prosper so we can release such a model.”

As part of Tuesday’s announcement, Mazda also said it would develop connectivity technologies that “offer an enriching experience of the joy of life.”

Under a new product and technology offensive that kicks off next year, Mazda plan to introduce an updated generation of its Mazda Connect onboard information technology service.

Mazda said it will also leverage its alliance with Toyota in this area.

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