Matthew Romack profile picture Matthew Romack 2 years ago
Blog

Round and Round; The Wankle is Back, Kinda.

Round and Round; The Wankle is Back, Kinda. - Blog

The Rotary engine has a special place in the hearts of automotive enthusiasts. Specifically, lodged somewhere between the 2JZ and the LS. There’s just something special about that sound— perhaps best described as “a horde of angry bees”. Watching the tachometer race up to the 9000 RPM redline, then hearing it bounce off the rev limiter, is music to our ears. That sound, and that experience, hits us just right. But that joy doesn’t come without a price. The 2JZ and LS engines are beloved especially for their reliability, modabilty, and disreablity for different car builds. The rotary, however, is best known for a high revving nature and doomed Apex seals. There’s a reason the RX-8, the last production car to be powered by a rotary, is a popular candidate for LS swaps.

The Wankle Rotary Engine first debuted on a production car in the 1967 Mazda Cosmo, and reached “halo” status in the FD RX-7, before vanishing for a time. But not for long. The iconic spinning dorito returned with a quite literal fiery vengeance in 2004, powering the awesome but ill-fated RX-8. Alas, it was discontinued again in 2012— perhaps, we feared, permanently this time. Nevertheless, over the last 8 years Mazda has continually teased us with rotary-powered concept cars, such as the RX-9 concept or the Vision Coupe. But deep down we all knew these were just fantasies… or were they? Ladies and gentlemen, the return of the rotary is fantasy no longer. But not quite in the way we’d expected. Mazda has announced that the upcoming 2022 MX-30 will indeed feature a rotary engine— but not as the primary powerplant. The MX-30 is an electric car, and the long-awaited revived rotary will serve as a range extender.

Mazda MX-30. Of course, it's a crossover
Mazda MX-30. Of course, it's a crossover

The MX-30 is Mazda’s first fully-electric car, a compact crossover that at present is only available in Japan and Europe, and soon, the UK. Early reviews rate the MX-30 to be a fun, simple, and sophisticated electric— all things considered, a good first electric offering from the small Japanese brand. Its styling is sleek, and although the plastic cladding seems out of place but it does evoke a more SUV-esque look. The interior is a departure from typical Mazda design, but still high quality. Instead of standard leather and plastic, the MX-30 uses renewable materials in the seats and trim, giving the interior a lighter, slightly brighter look when compared to other Mazdas. It also boasts a full screen for the climate controls, which is a departure from the Mazdas here in the US, which use a slim screen for infotainment and traditional buttons and switches for the climate controls. The center screen and the gauge cluster remain the same, however, with a few minor changes. Instead of a tachometer, already irrelevant in an automatic, you get a power gauge for the battery. The MX-30 also uses 5 different levels of regenerative braking, which outnumbers some Tesla offerings. Overall, the new MX-30 seems to be a great car. But as it exists today, it still has one major flaw. Range

The MX-30 comes with a small 35.5 kW battery, and depending on who you ask, it should get around 124 to 110 miles of real driving range. While some reviews have stated you can fast charge to 80% in around 40 minutes, a fairly competitive recharge time, many in the electric car market will find other models with more range far more compelling. The Tesla Model X comes standard with 258 miles of range and can get up to 328 miles of range when properly equipped, potentially nearly three times the maximum range of the MX-30. Jaguar likewise promises a range of 240 miles on its I-Pace. Both of these cars are also more luxurious, have better tech and easier to use interfaces, along with more space to go along a far better range.

The MX-30 starts around $30,000, about what you’d expect for basic crossover territory. The Model X, meanwhile, starts at $79,990, the Model Y at $48,000. The Jaguar, fittingly, starts at $69,850. While you do naturally get more for the additional money, some consumers may find it harder to pay so much more just for the comfort of longer range. Even within the same price bracket, the MX-30 lags. The Hyundai Kona Electric starts at $37,495, and has an additional 148 miles of range over the Mazda. While the Mazda may be the better-looking crossover, and has a more luxurious feel, double the battery range is a huge selling point. Mazda does have one secret trick up its sleeve: the MX-30 has rear suicide doors! Alas, this delightful quirk will impress a maximum of 6 actual MX-30 buyers in real life. Mazda needs to leverage another advantage to make the MX-30 truly competitive, and soon, they’ll have one.

A housing with with blown Apex seal damage
A housing with with blown Apex seal damage

I think Mazda’s plan to use the Rotary as a range extender in the MX-30 is a win for multiple reasons.

Firstly, the size of the engine itself is ideal for secondary powerplant status. A 2 rotor engine is small— very small compared to normal ICEs— and will take up minimal space in the engine bay or wherever the engineers decide to place it. This means it will be easier to keep the weight distribution even while keeping the car more neutral in handing situations. By comparison, a traditional inline 4 or even 2 cylinder engines used by other manufacturers as a range-extender turns an otherwise open engine bay into what may as well be a standard hybrid, placing more weight in the front to make the car nose heavy. The rotary allows engineers and designers to be far more flexible.

Another advantage is smoothness and noise. Anyone who has driven a rotary-powered car can tell you that it runs smooth as a hot knife through butter. Which perfectly complements the already smooth nature of an electric. They are also generally quiet when the mufflers and dampeners stay on, and the noise on startup will be likewise minimal. Rotaries also put out a lot of power for their compact size. So having enough power to charge the battery wouldn’t be a problem even in harsh conditions. If the engine can increase the range by at least 100 miles, it will be well worth the addition.

While extra maintenance over a standard electric will be a small issue, such as necessary oil changes and coolant services, I don’t believe apex seal failure will be as big an issue as it traditionally has been with rotary-powered cars. Since the engine will only power a small electric generator, rather than the mechanical action of the wheels, it won’t be spinning at crazy RPMs, or even very much at all under most circumstances. This will dramatically increase the lifespan of the engine.

At the time of this writing, we don’t have many details about the new range-extending rotary engine from Mazda, or even whether these cars will make it to the US. But I for one think it’s a brilliant application idea, and am of course happy to see a rotary doing something else other than gathering dust and blowing seals.