From the Cosmo Sport to the RX-Vision Concept
No other auto manufacturer has spent as much time and resources into developing the rotary engine as Mazda. Its first rotary-powered vehicle was the Cosmo Sport, a rear-wheel-drive sports car that forged a class of its own when it made its debut in 1967. Since then, Mazda and the rotary engine have become synonymous, making it part of Mazda’s heritage. Up until 2012 when the RX-8 was discontinued, the Mazda lineup always had at least one vehicle powered by a rotary engine, and it was one of the signature vehicles alongside the now-legendary MX-5 Miata. Ever since the demise of the RX-8, enthusiasts have been clamoring for a rotary-powered Mazda sports car to return, and the debut of the RX-Vision Concept suggests that Mazda is nearly ready to bring its signature engine back.
To celebrate Mazda’s rotary engine heritage and the debut of the RX-Vision Concept and Skyactiv-R powertrain, let’s take a look back at a few key vehicles that helped make Mazda synonymous with the Wankel engine.
Mazda Cosmo Sport, 1967-1972
An instant classic when it debuted in 1967, the first-generation Mazda Cosmo Sport (known as the Cosmo 110S in international markets), codenamed L10A/L10B, was the first rotary-powered vehicle to come to market. While the 10A engine only had 110 hp and 96 lb-ft of torque, its curb weight of 2,072 pounds (940 kg) gave it nimble handling and ensured plenty of smiles from behind the wheel. Production of the first-generation model ended in 1972 and was followed by three more iterations. The Cosmo name remained in production until 1996, and in its final generation (1990-1996), it received the one of the most powerful Mazda production motors, a twin-turbocharged, three-rotor rotary engine called the 20B, which produced 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque.
Mazda RX-3 (also known as the Savanna), 1971-1978
In the 1970s, the RX moniker emerged with the RX-3, which continued to use the 10A rotary engine that debuted with the Cosmo Sport. By the mid-1970s, Mazda had started to use the larger 12A motor first used in the Capella (also known as the RX-2). With this engine the RX-3 gained more power, with the 12A now rated at 130 hp and 115 lb-ft. Of all the rotary-powered Mazdas before the RX-7, the RX-3 was the most popular, selling more than 900,000 units total worldwide, the coupe being the most popular body style.
Mazda Rotary Powered Pickup, 1974-1977
In the mid-1970s while Mazda was producing all kinds of rotary-powered cars, it also produced the Rotary-Engined Pickup, or REPU, which was powered by an early version of the 13B motor. Only about 15,000 were made, with the majority built in 1974 and 1975. In 1976, the REPU gained some updates, including a stretched cab and a five-speed manual gearbox with different gearing. Poor sales eventually led to its discontinuation.
Mazda RX-7, 1978-1985
The first-generation RX-7, codenamed the FB, appeared in 1978 as a competitor to the Porsche 924 and the Nissan 280ZX. Like its predecessors, the RX-7 (a Japanese-spec model is shown here) didn’t have much power, but its light weight, impeccable balance, front midship layout, and near-perfect weight distribution made it a gem among affordable sports cars. A turbocharged rotary engine appeared for the first time in the 1983 Savanna RX-7 Turbo producing 165 hp and 170 lb-ft.
Mazda RX-7, 1985-1991
Dubbed the Series 4 or FC, the second-generation RX-7 emerged in 1985 as a 1986 model with a choice of naturally aspirated and turbocharged versions of the 13B rotary engine, which eventually became the most widely produced version of the type (a Japanese-spec model is shown here). A convertible variant was available for the first time in 1988, but in the North American market it was only available with the naturally aspirated version of the 13B. Although the FC RX-7 was heavier than its predecessor, it remained an excellent driver’s car that was at home on the track and on winding mountain roads. In 1986, Motor Trend gave the Import Car of the Year award to the FC RX-7.
Mazda RX-7, 1991-2002
Perhaps the most notable of all rotary-powered Mazdas, the third-generation RX-7, codenamed the FD, was also the most potent. Although it retained the 13B under the hood, Mazda made numerous tweaks and added a sequential twin-turbo setup, bumping horsepower to 255 and torque to 217 lb-ft. As a result, it had nearly instantaneous power, and when combined with its sub-3,000-pound (1,361 kg) curb weight, the RX-7’s performance put it among heavy hitters such as the Acura NSX, Toyota Supra RZ, and Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo. In 1993, Motor Trend gave the FD RX-7 the Import Car of the Year award, the model’s second win. However, this generation of RX-7 was sold in the U.S. only from 1991 to 1995 and was eventually pulled because of low sales and reliability issues. At the end of its life, the RX-7 gained more power, the twin-turbo 13B producing 280 hp and 231 lb-ft near the end of its production run. The Spirit R variant was released to commemorate the end of the RX-7’s production, but this special edition was only sold in Japan. A lone left-hand drive Spirit R was produced and is owned by Mazda North American Operations.
Mazda RX-8, 2003-2008
Next came the Mazda RX-8, a four-seat sports car with a second set of small, rear-hinged back doors for easier second-row access. Like past RX models, the RX-8 featured a front midship layout, rear-wheel drive, and a new variant of the 13B rotary engine known as the Renesis. RX-8s equipped with six-speed manuals had as much as 250 hp in its high-power variant, which also revved to a sky-high 9,000 rpm. Standard variants had anywhere from 189 hp to 212 hp depending on the transmission choice. The first-generation RX-8 was also the basis of a concept that ran on either gasoline or hydrogen called the Hydrogen RE.
Mazda RX-8, 2009-2012
A revamp of the RX-8 came in 2009 and along with it came an updated version of the 13B Renesis rotary engine, some handling upgrades, and structural reinforcements for better rigidity. Power, however, was lower this time around at 232 hp with the six-speed manual and 212 hp with the six-speed automatic. When equipped with the stick, the RX-8 screamed up to 9,000 rpm. The automatic had a lower 7,500-rpm redline.
If there was a car that elevated the Mazda name to new heights, it would be the rotary-powered 787B race car. It was powered by the R26B, a four-rotor rotary engine built specifically for racing and producing 700 hp at 9,000 rpm. In 1991, Mazda entered three cars into the 24 Hours of Le Mans and became the first and only Japanese automaker to win the series. The 787B is the only car to ever win that used a non-piston engine.
Mazda Taiki Concept
In 2007, Mazda introduced a one-off concept car called the Taiki at the Tokyo Motor Show. Although it was primarily a design concept, the Taiki also showed how the brand was going to modernize the Renesis engine then found in the RX-8. Under the hood was a next-generation rotary engine called the 16X, which had a total displacement of 1,600cc thanks to its two-rotor setup (800cc each); it was mated to a seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox.
Mazda Furai Concept
At the 2008 Detroit auto show, Mazda unveiled the fifth installment in its Nagare (flow) series of concept cars, the Furai Concept. More of a race prototype than a show car, the Furai featured a three-rotor rotary engine that produced 450 hp that ran on E100 ethanol and a chassis built by Courage Competition. The car’s racing livery also pays homage to the 787B.
Mazda RX-Vision Concept
At the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, Mazda confirmed that it’s continuing rotary engine development with the debut of the RX-Vision Concept. Under that stylish exterior is a new rotary engine called the Skyactiv-R, which Mazda says addresses past issues such as low fuel economy, reliability, emissions, and performance. Featuring the brand’s latest iteration of its Kodo—Soul of Motion design language—the two-seat RX-Vision Concept features a long hood, a cab-rearward design, a wide stance, and cues that pay homage to past RX cars such as the third-generation RX-7