Despite being notoriously well known for its heavy fuel consumption, Mazda claims it has not given up on its unique rotary engine despite the car industry's drive towards alternative fuels and powertrains.
Often criticised in the past for its poor fuel economy, the gasoline rotary engine remains very much in the minds of the Japanese company's engineers, according to Jeremy Thomson, managing director of Mazda UK.
He said: "The engineers still talk about it a lot and it could come back. We don't want to lose the technology."
While other car makers pursue the electric vehicle or hybrid approach, Mazda continues to engineer environmental improvements to existing technologies through its SKYACTIV programme, such as lightweight materials, stop start and regenerative braking.
Thomson said: "These are not options but standard on all vehicles - it's not a question of putting an ‘eco' badge on the back of the car. Mazda is in the middle of a product and technology investment the like of which we have never seen in the past.
"It is a steep change in our fortunes. In recent years we have not been updating our legacy cars; now we are but with the addition of SKYACTIV technology which is not an add-on badge engineering exercise but technology which goes right through the range in all vehicles. The new Mazda6, for example carries over nothing from the previous model - not a single bolt."
Thomson also said that "There is currently resurgence in the brand with the introduction of new and updated models and our dealers are now making money. The product is now very powerful, based on the KODO design language that is really resonating with customers. Yes over the past few years Mazda has seen some significant losses but we are now putting the meat back on the bones.”
"Currently there is a dramatic difference in sales performance in the UK, where Mazda is growing, and the rest of Europe. In the UK we are seeing more confidence among consumers than is currently being experienced Europe. We are also seeing that buyers are not so much attracted by overt 0% finance offers but more towards affordable finance and servicing packages."
Mazda sold 25,000 cars in the UK in 2012 and expects to increase this to 30,000 this year with a full range of the Mazda6 and better availability of the CX-5.
Thomson added: "We would like to get back to the 2.5% market share we had in 2008 and I believe we can do it. The interesting thing is that three years after the scrappage incentives, how many people will be returning to the new car market? We exceeded our run rate during scrappage and hopefully we can hang on to some of those customers.
Mazda rotary engines in passenger cars have a reputation for being relatively small and powerful (with a high power/weight ratio) at the expense of poor fuel efficiency.
However, Mazda is the only company which has put them into volume production although NSU and its Ro80 epoch-making car launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show and Citroën (GS Birotor), in the common with COMOTOR company, played their part in the development of the Wankel engine between 1967 and 1977.
The story began when Felix Wankel (1902-1988), a German mechanical engineer who devoted much of his life to rotary machines, established his small laboratory in 1922 where he developed a small rotary engine. During World War 11, Wankel developed rotary valves and seals for the German air force engines and navy torpedoes developed by Daimler-Benz and BMW respectively. After the war he worked for motorcycle specialist NSU Motorenwerke AG leading to the development of small rotary engines for motor cycles. His first running prototype ran on 1 February 1957. In July 1961, Mazda signed its first contract with NSU for the development of a Wankel engine. Four months later, Mazda produced its first prototype engine. The NSU Ro80 appeared at Frankfurt in 1967. His engine design was first licensed by Curtiss-Wright in the USA.
In 2007, the 40th anniversary of the Mazda rotary engine, the company announced Renesis, the next generation rotary engine – the 16X
But a year ago, in June 2012, Mazda announced that production of the RX-8 would end. But the company’s president hinted that was not the end of the road.
“Production of the RX-8 will end, but the rotary engine will lie on as an important part of Mazda’s spirit,’ said Mazda president Takashi Yamanouchi, in a prepared statement.
At its peak, Mazda produced 239,871 rotary engined cars – the year of the first Middle East oil crisis which saw the beginning of a decline in rotary sales. During its time under the company’s stewardship, Mazda solved a number of major design problems, not the least of these involved the mechanical seals between the tips of the rotor and the wall of the surrounding chamber. Failure of these seals caused a catastrophic number of failures.
Mazda eventually solved the rotor problem and puit the rotary back into its line-up. However, poor fuel economy proved an unrelenting problem engineers failed to address.
It will be interesting to see if the ‘new generation’ Mazda rotary finally cracks an issue which has dogged the original design for over 60 years. ∎
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