Two roads to redemption for Mazda's doomed rotary engine

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year and model for the first rotary engine Mazda brought to market.

TOKYO -- Mazda is killing production of its famed rotary engine when the last RX-8 sports car rolls out of the plant next summer. But the company eyes two roads to resurrection.

The first is using an improved engine as the main power plant. The second is using a rotary engine as an onboard generator for an extended-range electric vehicle similar to the Chevrolet Volt.

Mazda Motor Corp. CEO Takashi Yamanouchi outlined the prospects in a recent interview with Japan's Nikkei Sangyo business daily. But there are still plenty of hurdles.

Yamanouchi says the rotary engine needs to deliver better fuel economy. And it produces weak low-speed torque. Mazda's engineers are working to fix that by developing a new engine with a bigger bore, he said.

The second path is something Mazda has not publicly mentioned before -- developing a hybrid vehicle that always runs on electricity but draws on a gasoline-powered engine to recharge the battery. Mazda plans to unveil its first gasoline-electric hybrid in 2013.

But that is based on Toyota technology and is expected to be closer to the Prius than the Volt.

If Mazda can salvage the technology, which the company first took to market in its Cosmo Sport/Mazda S110 in 1967, Yamanouchi wants to keep that decades-long tradition alive.

"The rotary engine is a symbol for those of us at Mazda," he was quoted as saying. "I am hoping to revive it together with our new eco technology."

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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