Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the first vehicle Mazda used to market a rotary engine and the year it happened.
HIROSHIMA, Japan -- Masa-michi Kogai, the new CEO of Mazda Motor Corp., has set what looks like an impossibly high bar for reintroducing the company's rotary engine.
Sales would have to total 100,000 a year for Mazda to resurrect the technology, he said. So Mazda isn't planning a rotary revival, he said.
"No plans now," Kogai said in an interview Friday. "It has to be a viable commercial proposition. If we are going to adopt it, it has to be a product that can generate at least sales of 100,000 units a year. We have to be able to achieve a profit."
Kogai, a no-nonsense production veteran with a knack for cost crunching, took office in June after overhauling the company's manufacturing.
Among his coups: transforming Mazda's erstwhile loss-making Japan operations into a lean export machine able to post profits with tough foreign exchange rates.
The rotary engine had been a Mazda bragging point ever since the company became the first to market the technology in 1967, in its Cosmo Sport/Mazda S110.
But the company killed the powerplant last year when the last RX-8 sports car rolled off the line. The engine is also known as the Wankel after the German engineer who invented it.
A rebirth has been the subject of incessant speculation -- often fueled by Mazda itself. Last year, then-President Takashi Yamanouchi dangled the idea of putting a rotary in a hybrid vehicle to generate electricity that would charge the battery.
Nothing has come of that so far.
The engine's chief hurdle is technical -- meeting today's more stringent emissions regulations. It would also mean giving valuable production capacity to a unique small-batch model.
In 2011, the RX-8's last full-year of sales in the United States, Mazda sold only 759 of the cars in its biggest market. The RX-8's peak annual sales in the United States were 23,690 units in 2004, according to the Automotive News Data Center. The rotary-powered RX-7's U.S. sales peak was 56,203 units in 1986.
At today's lean Mazda, which just booked its first annual profit in five years, the new priorities are cost performance, economies of scale and uniform manufacturing. So it's hardly receptive to what some may see as vanity projects.
Still, Kogai said Mazda hasn't completely abandoned the notion. Engineers continue to research the technology, he said, in part because the rotary engine can run flexibly on a wide variety of fuels, including gasoline, hydrogen and even kerosene.
"We are the first and only manufacturer to commercialize the rotary engine. In that respect, we have some responsibility," Kogai said. "So please allow us to continue our research."