Tokyo Motor Show: What the RX-Vision means for Mazda

Mazda RX-Vision Sk50029

Now that the dust from the 44th Tokyo Motor Show has settled and we’ve had a chance to contemplate the implications of the unveilings, there has emerged one clear winner: Mazda. For years, enthusiasts fantasized and clamored for Mazda to bring back the bad-ass rotary sports car. Pessimists insisted that it couldn’t be done, analysts mused that there was no bean-counting sense for it. Mazda itself played along, coyly denying plans for a future rotary sports car — until they dropped this striptease for the RX-Vision. 

Mazda RX-Vision Sk50030

Most media outlets — suffering from years of denial fatigue — cautiously warned to not expect the rotary’s return, only to have one of the biggest bombshells in the industry drop on them: not only is the rotary back, but it’s in a superbly exotic FR GT. In an age of industry consolidation and conservative strategies, what does this say about Mazda? To answer this question, let’s take a look at the heritage behind the RX-Vision.

Mazda rotary engine

The RX-Vision’s design is described as “almost to condense Mazda’s entire history of sports car development into a single model.” For a small company, this history has been disproportionately charismatic. Mazda’s first sports car, as most of you know, was the Cosmo Sport. It was conceived as a halo car to showcase Mazda’s technological marvel: the world’s first two-rotor rotary engine.

Mazda rotary engineers

Bringing this engine to life was something even the likes of Mercedes and GM failed at. The little company from Hiroshima, however, pulled it off with its technical prowess and determination. The story of Kenichi Yamamoto and his “47 Samurai” is now stuff of automotive legend. The Cosmo Sport, then, represents not just Mazda’s innovative and convention-defying nature, but also its tenacious spirit.

Mazda Cosmo Sport Marathon de la Route

Nowhere else is this tenacity more evident than on the race track. From the get-go, Mazda had the racing bug. “Never stop challenging!” is their battle cry. A year after the Cosmo Sport debuted, Mazda took it to the races, at the batshit crazy Marathon de la Route, aka the Nürburgring 84 Hours. Countless subsequent Mazda rotaries tore up the track; one of the most storied is the Savanna RX-3.

Mazda Savanna RX3

This little sports coupe (also available as sedan and wagon) dominated at Bathurst in Australia and was immediately taken to by privateers in the US prior to an official Mazda USA racing program. Its greatest fame, however, came from rivalry with Nissan’s mighty hakosuka Skyline GT-R. At the 1972 Japan Grand Prix, it famously ruined Nissan’s day by blocking the Skyline from a highly-anticipated 50th win. A David-vs-Goliath automotive lore and an iconic rotary Mazda — with a heck of a name — subtle styling cues in the RX-Vision pay homage to it.

Mazda Savanna GT RX3

By the early-1970s, Mazda was living its (and our) dream with a full rotary lineup. Its success led to contemplation of a rotary-powered 240Z competitor. Unfortunately, the oil crisis forced the company to divest to a piston lineup. Characteristic of Mazda, however, it refused to give up on its signature engine.

Throughout the 1970s, challenges such as increasingly strict emissions and fuel economy regulations would scare many carmakers into conservative solutions. So what does Mazda do? Conjures up a lightweight rotary sports car that became the RX-7. Moves like this makes you wonder if Mazda is a passenger car company that also makes toys for driving and racing, or vice versa.

Mazda RX7 FD

The rest, as they say, is history. The RX-7 is now a Japanese sports car icon. Mazda would continue to challenge convention time and again, staying true to the craft of driving enjoyment. When sports cars got laden with techno-gadgets, Mazda took the third generation RX-7 back to pure sports car basics. When carmakers abandoned the classic lightweight sports car, Mazda changed the world with the Miata. When sports cars are bloating to high heaven with simulated noise, Mazda turned its roadster into the most focused driving machine on the market.

40_MazdaMX5MiataND

And just as the press and enthusiasts are riding the high off the new Miata, Mazda drops the shock and awe that is RX-Vision. Who are these people?

Mazda RX-Vision Sk80012w

At the unveiling in Tokyo, Mazda’s President and CEO Masamichi Kogai boldly proclaimed the rotary was the company’s pride and dream. Automotive press conferences these days are marked by rhetoric of autonomous electrification, facetweet integration, and evasive obfuscation. By contrast, Kogai-san’s straight talk (translated from Japanese) about how “we have a few challenges, but we want to do this. I want to do this.” is as awesomely refreshing as the organic simplicity of RX-Vision’s design.

Mazda Cosmo Sport Spirit of Mazda

About the car itself, little concrete detail was given. However, reading between the lines and considering the insights JNC has gotten, here’s what we have to say:

  • First, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Mazda rotary engine as well as the original Cosmo Sport, which is being displayed prominently with the RX-Vision at Tokyo. Behind the Cosmo on a wall says “The Spirit of Mazda.” The timing is suspicious, and, along with Kogai’s proclamation, there seems to be a message here. Technical challenges likely still exist, but Mazda is good at overcoming them, as evidenced by its history.

Mazda RX-Vision Sk60009

  • Second, Mazda just spent millions launching the new ND Miata, which has taken the press by storm — which is now being swallowed by the typhoon that is the RX-Vision. Barring unforeseen external circumstances, it’s unlikely that the company would kill the buzz started by the ND with a vaporizing concept.
  • Third, for those who look at the exaggerated proportions of the RX-Vision with a raised eyebrow, consider the RX-Evolv, which became the RX-8.
  • Fourth and lastly, well, let’s just say that we feel very, very excited about the future.

Mazda RX-Vision Sk80004

So what does this all say about Mazda? It says they love cars, they love sports cars, they love racing, they love driving. And most importantly, they get it. No other automaker has made as emphatic or passionate a plea. All of this is in their heritage, and much of this heritage can be seen in the RX-Vision — from the rotary powerplant at its heart to its gorgeous yet classic sports car design to heritage styling cues hiding in plain sight. This new rotary sports car is the ultimate expression of Mazda’s identity. It is something only Mazda can make, and we can’t wait for it to come to life.

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14 Responses to Tokyo Motor Show: What the RX-Vision means for Mazda

  1. Nigel said:

    Waiting and hoping for Mazda’s new machine !!

  2. Power Tryp said:

    I certainly hope there is a very public statement by Mazda informing every one that Top Gear will not be allowed to even smell this car.

  3. Kev said:

    I am very happy they kept the same style taillights as the RX-7. If it works don’t fix it!

  4. John M said:

    The RX-Vision looks great. Compared to the disjointed plastic agglomerations many automakers have been putting on the big lazy Susans, this design is refreshing. Not sure how much hands are tied by MBAs and insurance companies these days, but glad to see Mazda put out something dangerously appealing. That intoxicating red may be affecting my vision, too.

    BTW, seeing all of Skorj’s great photos recently has given me a little motivation to up my game. Just picked up a new shoebox with a hole in it on Cyber Monday. In the Mike Tyson world of photography, I am still at Glass Joe, but I am chasing that chicken.

    • Skorj said:

      Gee shucks… Thanks!

      Note too, it wasn’t just what Kogai-san said, but the way he said it. It was obvious he felt Mazda personally, and after listening to so many CEO talk fluff and promises, hearing him talk about ‘problems to overcome’ honestly was a big shock. So, when he said he wanted to build this, it meant something.

      The shareholders, and the problems may yet win, but in the mean time there’s a passion there…

    • Ben Hsu said:

      I guess that’s why it’s so important to be at the press conference. Unlike some who build up a massive sweat just trying to get there on time.

    • Wayne Thomas said:

      The RX-Vision versus any new Lamborghini…….

      It makes no logical sense that the Japanese evoke Italian smoothness whereas Lamborghini has adopted the robotic preying mantis look of Japanese superbikes.

  5. james said:

    To Mazda and the people who drive and love them, Driving Matters

  6. mazluce said:

    Mazda has always been risk takers whether it paid off or not and I applaud them for it. It’s not just the rotary engines which I adore, but they have made great piston engines as well. It must be great to be an engineer there; were your constantly challenged to come up with solutions to a motor that the world dismissed several times over and to prove them wrong each time. The thrill of the challenge, the tenacity to over come, the Mazda way.

    P.S. I hope one day they take the rotary back to Le Mans and win the race out right.

    • Devin S. said:

      A rotary powered LMP1 to combat the GTR LM Nismo, TS040, and Audi and Porsche offerings would be amazing to see. A return to the 787B days, if its ever allowed back.

  7. Ant said:

    I’m hugely pleased that Mazda is heading back down the rotary path, but my star from Tokyo was still the Toyota S-FR. The Mazda is the more aspirational vehicle, but the S-FR the more attainable. While Mazda is showing what’s possible with sports cars in the modern era, Toyota’s car is one a great many of us could actually afford to own.

  8. Jim said:

    I love the look of the RX Vision, and I hope it makes it to production. I have had four RX-7s’ and am rooting for Mazda to succeed. Only problem is I am sure I won’t be able to buy one even it it was sold at Miata prices.

    Did you see the Wired article yesterday? Not written by a Mazdafarian, that is for sure>

    http://www.wired.com/2015/12/mazdas-confusing-plan-to-resurrect-the-famously-dirty-rotary-engine/

  9. Tom Westmacott said:

    Ever since the 47 Rotary Ronin saved Hiroshima from being dominated by powerful Nagoya, the dream of the rotary engine has maintained a strong hold over the imagination of mechanically minded residents of the city. The dream is of an engine so inherently smooth that it runs without stress, mastering gruelling endurance races and delivering the discerning driver intoxicating free-spinning performance, while being so compact that the sports car built for it will turn instantly at the drivers will.

    What the RX Vision shows us is that Mazda, rather than giving up in the face of pressure from a society that sees almost any internal combustion engine as obsolete and unacceptably polluting, still keeps the rotary faith today. They still plan and scheme to find a way to bring back the rotary sports car, just as they did in the face of the oil crisis in the seventies. For Mazda, their heritage is not merely something to excuse or distract from a boring contemporary lineup, but challenge and inspiration to do the impossible anew.

    No one can say if they will succeed, but if there is a way, Mazda will find it.

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