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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
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.