Japanese maker is bringing back the famous rotary engine starting with the electric coupé crossover. Will that be enough to make the Mazda MX-30 live up to its market potential?
There is no need to worry if you have never seen the Mazda MX-30. Even if you live in a region where it is officially sold. The subcompact crossover is the first fully electric car produced by the Japanese company, but it has never sold well. It would be hard to guess from the photo above, but that is exactly the issue.
Trendy SUV design, even trendier coupé roofline, unpainted lower section to add a rugged look, excellent handling… the model ticks many of the boxes imposed by the current market. The only problem turns out to be a big one: it is a fully electric car model with a disappointing range. But that is about to change.
The Mazda MX-30 EV, first of all
Based on the CX-30, this model was first released at the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show. Even though all modern Mazda cars have earned a reputation for great handling, the MX-30 went a step further. The “MX” prefix means it exchanges practicality in favor of an even sportier dynamic behavior, comparable to the MX-5‘s.
As you can imagine, the cabin is only truly spacious for two adults up front. However, it has an interesting touch of using natural and sustainable materials like cork, and breathable fabric made of recycled plastic. Comfort, infotainment, and safety are all on par with the standards of the subcompact SUV category.
The electric motor may not be the strongest, rated at 141 hp and 195 lb-ft, but the weakest point is surely the 100-mile EPA range. As Consumer Reports has said, “that would have been competitive in 2011, but in today’s EV market, it is woefully inadequate”. That issue made the Mazda MX-30 plummet in the market.
Low EV performance
Slow acceleration is disappointing per se because it implies weak powertrain. When we observe it in a car supposed to be fun to drive, that becomes frustrating as well. The car loses an emotional sales argument, which is immensely valuable in times when the market has so many options becoming better by the year.
Things are even more complicated in the EV realm because of range anxiety. These cars take considerable time to recharge, and the network of charging stations is still scarce. The shorter the car’s battery range is, the more consumers will feel afraid of being stranded without charge in a possibly dangerous situation.
As if those issues were not enough, the Mazda MX-30 still has to face direct rivals. Both the Chevrolet Bolt and the Hyundai Kona Electric are good for more than twice its range. It is easy to figure that Mazda had to act fast in order to give its electric crossover a real chance to thrive in the market. It has come at last.
Rotary engine to the rescue
Typical internal combustion engines use pistons that execute an alternating movement within an enclosed chamber. Mazda became famous decades ago for using the Wankel engine, where pistons actually rotate against the walls of their chamber. Rotary engines turn out to be more powerful but consume more fuel.
After the RX-8 sports car, the Japanese automaker went back to typical engines. That level of performance could be achieved with direct injection, turbocharging and other technologies while keeping the high fuel consumption away. However, it had never fully given up on the rotary engine that brought its past glory.
In the Mazda MX-30, the rotary engine is going to act as a range extender. That means it is not going to power the car itself; it will only recharge the batteries on the go. While that seems a small role for such a storied engine, the truth is that it is the perfect solution for now and an intelligent first step for the future.
How to reinvent a product
The Mazda MX-30 has been on the market long enough for the press to extensively review it. While it has not sold much, people have had time to test it in real life as well. Therefore, everyone knows that its worst flaw is only the battery range. It is possible to achieve significant improvements by only working on that.
Big developments in this industry cost a lot of time and money. In order to maximize profit from them, an automaker must carefully plan how to apply them. For example, had Mazda used it to make the MX-30 a sports car, it would no longer have such an impactful resource to apply to eventual other cars in the future.
The high investment in a whole new product is enough to make us believe that Mazda will use the rotary engine in more cars. However, it went further and made it the exclusive logo shown above. While it is only confirmed for the Mazda MX-30 R-EV so far, do not be surprised if it reaches other cars in the near future.
Mazda MX-30 PHEV
Following the train of thought above, Mazda applied an interesting strategy here. The new car is a regular plug-in hybrid which happens to have a rotary engine. It uses an even smaller battery, good for 17.8 KWh, so it has an EV range of 53 miles. With the ICE range extender, though, it reaches a total of 373 miles.
That range comes from pairing the single electric motor to a rotary engine with a single rotor as well. The latter displaces 803 cc and makes 73 hp; the truly interesting feature is its 33-lb weight, obtained from an extensive use of aluminum. With a maximum charge rate of 36 KW, you can fill the battery in 25 minutes.
As it turns out, Mazda chose to make both options comparable, rather than one with better performance than the other. In the UK, we can also see that in pricing: the Makato top trim level costs only £450 more with the rotary engine, while the other versions charge the same regardless of the selected powertrain.
The rotary engine has a strong image backed by proven performance. The Japanese company is confident that it will help the Mazda MX-30 turn things around. Do you agree that it will finally have what it takes to become a true competitor in its market category? Or do you believe it is a case of “too little, too late”?