We received some bad news this week. Mazda's rotary engine died again, while the Toyota Camry just keeps on living. Here's why we should care about the rotary engine, and why no one reads magazines about toasters.
Maybe you've noticed. Cars look like offshoots of the same vanilla bean, their engines perfect little gems of electromechanical efficiency. Drivers slouch behind padded wheels, safe as jade idols swathed in velvet, glazed and untouchable as a pig trotter in a deli case. It's a management consultant's wet dream of a profitable, efficient, predictable, risk-averse automotive world.
This week, Mazda ended production of the RX-8, the last Mazda (or any other make) to be powered by that Reuleaux triangle-spinning figment of Felix Wankel's teenage dream. Love it or loathe it, the visually-distinct RX-8 delivered tons of revvy, twisty-road laughs punctuated by the rotary's characteristic swarm of angry bees. There's little else like it on the road.
On the other hand, there's plenty else on the road like the Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the U.S. for 13 of the past 14 years.
Yesterday, Toyota unveiled — with eye-searing corporate fanfare and a ludicrous paean to meeting car buyers' emotional needs (not just their practical ones) — the updated, 2012 Camry.
Toyota's new Camry was unveiled in a satellite-connected launch party spanning Hollywood; Dearborn; Georgetown, Kentucky where the Camry's built, and the Mets' Citi Field in New York. The pomp and circumstance belied the fact that the new Camry is an improvement by increment of a car that sells like mad despite its designed-in lack of personality.
It's the contrast of these two cars, the Mazda RX-8 and the Toyota Camry, that got me thinking about what cars mean to the people who make them, what they mean to the people who merely drive them and what they mean to the people who read, write and obsess about them.
The Camry has gotten a pretty decent little upgrade. Its design looks a little nicer, the steering wheel is a little nicer to hold, the dash cluster is a little nicer to gaze at, it drives a little nicer, it gets a little nicer gas mileage and it costs a little less, which is always nice.
And that's nice. Such details are monumentally important when you're competing in a volume-sales segment, where competitive tweaks amplify across a span of millions of cars. But for those of you who don't get off on P&L centers or the sum total of compartmentalized bits, it all may sound a little, well, inconsequential.
And then the Mets' CitiField stadium rotunda in which Toyota had just taken a silk sheet off that new Camry started bobbing and swaying like the Golden Hind, and I started thinking clearly again. Nothing snaps the big picture into focus like a goddamn earthquake in New York City.
What the hell are any of us doing here? Do we care this much about the launch of a toaster or washing machine? No. Why this particular appliance? It's not a teleporter or an Internet search engine that knows in which drawer you put your car keys. Can you blame the public for their steady drift away from automotive enthusiasm, and toward a sensible, value-minded, brand-conscious approach to obtaining personal transportation?
When I was five, I got a Wankel rotary engine model kit as a present. It was so beyond my comprehension that I just tossed the parts around, and the pieces wound up under the couch, out on the porch and at the back of every closet. They clung to the house like stripper glitter. I'd already found out, through a love affair with the RX-3 that Mazdas were cool, but had I been older, I may have been able to put the rotary kit together, and maybe learned a lesson that diverging from a path can be as important as the path itself. Or at least learned what an epitrochoid is.
For most of its life, the weight of the rotary has fallen on Mazda's shoulders. It's the only company that committed to the rotary and its excellent power for its weight and size – and in the process spawned one of the most rabid followings in cardom, as well as a four-rotor LeMans racing engine that was so ridiculously good that race organizers showed them the door. And yet, in a business sense, the rotary is totally pointless in a world where the preponderance of development muscle behind the reciprocating engine has made it an amazingly efficient way to turn a shaft.
But why do we bother doing anything that's pointless. What would Leonardo Da Vinci have done if a management consultant forced him to run a P&L on the Mona Lisa? He'd stab the son of a bitch in the eye with a charcoal pencil. Then he'd go invent the helicopter.
Granted, engines aren't works of art. As intently as we hang on every squeeze, bang and blow of them, engines are instruments of business and regulatory interest. They're not here for our amusement.
But doesn't the world need Mona Lisas as much as it needs toasters? Good question.
These days, Mazda's putting its weight behind a new system of high-efficiency reciprocating engines, part of a wide effort called SKYACTIV. There's no doubt economy matters.
But somewhere deep inside Mazda is a program – now on hold – to create a new generation of aluminum-constructed rotary engines with direct injection. Dubbed 16X, the new rotary would make more torque and be more efficient. Even better, it's a divergent path in a world of sensible, low-risk sameness. Even better, it'll be loaded with character — from those angry bees to its unique feel of power delivery. But you might want to go ahead and pour a little 30-weight oil out in honor of the rotary engine, because if I had to bet, I'd say you'll probably never see the 16X or any other one again.
The Chevrolet Impala of the mid-1960s offered buyers a choice of 10 engine displacements, from 4.1 liters to 7.0 liters. The 2011 model offered two, largely similar V6s. GM has loads of technical and marketing reasons why this is so, and engine homogeneity has been a fact of motoring life for three decades.
No one ever said we have to love cars, but one thing's for sure; we don't love appliances. If we did, Toaster & Countertop magazine would be flying off the newsstand shelves.
But we do need to dream, and gawk and cheer. And we need more automotive novelty, despite an industry that really doesn't want or need to give it to us. RIP rotary and all you represent.
Image Credit: BlenderGuru