Mazda's new chairman has provided the strongest hint yet that a rear-wheel drive rotary-powered sports car will once again grace its showrooms.
Speaking to Australian journalists in Hiroshima, Seita Kanai would not rule out the development of a second model based on a version of the new rear-drive platform that will underpin next year's fourth-generation MX-5.
At the time, the company's global sales and marketing chief Masahiro Moro confirmed the platform was scalable and could therefore form the basis of other models, but refused to elaborate.
When asked if the new MX-5 platform could be used for another sports car such as a born-again rotary coupe, Kanai-san said with a smile: "Too much good question. I cannot answer."
Interestingly, the only other question for which he provided the same answer in a wide-ranging interview concerned the 'CX-3', which is widely expected to be revealed later this year.
While the all-new Mazda2-based compact SUV is tipped to become Mazda's seventh global model in 2015, speculation of a belated replacement for the long-lamented RX-7 has bubbled since Mazda discontinued its four-door RX-8 'coupe' (pictured) in 2012, leaving Mazda without a rotary model.
Mazda has restated its commitment to the rotary numerous times, most recently via its newly appointed corporate communications chief Hidetoshi Kudo, who was previously Mazda's product strategy chief and this week said: "We have no intention of stopping development of the rotary engine. It's part of our 'challenging convention' spirit'."
However, it remains unclear whether the rotary engine has a future at Mazda beyond its application as a scaled-down 330cc single-rotor range-extending engine/generator, as seen in the Mazda2 plug-in hybrid test prototype
. But that hasn't stopped widespread reports that Mazda will use the occasion of the rotary engine's 50th anniversary in 2017 or the RX-7's 40th birthday in 2018 (two years before Mazda's centenary in 2020) to introduce an all-new rotary sports car, possible badged as the RX-9.
The Japanese brand says that as the producer of more rotary-powered models than any other car-maker it has a duty to continue its custodianship.
The first rotary engine was patented in 1929 by German engineer Felix Wankel, who licensed the technology to Mazda and German car-maker NSU, which evolved into the Audi brand after it produced the rotary-powered Ro80 in 1977.
Mazda built almost 812,000 two-seat RX-7 coupes between 1978 and 2002, and more than 192,000 four-seat RX-8s between 2003 and 2012, notching up more than a million rotary sports car sales since the Cosmo Sport rotary in 1967.
Mazda refuses to reveal how many engineers are currently officially devoted to rotary vehicle development, but points out that such important projects can come together quickly with enough enthusiasm, as evidenced by the original MX-5.
Mazda's first roadster began as an "offline" project without official permission at the hands of a small number of Mazda enthusiasts, ironically at a time when the US success of the RX-7 negated the need for a second performance model.
A full-size clay model was developed from sketches in 1984, before a running prototype codenamed P729 was shown to 350 people at California's Anaheim stadium in 1986.
"Eighty per cent of them said they would purchase the car if it cost $US17,000 as an average and with that information in hand we went to top management and the CEO told us to immediately build it," says Shunji Tanaka, the chief designer of the NA MX-5.
"Suddenly the priority of the product became very high and within 15 months we brought it from prototype to job one with no change to design."
For now though, Mazda says its current priority is the new MX-5, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
"No, not at this moment," said Mazda's global sales and marketing chief Masahiro Moro, when asked about the prospect of a second rear-wheel drive sports car.
"Our mission is to make the MX-5 very successful. After that we move towards the next stage but our current mission is purely how can we make the MX-5 successful."