I’ve got a lot of respect for people who try to do things differently, especially when it comes to cars. We’ve been driving the same basic contraption for over a century now, from the engine to the suspension to even the accelerator. While I love cars, I also love the innovation and creativity I’m seeing from the alternative fuel movement from both big manufacturers and small, and some old ideas are getting a second look.

Take the rotary engine. It has fewer moving parts than a standard engine… but it also makes a lot less torque, requires precision machining, and devours oil rather quickly, making it rather useless for towing or performance. Plus, since the internal combustion engine has become so ingrained in our culture, many mechanics can’t make heads or tails of the Wankel, as it is called. But this little engine (made popular by Mazda in the 70’s and 80’s) could find a second life… as an electric vehicle range extender.

Rotary engine technology has made great strides as of late. Sorta. Mazda brought it back in its RX-8, and a company called AVL Powertrain Engineering thinks the rotary engine would be a great electric vehicle range extender. Like how the Chevy Volt has a small engine that powers the battery that powers the electric motor, AVL stuck a rotary engine into a Mini Cooper along with a 10kw battery pack and some electric motors. On electricity alone, the Mini can go just 19 miles. But the 2.5 liter rotary engine can extend the range of the mini to 124 miles on just 2.6 gallons of fuel. That works out to be about 40 mpg. Record breaking? Not quite.

But consider that the rotary engine in this hybrid weighs just 64 pounds, including the starter. Compare that to the Volt’s engine, which tips the scales at over 200 pounds, and you start to see why this might be such a good idea. Less weight = more fuel economy, and dropping almost 150 pounds off of any car is going to improve both performance and fuel economy.

So what say you? Do rotary engines stand a chance?

Source: Wards Auto | Image: AVL