Is Rotax Planning a New Engine?
Does general aviation need new piston engines? Well, sure, it always does, but thatís not the same as saying it can sustain new engine designs. Nor does it stop companies from telling the R&D department to push around some ideas. In business in general, we call this progress, while in general aviation, itís known as hallucination. (Sorry, I couldnít resist.)
One rumor thatís sort of circulating is that Rotax is about to release a new engine to compete with Lycomingís mid-horsepower line. If you break this down a little, it makes sense that the rumor is true. After all, Rotax is a big player in the engine business and no company can stand still and expect to survive, much less thrive. So Iím sure Rotax is always considering new ideas. Now whether theyíre on the cusp of announcing something soon is another matter. But the pieces align for Rotax in interesting ways.
The 100-HP 912 iS they announced 20 months ago has been well received and itís finding its way onto a lot of LSAs; the experimental market will come along eventually. Weíre not talking large volumes here, but Rotax never figured on that. It will build into a sound business. Consider that the 912 iS gives Rotax a strong basic platform in certifiable electronic engine control and fuel injection applied to a light, reliable engine with a good reputation. For cert purposes, theyíve done the hard part in the electronics package. The engine rotating stock is simply a matter of scaling what they already understand.
What horsepower? How about the basic 912 iSówith its new crankcaseóinched up 125 to 130 HP to compete with Continentalís IO-240 in a lighter, more sophisticated package? One source I know in the LSA business says thatís what heís heard. The 240 doesnít have much market penetration because itís too heavy for LSAs and airplanes like the DA20 arenít selling well. But you can see how an up-powered 912 platform would be a nice addition to a next-generation LSA. Buyers will pay for higher horsepower and performance.
The sweet part of the market is 150 to 180 HP where the Skyhawks and Archers live. And Iím not thinking of those airplanes specifically, but airplanes like them that appeal to that market slice. The Tecnam P2010 is one. Itís a 172-like platform, but more modern, with better useful load and performance. The airplane is equipped with a Lycoming IO-360 thatís relatively efficient, but still old school. If a Rotax four- or six-cylinder engine in the same power range delivered numbers similar to the 912 iS, it would be 15 to 20 percent more efficient for the same or perhaps less weight. Thereís no reason Rotax couldnít get there; all it takes is the will and sufficient investment capital. The cold dash of reality might be that the market just isnít robust enough to support such an investment, so it might be perfectly rational to give it a pass. Itís technically doable in some form, if economically risky.
But Rotax surely isnít risk averse. While the 912 iS is a careful, incremental improvement on the 912, recall that in 2003, Rotax, under different management, stunned everyone by announcing a pair of V-6 engines in the 220- to 300-HP range. On paper, these engines were what buyers claimed they wanted: cutting edge technology, powerful, smooth and, well, just different. The company, then owned by Bombardier, which championed the project, found OEM takers in Cirrus and in Piper. Alan Klapmeier once told me Cirrus was ready to go forward with the V-6.
But for various reasons, not the least of which may have been management change and technical issues with the engine, the project was dropped in 2006. It was probably just as well. Compared to traditional aircraft engines, the V-6s were complex and heavy and not that fuel efficient. They also werenít intended for 100LL, but mogas or a mogas-like fuel. In 2005, with legacy aircraft as a base, I doubt if Rotax would have found sufficient volume to justify the investment and if they had complaints from customers and OEMs about finding service shops for the smaller engines, the larger ones could have been a nightmare, especially for an overhaul network.
But things change. Even though we hear occasional complaints that mechanics canít fix Rotax engines, we hear fewer of them because, well, mechanics have learned to fix Rotax engines. While light sport hasnít turned the sky dark with aircraft, Rotax 912s arenít exactly seldom-seen exotica anymore. If you think of them as motorcycle engines, theyíre not difficult to maintain. Moreover, the lock Lycoming and Continental have on the market with traditional aircraft engines is compelling, but it canít last forever. Sooner or later, the worm will turn toward a new niche. New airframes, designed and built under the revised Part 23 initiative, will come along.
Diesels have been getting all the ink lately, but itís a mistake to assume that this will stunt gasoline engine development entirely. It hasnít done that in automotive and it wonít in aviation, either. Rotaxís expertise is in sophisticated, economical recreational gasoline engines. I wouldnít expect them to venture into heavy fuel design, although the larger horsepower definitely takes them out of their recreational-engine comfort zone. But not much, given that airplanes that require that horsepower are just recreational vehicles by another name. A company that makes snowmobile and motorcycle engines doesnít have the same aviation chops as Continental or Lycoming. But thereís no reason it canít develop this expertise.
One area in which Rotax has a leg up on other manufacturers is environmental sensitivity. When we were at the Rotax factory in 2011, conversations were peppered with discussion about noise, fuel efficiency and emissions. Itís clear that Rotax senses its recreational engines will be targets as world concerns about greenhouse gas emissions intensify. Rather than denying that reality, Rotax wants to be ready with products that are at least perceived as being greener. Not for nothing does the 912 iS have an ďecoĒ mode.
Itís anybodyís guess whatís going on inside the warrens at Rotaxís Gunskirchen skunkworks, but it seems to me the company is well positioned to announce something surprising. Itís not a question of if, but when.