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Mazda Bets Improving Current Technology Beats Electric

Mazda of Japan managed to survive and thrive despite the eccentric “Zoom Zoom” slogan, so fronting up its new approach to promoting fuel efficiency with the opaque SkyActiv handle isn’t likely to do it any harm.

The question is though, will it work?

Mazda, at a media briefing in Britain, said in the short to medium term, greater fuel efficiency is best achieved by honing and developing the internal combustion engine (ICE), both diesel and gasoline, rather than electrification, using batteries or gasoline/electric hybrids.

This will make fuel efficient cars available to the greatest amount of people at the most affordable prices, says Mazda, adding that it believes this SkyActiv approach also means driving can still be enjoyable.

Most experts would agree that there is indeed much mileage to be gained from investing in making ICE better. By 2020, even if 10 per cent of the world’s automobiles are battery powered and 10 per cent hybrids, that still leaves 80 per cent to be ICE driven.

Mazda has set itself the goal of improving fuel efficiency by 30 per cent between 2008 and 2015 by looking at the vehicle as a whole and improving all aspects of the design. Gasoline engines will be made more efficient by raising their compression ratios; diesels will also benefit from lowering theirs. Gasoline engines will get a 15 per cent improvement in power and economy. Diesels will get better by 20 per cent, without using expensive ideas like UREA treatment which current diesels need to beat government noxious emissions rules. Both will be much lighter. Gearboxes will be redesigned to take out weight and improve efficiency, and this will add between four and seven per cent to fuel economy. Body weight will be cut by around 200 lbs. Improvements will also include stages incorporating stop-start technology and then regenerative braking, which captures energy generated when cars are free-wheeling. Mazda isn’t ruling out hybrids, but says this will be left to the third stage when this approach is more effective in terms of cost and fuel efficiency.

Europe will get its first SkyActiv vehicle next year – the CX-5 compact SUV based on the Minagi concept shown at the Geneva Car Show earlier this year. This will include a direct-injection gasoline engine, a more efficient transmission and a stronger, more lightweight body. Mazda UK says this will have fuel economy of between 70 and 80 miles per gallon, although this reflects European Union rules where fuel efficiency is measured in a laboratory and bears no relation to real world driving. Americans will get SkyActiv earlier. In late summer this year the Mazda3 is expected to be launched in the U.S. with the 2.0 liter SkyActiv gas engine and automatic gearbox.

Mazda sold about 230,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year. It wants to almost double sales to 400,000 over the next five years. Global sales are currently close to 1.2 million a year, and the target is 1.7 million by 2017.  By 2016, Mazda wants about 80 per cent of its vehicles to incorporate SkyActiv technology. Most manufacturers are hedging their bets, developing hybrids and battery power as soon as possible without being sure which technology, if any, will emerge triumphant. Not Mazda.

Neil Winton – May 15, 2011

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