Mazda’s small-but-scrappy nature is the reason why it’s built legends in the past – and made impossible breakthroughs today
A new small family car is launching next year. It’s the latest generation of a very successful model, it will have a bold new design, run on an entirely new modular platform, be built using a novel production process. It will also have an engine that’s never been seen before, running technology previously ruled out as ‘impossible’.
Is it a Volkswagen? A Toyota with a hydrogen engine? No, it’s a Mazda. To be precise, the new Mazda 3, which will launch in Singapore next year, and shown here in the form of the Kai styling concept.
The amazing thing isn’t just the technology itself, but also the fact that it comes from one of the last independent carmakers of note.
Of the ‘true’ independent car brands who build a significant number of vehicles, there are no Europeans, nor Americans. With Mitsubishi swallowed up by Renault-Nissan and Subaru a fifth-owned by Toyota, only Mazda and Suzuki remain.
Advanced tech is expected of large groups, but how has Mazda pulled off such a feat of tech-trickery?
An independent with that level of tech could be seen as vapourware anywhere else, but Mazda has always punched well above its weight when it comes to the cutting edge. In fact, once you understand where it’s come from, you’ll also see how it made legendary cars like the RX-7 FD.
Small is agile
Skyactiv X (see below) is its latest big breakthrough. While we didn’t see or test the engines in person at event in Hokkaido, but from a purely technical perspective, Skyactiv X is nothing less than the biggest step forward for combustion engines in decades.
As technologically significant as it is, it’s not even the first time Mazda’s done this sort of thing. Back in the 1960s, Mazda engineers put their noses to the grindstone to make another combustion technology work in real-life. Again, it was something others had pursued unsuccessfully and declared a dead end, but Mazda persevered, and the result was its now iconic range of rotary engines.
Mazda’s first rotary-engined car, the 1976 Cosmo Sport
Mazda’s identity has always been that of the stubborn, dedicated underdog – so much so that its official website’s heritage section proudly proclaims, “a streak of defiance and adventure”, quite at odds with the way every other Japanese carmaker does things, which is usually ‘design by committee for maximum efficiency and profit’.
In fact it’s precisely because Mazda is small, and dedicated, that it could pull Skyactiv X off: “Our resources are limited, so unlike bigger automakers, we don’t have the array of options in which to invest our R&D funds,” said Mitsuo Hitomi, managing executive officer at Mazda who oversees engine development.
“That’s why we’re betting on this technology … We were determined that no matter what, we would develop this engine,” Hitomi told Reuters in an interview at the unveiling of Skyactiv X at the Tokyo Motor Show 2017.
The years spent under Ford’s hegemony seemed to have galvanised Mazda’s people, and going back to independence in 2008 was, as Mazda’s then-president said, a godsend.
“Under Ford we had to adopt things, which we felt weren’t always optimal. This could be everything from marketing to engine or platform technology,” says Mr Susumu Niinai, general manager of Mazda’s Asean Business Office (pictured above).
In any case the brand’s sales figures have proved that independence is the right path for Mazda: Its past three years have been record ones for sales and revenue, with 2018 looking to be yet another.
A next-gen Skyactiv platform is in the works, alongside hybrid and electric vehicle tech
Just being a maverick is only one part of the puzzle, though. Mazda is quite literally run by engineers. Whereas larger car companies have different people for different jobs – engineers, finance, designers, managers – a large proportion of Mazda’s executive staff all have backgrounds in engineering. This ranges from the outgoing president,Masamichi Kogai, current president Akira Marumoto to junior execs.
In fact, almost every Mazda representative we met at the event, Mazda’s Asean Forum Winter 2018, was an engineer. Mr Ninai, currently a business manager, was previously an engineer specialising in internal combustion engines and helped develop the current range of Skyactiv engines.
The 2019 Mazda 3 will have a Skyactiv-X engine under the hood
Mr Takeji Kojima, Mazda’s head of corporate communications, is a qualified engineer and product planner. Ms Miki Kado, a communications manager, also worked on combustion engines in the design of cylinder heads.
With backgrounds like that, you can imagine Mazda’s managers spend much less time arguing about where money should be spent, and it’s no surprise the company spends a larger proportion of its revenue on research and development (4.5 percent, more than Toyota’s 3.7 percent) and spends more money on it than Suzuki.
That also makes clear how something like Skyactiv X came about – once Mazda became independent again, its people knew exactly what was needed for the company to thrive not just in the next few years, but decades down the road.
“We began research into Skyactiv X a decade ago, at the same time we began the programme for Skyactiv diesel engines you see today,” said Mr Kojima.
Keep in mind that Mazda wasn’t exactly on strong footing then, and throwing oodles of cash into a technology people perceived as impossible – or possibly even obsolete once finally perfected – was a very gutsy move.
But the move has paid off big-time. If Skyactiv X does what Mazda claims it can, it makes combustion engines even more relevant than before. While many are denouncing combustion engines, it’s not as if electric charging grids will spring up over night. In any case, Mazda says that not only will it combine Skyactiv X with hybrids (by roughly 2019-2020), Skyactiv X can already perform as well as EVs in emissions when it comes to well-to-wheel measurements.
Sky’s the limit
Skyactiv X: Mazda’s breakthrough combustion engine technology explained
Skyactiv X is a form of compression ignition gasoline engine. As we know, diesel engines ‘explode’ their fuel by compressing the fuel-air mixture which self-ignites (compression ignition). Gasoline engines require a spark to set off the combustion (spark ignition).
The benefits of compression ignition are a more homogenous charge, as the whole air/fuel charge explodes simultaneously – unlike a spark charge where the spark kicks off the flame, which then propogates outwards. Homogenous charge compression ignition (HCCI) has already been achieved, but only at low revs and over a limited range.
Mazda’s approach, in short, uses a spark plug to ignite the charge at higher ranges – one of Mazda’s key breakthroughs was the ability to manage the handover from compression to spark ignition thanks to advanced engine design and fuel management improvements.
If you understood none of that, then very, very simply: Skyactiv X is a gasoline engine that combines the benefits of diesel (more torque, better efifciency) with the existing benefits of gasoline engines (wide powerband, less pollution).
Mazda currently claims for its 2.0-litre prototype Skyactiv X engine, it can achieve 10 to 30 percent more torque than the current 2.0-litre gasoline Skyactiv G, and 30-40 percent better efficiency, which can even exceed its 2.0-litre diesel Skyactiv D engine.
Impressive stuff even by itself, but Mazda is also rolling out the next gen Skyactiv platform. Not only will it have the usual improvements and future-proofing, Mazda’s also done extensive research into reducing noise, vibration and harshness, plus other new areas of comfort and stability. The new platform, which will underpin all future Mazda cars, will also be integrated into a novel production method that will allow volume changes and new model production with much less additional cost.