Special report – SkyActiv and the world of tomorrow
But in effectively re-inventing the way it builds its cars, the Japanese brand appears – at first glance – to be going to war against the electric car.
Journalists attending the launch of Mazda’s CX-5 crossover – the first car with the brand’s new and all-embracing SkyActiv technology – were faced with signs such as those at right. So is Mazda anti-electric?
Not exactly – in introducing SkyActiv Mazda’s marketing types look to be having a go not at electric cars (EVs) per se but the hype that is increasingly presenting them as the only future option.
Slow growth for EVs
Speaking at the CX-5 launch, UK PR head Graeme Fudge states that between 2010 and 2020 the increase in the number of pure electric cars on the roads is not going to be significant.
“As we move forward electrical advances such as idling-stop systems and regenerative braking, which we have on our CX-5 and Mazda3, will appear, but the base technology will still be the internal combustion engine.”
According to Fudge Mazda’s argument is that electric should be a part of the future, but not the first part; “If you take a base engine and improve it by 25-30 per cent, and then bolt on a hybrid system, you have a very clean, efficient engine.
He points to recent reports in the national press questioning the perceived cost benefits of EVs, a prime example a Sunday Times feature provocatively entitled ‘Shocking cost of the electric dream.’
“The Times did a survey where they calculated the dust-to-dust CO2 cost of an electric car, and compared to a normal petrol car it was only around point six of a tonne difference,” Fudge says.
“So if you improve the CO2 of your petrol engine by 30 per cent, you suddenly are below the dust-to-dust emissions cost of electric.”
He also argues that customers are not adopting EVs in anything like the numbers the publicity would have one believe.
He highlights a study into hybrid cars commissioned by leading US automotive data analyst Polk, which suggests almost two thirds of hybrid buyers don’t buy a second one – in 2011 the loyalty rate was 35 per cent, plummeting to 22 per cent if Toyota’s standard-bearer Prius was excluded.
Polk reported that hybrid cars accounted for less than 2.4 per cent of US auto sales in 2011 – and this figure was down from a peak of 2.9 per cent in 2008.
“The conclusion by Polk,” Fudge says, “is that hybrids are still about mass marketing rather than mass miles per gallon.”
And he adds that in the UK the political tide may be turning away from EVs, with the Government deciding to tax them – announcing in its last budget that in 2015/16 the benefit–in-kind tax charges for both hybrids and pure electric cars will be set at 13 per cent. This is a substantial rise from the present figures of five per cent and zero per cent respectively.
So is Mazda totally against EVs? Not at all – a full electric version of the Demio supermini (the Mazda2 in Europe) has been produced with what its creators say is a longer range and faster charge times than Nissan’s LEAF, the Nissan seen as the poster child for pure electric in the way the Prius has been for hybrid.
The Demio EV, however, exists merely to prove that Mazda has the ability to produce such a vehicle. As stated the designers in Hiroshima believe that electric will become a part of the Mazda architecture, in time, but only after the potential for radically improving the base technology – the internal combustion engine – has been fully exploited.
Focus on today’s tech
In 2008 Mazda announced the aim by 2015 to reduce the average emissions of its cars globally by 30 per cent and raise average fuel economy by the same figure, and it is by advances in existing technology, rather than looking at alternative technology, that the brand is progressing towards those aims.
And so we have a programme dubbed ‘Monotsokuri Innovation’, of which SkyActiv is an important part – but only a part.
Montosokuri is a catch-all stretching across all Mazda’s operations, and the figures are impressive – okay the cars are 100 kilos lighter, and with petrol engines 15 per cent more frugal, diesels 20 per cent, but it is also on the production line where some seriously big advances have been seen.
Previously, the five production lines in Hiroshima were limited as to which of Mazda’s wide-ranging model line they could build. Now all the cars can be built on all the lines – supermini, SUV, MPV…
“The platform we are now using is extendable and reducable to meet the requirements of all those segments,” Fudge says.
“This gives us enormous flexibility – we can meet changes in demand anywhere in the world by flexing production to suit.”
Such fundamental gains also mean fundamental cost savings, and let’s remind ourselves, Mazda has been losing significant amounts of money in recent years, badly hit by the strength of the Japanese yen, so this could be the key to survival in today’s cut-throat industry.
The changes have seen 20 per cent efficiency gain in vehicle production, while on the engine production line the boost is a stunning 60 per cent. Machining processes on Mazda’s new engines have been cut from 45 to a mere four, and like the cars, diesel and petrol engines can now be built on the same line.
Then there is SkyActiv – debuting on the CX-5, to be employed on every forthcoming Mazda, and covering everything from engines to transmissions to bodies to chassis.
The highest – and the lowest
There are new 2-litre petrol and 2.2-litre diesel engines each with several advances across them cutting fuel consumption and emissions, yet adding power and torque.
And they are not simply variations on other manufacturers’ technology. Mazda claims the highest ever compression ratio for a petrol-engined car, 14:1, in its SkyActiv-G petrol unit, while paradoxically the same figure, 14:1, in the SkyActiv-D represents the lowest-ever compression ratio for a diesel passenger car engine. This allows it to be built with alloy instead of steel liners, and thus makes it possible to build this unit on the same line as the petrol version.
These two instances top a host of new thinking in both engines, and the advantages are felt way beyond mere economy and emissions figures. The diesel, for example already meets Euro 6 emissions regulations while some rival manufacturers are celebrating achieving Euro 5 – and it does it without awkward emissions aftertreatment measures.
There’s a new auto transmission – SkyActiv Drive, designed to shift as effectively, and quickly, as manual, while saving more fuel in the process, by between four and seven per cent. And the manual transmissions have been completely redesigned too.
Steeled for safety
Moving to the bodies, high-tensile steel is much more widely used, 60 per cent of the CX-5 is of the material compared to 40 per cent in predecessors. As a result it is almost a third more rigid – and therefore safer – yet eight per cent lighter improving… yup, fuel economy.
There’s weight saving in the chassis too, which also gets a complete redesign – new suspension geometry, changed steering ratios, which Mazda says adds as much to driver enjoyment as ride comfort and handling prowess.
In short, SkyActiv is a sea change for Mazda design, and part of a fundamental change in how the business builds its cars. In summing up the advances, Fudge can’t resist adding that Mazda’s new direction offers; “none of the downsides of hybrids and EVs…”
Mazda has stated, however, that it will eventually use electric engines, on top of all this tech, which can only leave one thinking. if the designers can remove the EV downsides, and then add electric power to SkyActiv – the future could be very bright indeed, and the internal combustion engine not yet ready to lie down and die…
Words by: Andrew Charman