Why Mazda is betting on a gas engine breakthrough

Source: By Nathan Bomey, USA Today • Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2017

Toyota and Mazda will build a $1.6 billion U.S. assembly plant, adding up to 4,000 jobs. Buzz60

Days after striking a partnership to collaborate on electric vehicles with bigger and wealthier competitor Toyota, the scrappy engineers at Mazda announced proprietary engine technology that they say is 20% to 30% more efficient than the automaker’s conventional systems.

They plan to deploy the technology, which also boasts improving torque, in models beginning in 2019.

The technological advancement, which Mazda won’t share with other automakers, shows how the global race to meet fuel economy regulations will take multiple forms and could pave the way for consumers to save on transportation.

Mazda dubbed its new compression-ignition technology Skyactiv-X. The new engine technology pairs a turbocharger with a piston-compressed fuel-air mixture in a proprietary process that would allow combustion from compression alone, like in a diesel engine.

It would eliminate the need for spark plugs and make the engine more efficient. Mazda already has technology in its cars that boosts the compression ratio in cylinders to get more power for the same amount of gas as compared to ordinary engines.

The automaker said its goal is to slash emissions emanating from its production and products to 50% of 2010 levels by 2030 and 90% by 2050.

“In light of the rapid changes taking place in the automotive industry, the new vision takes a longer-term perspective and sets out how Mazda will use driving pleasure, the fundamental appeal of the automobile, to help solve issues facing people, the earth and society,” Mazda said in a statement.

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With the upgraded engines, a Mazda model that currently gets 30 m.p.g. could get nearly 40 m.p.g. in its next iteration, potentially saving owners at least several dollars per fill-up on a 15-gallon tank of gasoline.

It comes about a month after Chinese-owned Swedish automaker Volvo announced plans to switch completely to electric cars or hybrids, a move that raised questions about the future of the internal-combustion engine that has powered vehicles for more than a century.

Although Mazda’s U.S. market share was only 1.7% through July, according to Autodata, the company’s technological advancement will put pressure on competitors to respond.

“There was this big hysteria over the death of the internal combustion engine,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Rebecca Lindland said. “I think Mazda has made it very clear that those headlines were an exaggeration.”

Until now, the conventional wisdom was that consumers would pay more for more fuel-efficient cars required by regulators. But Mazda’s breakthrough suggests innovation is taking hold.

For the foreseeable future, shoppers should expect to have their choice among a wide range of vehicles, including conventional engines, highly efficient engine technology like Mazda’s, mild hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fully battery-powered electric cars.

“This is another example of the diversity we’re going to see in powertrains and propulsion in automobiles,” Lindland said. “There isn’t one solution, there isn’t one size fits all.”

For most consumers, the devil is not in the technological details but in the end result, said David Bennett, automotive programs manager and car-buying expert for AAA.

“The majority of consumers probably won’t be able to tell the difference in the technology of how an engine is created, so I think for them it’s all going to come down to performance and reliability,” he said. “And price. That always plays a part.”

To be sure, Mazda can’t set aside advanced technologies, including electric vehicles, which will be critical to its long-term viability.

But the company will glean benefits from its new partnership with Toyota to develop electric models. For now, the company is tailoring its focus toward mainstream car buyers.

“If this engine performs as they describe, it’s fun to drive and it keeps with their ‘zoom-zoom’ heritage, this could be a real game-changer for them,” Lindland said.