Mazda’s Next-Gen Tech, Preview

With all the high-styled sheet-metal and waaay-out-there concepts revealed at the recent 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show, automotive enthusiasts can be forgiven for possibly overlooking a good-looking but conservative-cute ute dubbed the CX-5, over at Mazda’s booth. (DailyXY didn’t overlook it, mind you.) The CX-5 might appear to be just some new styling cues applied to a familiar theme — four doors, a hatchback and a little ground clearance — but it is, in fact, Mazda’s big gamble.

Canada loves the Mazda brand, with good reason: No other company has been as good at injecting a little joie de vivre into what would normally be humdrum econo-boxes. Consider the Miata, banner-carrier for emphasis of handling over outright power, and the Mazda3, arguable foot-soldier of the brand, stylish, practical, affordable and quite good fun.

Alas, there’s a problem. While other companies have surged ahead with hybrid technology, high-efficiency diesel engines and all-electric options, Mazda has lagged with engines that are peppy but thirsty. One need only talk to an owner of a previous-gen Mazda3 2.3GT to hear them wax ecstatic about the handling then make a face if fuel economy is mentioned.

Not to worry, Mazda fans, because there’s a solution and I’m sitting in it, at an on-ramp to the Sea to Sky Highway near Squamish, B.C. The vehicle is a right-hand-drive prototype, flown here over the Pacific from Japan to showcase the complete array of new Mazda technologies to Canadian media, and it carries a (theoretical) price tag that’s the same as the Bugatti Veyron: one million bucks. Ouch.

This test-mule is outfitted with all the same wiz bangery in the aforementioned upcoming CX-5 (which should be a tad more affordable). Collectively, the design philosophy is called SKYACTIV, and it’s more down-to-earth than you think.

SKYACTIV is a full suite of technologies: less a single efficiency-enhancing design element than a total leap forward on several fronts. Vehicle weight will come down. Manufacturing processes will be streamlined and combined. Transmissions will be lightened and made more efficient. Engines will return greater amounts of power per litre of fuel consumed.

It all sounds great, but how does Mazda intend to pull such a coup off without the huge R&D budget of its larger competitors? Simple. Rather than seeing the relatively small size of the company as a drawback, see it as an advantage: Mazda is reacting to the market much faster than the behemoths.

The first task of SKYACTIV is shedding weight, which is done in the engine, transmission and chassis. Impressively, Mazda is able to drop the weight of its unibody structures without turning to exotic materials like carbon fibre. Instead, the SKYACTIV body has been honed and refined like a Katana, extraneous bends removed and strength increased without adding material.

SKYACTIV’s second breakthrough is even more pragmatic: rather than chasing sporty dual-clutch technology or less-involving but efficient continuously variable transmissions, Mazda has elected to perfect its conventional manual and automatic gearboxes. By lightening materials, increasing the sporty feel of the automatic and making the manual feel more like the Miata’s stick-shift, Mazda has upped efficiency without losing focus on driving pleasure.

So far, so good. Even so, it’s when we come to the engines that the real ideological leap becomes apparent. Rather than add electrical helper-motors, as in a hybrid, Mazda has decided that the Internal Combustion Engine would work just fine if its efficiency was improved. In order to do so, engineers upped the compression ratio (the amount the air/fuel mixture is squeezed by the pistons before being ignited) on its gasoline engines to a whopping 13:1 — higher even than that of a Ferrari 458 Italia.

With specially dished pistons, hyper-accurate injectors and a new exhaust manifold design, the SKYACTIV gasoline engine will produce 15% more torque than the previous engine, while still seeing a 15% increase in fuel economy. The diesel SKYACTIV engines are even more impressive, with low-compression ratios that allow for clean-burning cycles and prodigious turbocharged grunt. They also rev like a gasoline engine, and it has been confirmed that Mazda will bring them to Canada soon.

Back on the on-ramp, the riveted-together prototype impresses with its snick-snick quick-shifting transmission and gutsy diesel engine. Getting it up to speed and showing it a corner proves that, while evolution is at work, this car still carries the same fine-handling DNA that you find in the MX-5 and all Mazdas.

We’ll see partial SKYACTIV tech as an option in the Mazda3 this fall, and fully in the CX-5 this year. Judging from the way the test-mules drove, I’m happy to report that while the new cars will be cleaner, greener and cheaper to run, they’ll still have that Mazda fun-to-drive character at heart.

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Image courtesy of Brendan McAleer.

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