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Mazda isn’t quitting on the internal-combustion engine just yet

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Don’t Drink And Write

Last week, I attended the 45th Tokyo Motor Show as a media guest of Mazda Philippines. The car fan in me couldn’t get enough of the two main displays at the Mazda booth: the Vision Coupe and the Kai. Both concept cars are believed by many to be precursors of future production models — the midsize 6 and the compact 3, respectively. These two — at least to me — are easily the best-looking automobiles at the biennial expo (open to the public until Nov. 5, in case you’re in Japan this week). Big props to Mazda designers for treating car shows like historic events worthy of their best efforts.

But my most significant takeaway from the trip is Mazda’s tenacious patronage of the internal-combustion engine. At a time when most other automakers are already turning their backs on conventional powerplants and shifting their attention to alternative (read: earth-friendly) propulsion, the Hiroshima-based company insists there is still some fight left in engines that drink fossil fuel.

At the heart of Mazda’s Tokyo Motor Show presentation is the new Skyactiv-X engine, which is being touted as “the world’s first commercial gasoline engine to use compression ignition,” to be offered beginning with 2019-model cars. Note that this is a 100% internal-combustion unit, not some hybrid design that incorporates an electric motor. In a motoring environment where it’s almost considered a violation of political correctness to still be talking about petrol or diesel, Mazda has some balls to not just continue developing gasoline engines but to also make them the centerpiece of its technological push in the foreseeable future.

In simple terms, the Skyactiv-X engine marries a gasoline unit’s high-revving property with a diesel unit’s fuel efficiency, impressive torque and better initial response. How? By making use of compression ignition. Mazda is introducing a proprietary combustion method it calls Spark Controlled Compression Ignition, which, the company claims, “overcomes the long-standing issue of maximizing the zone in which compression ignition is possible, and realizes a seamless transition between compression ignition and spark ignition.”

In other words, Skyactiv-X combines the best attributes of gasoline and diesel. Compared with the current Skyactiv-G engine, Skyactiv-X is said to have 10-30% better torque and 20-30% better fuel efficiency. Just when we all think the internal-combustion engine has long peaked and reached the end of its development cycle, here comes Mazda to prove us wrong.

So, is Mazda a brilliant maverick in an industry that is going through a major technological upheaval, or is it merely an obstinate rebel that refuses to embrace the inevitable?

Well, know that Mazda has big plans for a green future. In August, the company announced its “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030” program, which seeks to reduce its well-to-wheel carbon-dioxide emissions to “50% of 2010 levels” by the year 2030. While the plan is to start introducing electric vehicles by 2019, Mazda’s stated mission is “to perfect the internal-combustion engine.” Translation: Mazda engineers will not stop until they have extracted every bit of advantage and benefit from petrol-powered engines.

Now, don’t presume Mazda is recklessly gambling away its long-term sustainability by stubbornly focusing on gasoline engines. Also at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota announced its partnership with Mazda in developing electric vehicles. While Mazda is only putting in a 5% investment in the joint venture (Toyota has 90% and Denso has the other 5%), the cooperation is seen as a wise move on Mazda’s part to prepare itself for electrification.

And Mazda bosses are taking electrification seriously. When asked which new project excited him the most, Mazda R&D chief Kiyoshi Fujiwara told the Philippine press: “Electric vehicles.”

Mazda is fully aware of the need to go electric, and is taking careful steps to achieve this. But it also knows that it is very good at making gasoline engines at the moment — arguably better than any of its Japanese and even Western rivals. So while the company has its sights on EVs, it isn’t prepared just yet to walk away from technology it believes it can still improve.

Which reminds me of the present-day publishing industry. Too many media companies have already surrendered their print business in the face of the so-called digital revolution. Even magazine publishers known for their world-class publications are shuttering titles one by one in favor of Web sites. I still think they’re giving up way too prematurely.

Then again, you need true passion in order to engage in watershed conflicts. Passion in the hearts of people working for the organization, not passion printed on calling cards.

 

You may e-mail the author at vbsarne@visor.ph.

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