The motor industry seems obsessed with the ‘E’ word. “Electrification is the future!” we are repeatedly informed and there does appear to be a slow shift in that direction. Since the start of 2013, the global market share of pure electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell vehicles has increased six-fold.
Big increase, low volume; numbers are still below 2% of all new vehicles sold. But for manufacturers it’s foot-on-throttle time as they scramble to announce their electrification strategies.
At the recent international motor shows in Detroit and Geneva much of the talk was about new EVs and hybrids.
So the internal combustion engine age will soon be over. Or will it? Patented in 1794 and the primary power source for motor vehicles since 1886, the internal combustion engine is undoubtedly under pressure. It could be just decades before it disappears from the cars we drive.
But that timescale is still in doubt. The demise of cars powered by fossil fuel has been predicted since the 1990s but current forecasts still look like a reach. Mazda has tossed a provocative pebble in the pond with its new Skyactiv-X technology.
While other carmakers go electric, Mazda is convinced that the internal combustion engine is still worthy of further development. The strategy basically combines features of petrol and diesel engines to harness the best of both in a single unit, with the target of improved efficiency and better performance.
The result is the first commercially-available petrol compression ignition engine. This takes the form of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder naturally-aspirated twin-cam unit using both standard spark technology and diesel-style compression ignition. The set-up supports the leanest possible air-fuel mixture, based on engine load. Compression ignition allows local fuel density be varied within the engine cylinders, leaving less unburnt fuel.
Other manufacturers have been working on similar technology, but Mazda is the first to go public with a convincing prototype. Known as SPCCI (spark controlled compression ignition), the engine returns fuel economy figures similar to a diesel, but with lower CO2 output and better octane adaptability. It operates on a 16:1 compression ratio and can run on 95 octane fuel. Did we mention the “E” word? It also has mild hybrid electrification.
Skyactiv-X will debut in the new Mazda 3, due next year. I have driven a prototype and found the theory of the new engine translates well on the road. The unit has a torquey, diesel-like punch through the lower rev range but petrol-like performance as speed increases. It performs sweetly and is nicely refined.
Driving it back-to-back with Mazda’s current 2.0-litre Skyactiv-G engine, the new version needs fewer gear shifts, while returning between 10% and 30% economy improvements.
Mazda has a reputation of punching above its weight. Unlike other Japanese manufacturers with factories in the UK or Europe, Mazda production is almost wholly based in Japan (apart from a plant in Thailand). Its 130 UK dealers sell cars which are burdened with a 10% EU tariff, which leads Mazda Motors UK MD Jeremy Thomson to say he has no concern about a hard Brexit:
“Our worst-case scenario would be a soft Brexit.” Like other brands, Mazda is exploring new ways of interacting with customers, most recently launching “Mazda My Way”. To address there being just seven Mazda dealers within the M25, interested customers can have a test vehicle delivered to their home or work. Any time, seven days a week. Since starting in 2016 the programme has reaped 300 sales.
Thomson, who has a degree in psychology, says he is fascinated by the mindset and motivation of the consumer. “People are busy and want greater convenience, so our idea is to bring us to you. It’s about bringing a friendly and accessible point of contact nearer to the customer and extending the buying process to more of a 24/7 availability.”
Sue Baker is a motoring writer, editor, broadcaster and columnist for Motor Trader