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Can Mazda save the petrol engine?

Mazda's Skyactiv-X technology could give petrol engines an extended lease of life.

Mazda’s Skyactiv-X.

Skyactiv-X refers to a combustion method known as homogeneous charge compression ignition.

Mine Proving Ground,
Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan

IS there life in the gasoline engine? Plenty, if you ask Mazda. While flashy Electric Vehicles (EVs) like Teslas and the Jaguar I-Pace are getting plenty of attention, the Japanese car maker believes you should hold on to your petrol loyalty card for a few decades.

Yes, decades. 30 years from now, says Mazda, 84 per cent of cars will still be powered by some kind of internal combustion engine. That makes improvements to engine efficiency especially meaningful.

"The combustion engine will help power the majority of vehicles globally for many years to come, so this is where we can make the biggest contribution to emissions reduction," says Hidetoshi Kudo, the executive officer in charge of research and development, and product strategy, for Mazda.

With a century of refinement behind it, the combustion engine might not seem like a candidate for much improvement. But Mazda believes it has a major breakthrough on its hands, a technology it calls Skyactiv-X.

"The Mazda Skyactiv-X engine has the best fuel economy of any gasoline engine in the world," says Hiroshi Tokushige, Mazda's deputy general manager of powertrain development.

The brand claims the new engine, which is slated to debut in Singapore in late 2019 with the new Mazda 3 hatchback, can even match electric vehicles when it comes to well-to-wheel emissions, a calculation that takes into account the pollution generated by extracting and delivering fossil fuels or generating electricity.

Announced at last year's Tokyo Motor Show, Skyactiv-X refers to a combustion method known as homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI). It uses the heat generated when a gas is compressed to ignite fuel, the way a diesel engine does, but runs on petrol instead.

That way, it combines the fuel efficiency and pulling power of a diesel engine with the low emissions of a gasoline engine.

Mazda says Skyactiv-X delivers fuel efficiency and torque improvements of up to 30 per cent over its current gasoline engines, but unlike diesels, it will retain petrol's characteristic of continued power at higher engine speeds.

When it debuts next year, it will be the first engine of its kind to reach mass production and sale.

"Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz have made prototype HCCI technology, but Mazda has gone ahead of them and made it real," says Mr Tokushige.

Mazda gave The Business Times a hands-on experience of Skyactiv-X at its Mine Proving Grounds test facility.

The prototype used looked like the current Mazda 3 hatchback but was actually built on a platform that Mazda will use for its next generation of cars, and powered by the new Skyactiv-X 2.0-litre engine.

Still in the final stages of refinement, the new engine makes a quoted 190 horsepower (hp) and 230 Newton-metres (Nm) of maximum torque, more than the 162hp and 210Nm of the current version.

But what's most obvious from the driver's seat, in contrast to the conventional engine, is that the prototype feels smoother and easier to drive.

Unlike the obvious rasp of the conventional engine, the prototype smoothly churns out superior acceleration, requiring less work from the gearbox (we tested both manual and automatic versions) to maintain forward motion.

That the prototype car felt more refined overall, as well as more adept and composed at high speeds, was down to a combination of both the new engine and platform.

The only issue we noticed was an obvious rattle before changing up a gear, but Mazda says it's aware of the issue and will fix it before producing the engines for sale.

But even as a late-stage prototype, the Skyactiv-X engine feels very much like a smooth, quiet diesel engine, just as Mazda says. Mazda's biggest boast couldn't be verified as we had no way of measuring fuel efficiency, however.

In any case, Mazda is relying on other tech to boost fuel efficiency. The Skyactiv-X engines will be combined with hybrid systems, for example, which add an electric motor and battery.

Mazda sees Skyactiv-X as just one step in a planned rollout of car technology to come. Cylinder deactivation is newly available in the latest CX-5 in Singapore, with mild hybrids due for global launch next year.

Mazda plans to put autonomous driving technology on the road in 2020, and plug-in hybrids by 2021.

But total electrification isn't something the Japanese brand can ignore, which is why it is working on launching its first EV in 2019. Even as battery power begins to take off, however, Mazda remains convinced that petrol is here to stay.

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