Not even a week has passed since the rumours went flying that the next Mazda3 would feature some kind of radical new engine that Mazda themselves have announced a new line of petrol engines, called SkyActiv-X.
The reveal, which was not accompanied by much of any technical specifics, were part of an outlining of their more expansive long-term vision, encompassing overall efficiency, design, and a company-wide spirit of engineering innovation toward sustainable and ecologically-sound solutions, even touching on how they plan to deal with autonomous technology and the advent of electrified vehicles.
They’re calling it “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030”, no doubt part of a far more detailed internal manifesto, that succeeds their current and original Sustainable Zoom-Zoom vision outlined a decade ago in 2007 and which has laid the philosophical groundwork leading to their present, newfound, and deserved success.
The new engine surrounds a novel method of combustion, at least as it pertains to petrol, which (instead of spark plugs) uses high pressure caused by the return stroke of the piston to ignite the fuel/air mixture within the combustion chamber, practically identical to how diesel engines work. Ironic, given how these are some of the darkest days in diesel’s history, that Mazda would use similar technology to be the provisional saviour of the internal combustion engine in an increasingly (and clumsily) electrified automotive landscape. Mazda's engine still requires a spark plug, but is only needed as a fail safe at specific points whereupon a seamless switch between compression ignition and spark ignition occurs to keep an uninterrupted supply of power and torque.
According to the Hiroshima-based automaker, SkyActiv-X sounds like the holy grail of gasoline motors, being some 25-30 percent more frugal than their existing SkyActiv-G engines and up to 45 percent more so than Mazda’s 2008 petrol engines of identical displacement, the leaner burn enabling diesel-like low fuel consumption without all the messier fumes and environmental downsides (and costly workarounds) associated with it.
Spark Controlled Compression Ignition, as they call it, is the same HCCI (Homogeneous Compression Charge Ignition) technology that numerous carmakers have explored and tried to wrestle into something mass-produced and consumer-accessible. Clearly, those endeavours have not been entirely fruitful, leaving us to wonder what secret sauce Mazda has on its side.
What’s more, most of these new generation engines will also be fitted with a supercharger, providing quicker responses to throttle input while producing more power and torque across wide RPM band, giving Mazda much more breadth in terms of optimised gearing and results in generally lower engine speeds to achieve identical acceleration and operating speeds while noise and vibrations are also reduced.
HCCI petrol engines do seem to have zero downsides over the existing breed (with spark plugs), but we’ll have to wait until 2019 when Mazda does roll out their first SkyActiv-X powered car - again, rumoured to be the Mazda3. This, however, doesn’t mean that they’re shying away from electrification. Quite the contrary, as in that same year they have outlined plans to offer cars with an electrified powertrain component, likely to be an extension of their ongoing and expanding technical partnership with Toyota.
Mazda recognises that the move toward fully electric vehicles will need to be a gradual one, and that improving the internal combustion engine will be essential to reducing emissions and the global consumption of fossil fuels for transportation in the meantime. A cleaner, more efficient, and potentially more reliable petrol engine will be key to easing that important transition.
They are taking what they term as a ‘Well-to-Wheel’ approach, committing to reduce carbon emissions over the entire lifecycle of a vehicle, be it one powered by internal combustion or an electric motor - aiming to reduce their collective corporate carbon emission profile by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.
Concurrently, Mazda will also be focusing resources on further advancing their i-ActivSense driver assistance and active safety features, evolving it as necessary to introduce self-driving technologies in the near future. Tentatively, autonomous driving should be a standard feature on their new models by 2025.
Honestly, there’s plenty to be optimistic about the news coming out of Hiroshima, and yet again the automaker is taking a refreshingly pragmatic stance on issues that plague the industry they are helping shape. But they’re also backing that up with genuinely impressive technology allied to real world solutions, judging by how they are tackling driving response and safety, vehicle design and construction, human interface, and existing powertrains.
Compression Ignition petrol engines were a notoriously tough nut to crack for automakers with much deeper pockets and larger R&D divisions, but much like the rotary engine that has come to be synonymous with Mazda, perhaps so too will HCCI.