Back in the halcyon days of high school, my automotive shop teacher used to explain that the internal combustion engine is essentially a large sophisticated air pump. The more air it ships, the more power it makes.
Hot-rodders and performance enthusiasts have known this since the beginning, and the primary goal of every engine-tweaker and go-fast merchant is to make engines breathe better and to get more air/fuel through the engine as quickly as possible.
Car manufacturers have known this, too, but for various reasons – usually manufacturing costs and long-term reliability concerns – have tended to make their engines more durable than they are efficient. Even now, most internal combustion engines run at 10 per cent efficiency at the best of times. The rest of the energy produced by the engine is lost through the exhaust, cooling system, mechanical friction and various pumping functions.
But what if you actually addressed these concerns and expanded your quest to include every area of the automobile? Increase the engine’s efficiency, rethink the platform design so that you’re using fewer parts while increasing its strength and redesign the transmission to transmit power to the driving wheels more efficiently and thoroughly.
In a nutshell, this is what Mazda is attempting in its new SkyActiv technology program: a complete re-appraisal of the automobile as we know it.
“We are still a small company,” explains Kiyoshi Fujiwara, Mazda’s executive officer in charge of product, program planning and design. “We have to solve various technological issues facing the company with as little investment as possible.” Fujiwara is a bit of a big-wig at the company and is part of Mazda’s travelling dog and pony show to extol the virtues of Skyactiv and the corporate rethink going on at his company.
“Skyactiv is part of what we call ‘jinba ittai’,” he adds, “which in Japanese means a oneness between car and driver. It covers every aspect of the automobile, and is a building block strategy for Mazda.”
SkyActiv – which is loosely defined as the sky is the limit – is also the first step in Mazda’s new approach to building automobiles and will be implemented incrementally over the next five years. The plan, according to Fujiwara, is to improve corporate fuel economy by 30 per cent by 2015.
Highlights of Mazda’s Skyactiv technology include:
-A revamped four-cylinder engine that will feature higher compression, freer-flowing exhaust, better combustion and reduced friction. Mazda claims it will have 15 per cent better fuel economy, with more torque, horsepower, and cleaner emissions – all on regular 87-octane gas.
-A new-generation, 2.2-litre, diesel four-cylinder that will have the lowest compression offered in a small-displacement diesel, with a two-stage turbocharger and variable valve timing, with the lowest fuel economy put forward by Mazda. It will also conform to Tier 2 emission requirements.
-Revised body and platform components that will feature fewer bends and curves in the basic structure, with parallel beams running the length of the body and more welding points, use of adhesives and overall lighter weight than current models.
-New chassis geometry and suspension with a revised rear suspension and a purported 14 per cent reduction in overall weight.
-A new, lightweight, six-speed automatic transmission – in two sizes – featuring revised electronics, a multi-plate clutch, longer “lock-up” shift time, less torque converter “slip,” and quicker shift points than the current models. This transmission will be used both with the new gas and diesel engines.
-Two new manual transmissions – actually, the same model but in different sizes – modelled after the MX5/Miata and completely reworked. These will be applied to front-drive models and will feature reduced internal friction, easier shifting, stronger case construction and overall lighter weight.
All of the above revisions won’t be dropped into Mazda products immediately. During the launch, we drove half a dozen test “mules” – prototype Mazda6 sedans featuring the new engine(s) and gearboxes. The first production model to see some of the changes will be the next-generation Mazda3, which will feature the new engine and gearbox and will be a purported 100 kilograms lighter as a result. Following that will be the soon-to-be-announced CX-5 CUV, which may or may not have the diesel engine.
Mazda is also quick to point out that SkyActiv is strictly in-house, with no participation from Ford, past or present. “This is technological wisdom we gathered over the years,” says Fujiwara.