North of Germany's vibrant capital city, inside what was once a key piece of the East German propaganda machine, we are huddled inside a sprawling sound stage.
We need the space because with us is the entire research and development staff at Mazda Motor Corp.
Well, not exactly all of them, but the room is stuffed with engineers, product planners and executive types.
They outnumber the journalists at least five to one, so it seems certain that something big is about to happen, that we're about to be told a massively important story.
The shape of things to come
Now back in the days when devoted, committed, fanatical Communist Erich Honecker ran East Germany with an intolerant fist (1971-1989), this sound stage was part of a larger television and movie studio complex whose primary role was to do Goebbels-like work in support of the former German Democratic Republic.
I, of course, am wondering if the Mazda people see the irony in bringing a handful of journalists to a former propaganda factory to tell us details about what can only be described as the reinvented and reinvigorated Mazda? This is on my mind as the conversation turns to the Sky program at Mazda - as in "the sky is the limit."
Mazda officials say they picked Berlin for the briefing and test drive for a short list of compelling reasons. Berlin is a city fast turning into the most vibrant urban centre on the Continent. Mazda types see Berlin as a kind of metaphor for Mazda - the car company now freed (since 2008) of Ford's influence is now turning into the most vibrant mainstream car maker in the world. That's the idea, at least.
As well, the nearby autobahn allows us to test drive Mazda prototypes at high speeds without risking jail time. Then there is Mazda's important and influential European R&D centre in Germany. As one Mazda executive says, "The speed of evolution is faster here in Europe than in other markets, so we keep in close touch with R&D here."
Mazda, then, is moving fast, but not into electric vehicles (EVs) and gasoline-electric hybrids.
Mazda's new design theme
In a nutshell, Mazda's top product development brains tell us that spending a lot of money on developing EVs is a silly waste of money. No one actually comes out and says those exact words, but R&D head Seita Kanai bluntly states that he does not think the number of electric vehicles on the roads worldwide in 2030 will be much different than in 2020. And in 2020, EVs will account for a sliver of global sales - a few percentage points of market share.
Hybrids, gasoline electric hybrids? Kanai's boss, Mazda president and CEO Takashi Yamanouchi, had this to say about hybrids at last spring's New York Auto Show: "Hybrids are costly and although sales are stronger in the U.S. and Japan, globally they are not so successful. Of the 60 million vehicles built a year, just one per cent are hybrids."
That's not to say Mazda does not have an EV and hybrid program in place. It does. Sort of. In March, Toyota and Mazda announced a deal in which Toyota will supply hybrid technology under licence to Mazda. Yamanouchi at the time said the first objective is to provide the technology in vehicles for the hybrid-hungry Japanese market. In the longer term, Yamanouchi said, Mazda hybrids could reach the North America, but gave no timetable.
As Kanai says in Berlin, "We have a plan to introduce (hybrid technology) gradually, starting from simple devices. The more complex a device is, the more costly it becomes."
Constrained by its size and the limitations of its resources, Mazda is marshalling the vast majority of its R&D effort into refining good, old internal combustion engines (ICEs). That's where real-world gains can be made, effective ones that are affordable and make total sense to the everyday customers Mazda courts.
The day-long briefing and test drive in Berlin is all about how, why and when Mazda will launch its new Sky family of gasoline and diesel engines. The first Sky-G (for gasoline) engines will come to Canada and the United States in 2011. In 2012, a completely new model will not only introduce the full powertrain developments, but also chassis and body advances designed to strip out weight to further improve fuel economy and lower emissions. Mazda won't say which vehicles will get the Sky powertrains first, but the entire lineup will be Sky-ing by the 2014 or 2015 model year.
By cutting weight and improving powertrain efficiency, by adding stop-start technology and even regenerative braking, Kanai and colleagues plan to improve Mazda's fleet-wide fuel efficiency by 30 per cent above 2008 levels by 2015. Moreover, Mazda will keep refining the internal-combustion engine, pushing for additional gains.
The diesel story is the best part of it all. The Sky-D engine will come to Canada and the U.S. in 2012, boasting the same level of fuel economy as mild hybrids, but at considerably less cost. Hybrids are surely coming, but first Mazda wants new engines and ever-lighter cars to be the focus of a smart and economical "green" push. Eventually, and certainly with Toyota's help, Mazda will introduce some sort of hybrid powertrain. Then EVs.
"We will be ready," said Yamanouchi in New York. "We have electric vehicle research under way at the moment - and remember Mazda launched its first EV 40 years ago."
But it's the new Sky-G and Sky-D engines that have everyone at Mazda so excited. They think that super-refined, highly advanced internal combustion engines will give Mazda a clear edge over all its rivals - from Toyota to Honda to even BMW.
We know this: the first Mazda diesel coming to North America will be a mid-sized vehicle. Yamanouchi, the CEO, has said that, though he has not said whether it would be the redesigned Mazda6 or a crossover such as the CX-9.
Robert Davis, Mazda's North American R&D expert, says Mazda's proprietary catalyst system does not require urea systems to meet emissions standards. The 2.2-litre Sky-D is expected to boost fuel economy by 20 per cent, while increasing horsepower and torque by some 50 per cent. The direct-injection 2.0 Sky-G, for the record, will initially boost fuel economy by 15 per cent. It will be the core gasoline powertrain in future Mazdas.
"Out technology is not about jumping directly to electric vehicles," said Kanai, adding, "We believe technology should be affordable for all customers."
The Sky engines
- 2.0-litre, gasoline direct injection
- Estimated fuel economy on next-generation Mazda3: 5.0 litres/100 km or 47 mpg (U.S. gallon)
- North American debut in 2011; no specific vehicle yet announced
- 2.2-litre direct-injection diesel with dual-stage turbochargers
- Estimated fuel economy on next Mazda6: 4.4 litres/100 km or 53 mpg (U.S. gallon)
- North American debut in 2012; no specific vehicle announced
Mazda's new design theme