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The Mazda Iconic SP concept sports car on display after being revealed at the 2023 Japan Mobility Show in Tokyo.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Mazda is bucking the EV trend with a distinct and beautiful new hybrid coupe concept called the Iconic SP. Even though nearly every other car company at the Japan Mobility Show – or, for that matter, every car company at every auto show – has rolled out some kind of battery-electric sports car concept recently, Mazda is going its own way once again.

The Iconic SP concept unveiled in Tokyo offers a wonderfully strange solution to the fundamental problems that plague battery-powered sports cars, namely weight and size.

“We’re shifting to the BEV [battery-electric vehicle] era and it’s really difficult to make a sports car,” said Masashi Nakayama, general manager of Mazda’s design division.

@globedrive Mazda reveals the Iconic SP - a small, low-emissions, hybrid sports car concept with the neat powetrain technology. #japanmobilityshow #mazda #iconicsp #carreveal #sportscar ♬ Vengeance - iwilldiehere

“I think many good things about a sports car are being lost,” he said through a translator. “Where are you going to mount the battery? And the car is going to be heavy for a sports car. And also the vehicle height is going to be high.”

He’s not being curmudgeonly. Battery weight and size doesn’t matter on your average SUV or luxury car, but could easily ruin the feel and handling of a compact sports car.

This Mazda concept sidesteps those EV problems – conceptually, at least – with an unusual hybrid solution. The Iconic SP uses a rotary combustion engine mounted ahead of the cabin as an electrical generator to power a small battery located behind the seats; the dual-rotor engine isn’t mechanically connected to the wheels at all. The wheels are spun by an electric motor connected to the battery.

Mazda claims the car is good for 365 horsepower and weighs in at a respectable 1,450 kilograms. (The MX-5 weighs 1,060 kilograms).

With the onboard generator there’s no need for a big battery to ensure decent driving range, because extra range can be generated on the fly. A smaller battery means the car can be lighter, lower and also less expensive.

As far as range goes, Nakayama said the SP could travel 100 kilometres on battery power before the engine kicks it, but wouldn’t comment on what the total range might be.

This kind of hybrid system, known as a series hybrid, isn’t some fantasy. It’s similar to what was in the Chevrolet Volt or BMW i3 range-extender. In fact, Mazda currently sells a rotary-hybrid range-extender in the MX-30 R-EV (although not in Canada). The difference is that the SP concept uses a rotary hybrid in service of driving pleasure rather than practical transportation.

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Mazda's design boss sketches the Lamborghini Countach, Porsche 911 and his Iconic SP.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The downside, of course, is that the car still has a combustion engine burning fuel, albeit much less than in a conventional V8 or V6. Imagine: you could commute 100 kilometres in your little sports car emissions-free on weekdays, and never worry about driving range or finding a charging station on a longer Sunday blast into the middle of nowhere. Mazda claims its new rotary engine could be powered by hydrogen fuel, if you can find any, for added emissions reduction.

This compact hybrid powertrain is also why this concept is so low and lithe. The Iconic SP approaches the Platonic ideal of a little red coupe. It’s for a specific type of driver according to Mazda, someone who “love cars” and wants a machine that “embodies the joy of driving.”

If that’s you, you’ll be wondering whether Mazda will green-light the SP for production, hopefully as a next-generation MX-5 or a reborn RX-7, or whether the brand is just teasing another beautiful sports car we’ll never get. (As it did with the RX-Vision concept, unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2015.)

“We can realize the technology I think. But, because [the SP] has a dedicated platform, we need investment. That means we need everybody to support this concept so […] management will be able to give the go sign with confidence,” Nakayama said. (All you Mazda fans, that’s a call to action from the designer of your beloved MX-5.)

@globedrive Mazda’s design boss Masahi Nakayama sketches the Lamborghini Countach, Porsche 911 and Mazda Iconic SP. #mazdaiconicsp #lamborghini #countach #porsche911 #japanmobilityshow #tokyo ♬ original sound - Globedrive

“I’d love to drive that car,” said Nakayama’s boss, Mazda Motor Corp. chief executive officer Masahiro Moro. But, he warned there are several technical hurdles, such as ever more stringent emissions regulations and battery supply, in addition to the big question of whether there’s enough demand for this particular concept.

Making the business case for a low-volume sports car like this, on an all-new dedicated platform, at a time when automakers need to shovel cash into EV development and production, will be tough. With the current MX-5, development costs were shared with Fiat, which used the platform for its short-lived 124 Spider. (Fiat just couldn’t sell enough of them.)

In Canada, Mazda sells about 1,000 MX-5s a year, accounting for 2 per cent of its national sales.

Even at those volumes, the MX-5 is “very” profitable for Mazda globally, according to Jeffrey Guyton, the company’s chief financial officer. He wouldn’t say whether the Iconic SP will go into production, but did comment that, “we’re going to work really hard to make that business case.”

The fundamental problems that plague battery-powered sports cars will eventually be overcome, perhaps by energy-dense solid-state batteries or some yet-to-be-invented technology. I’m sure Porsche will be able to find solutions that work for its upcoming all-electric 718 Boxster, for example. But, in the meantime, this Mazda concept offers an alternative – and extremely beautiful – template for small, affordable, low-emissions cars that put driving fun above all else. Do it Mazda; quit teasing the diehards and build this thing.

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