Skip to content

Mazda reaches for the Sky

SOME auto-journo buddies of mine recently had the opportunity to drive a million-dollar dreamcar: the 1,000horsepower Bugatti Veyron.

SOME auto-journo buddies of mine recently had the opportunity to drive a million-dollar dreamcar: the 1,000horsepower Bugatti Veyron.

Whilst they were Facebook-bragging about their time with the exotic ride, I casually commented, "So it cost the same as the Mazda I just drove?"

That's right. At the recent Skyactiv technology demonstration in Vancouver, I found myself behind the wheel of a prototype Mazda with an estimated value of somewhere between a million smackeroos and Priceless.

Why such a mega-buck Mazda? It's a showcase for the full suite of Mazda's game-changing Skyactiv technologies.

Canadians love their Mazdas. Unlike our southern cousins, we've got a particular affinity for the small car in the blasted frozen tundra of places like Kerrisdale or Dundarave, and when it comes to cheap and cheerful, few do it better than Mazda.

That stylized "M" on the front of innumerable grilles means that while the MSRP might be low, the

fun quotient is surprisingly high. The whole "Zoom-Zoom" thing might seem a bit of marketing fluff, but Mazda's cars are all quite entertaining to drive. Practical, inexpensive and fun: what's not to like?

Well, in these ecologically and economically conscious times, Mazda has fallen a few laps behind in the fuel-economy race. If you own a previous-gen Mazda3 with the 2.3-litre engine in it, you know what I'm talking about; lots of power, but you pay for it at the pump.

Hot-rod hatchbacks have their place (and you can read about my time with the hyperactive Mazdaspeed3 in our online Driving section at this week) but if Mazda is going to remain competitive with Toyota, Nissan and Honda, they're going to need to make a leap to greener pastures. So what's a smaller manufacturer to do, especially now that the former partnership with Ford is dissolved, eliminating access to the Blue Oval's big R&D budget. Cut some corners?

Well, no, actually. With Skyactiv, what Mazda's done is clip the apex instead.

Instead of fiddling about with hybrid drivetrains or incremental improvements to existing engine architecture, the Hiroshimabased firm has gone for a complete paradigm shift with a rethinking of everything from chassis design to combustion chamber dynamics.

Admittedly, "paradigm shift" is one of the top ten most irritating phrases ever, and is normally the sort of thing somebody in a suit repeats throughout an interminable Powerpoint presentation that permanently reduces the IQ of everyone in the room by 12 points. In this case though, there are no other appropriate words.

Taking a holistic view towards the design of the engines, chassis and body of their cars, Mazda has declared war on model bloat and come up with an ambitious weight-loss program. An example of just how obsessed these engineers are? Rather than use square deformable bumper mounts, Mazda's gurus figured out that the corners of the square were doing best at impact resistance. So they made the new mounts cruciform, increasing strength while saving a few grams.

The total weight-savings realized is somewhere in the magnitude of 100 kilograms. That doesn't sound like much, but it is 8-10 per cent, and I certainly could use an 8-10 per cent weight reduction. It'd make me sportier and improve my handling.

With the average weight of compact and mid-size cars having swelled from ballerina to heffalump over the past few decades with increasing safety standards and low consumer tolerance for road-noise and bumpy rides, it's great to see a company finally putting the brakes on bloat.

But Mazda doesn't plan on getting ahead by just shedding a few pounds.

The real breakthrough technology is to be found in their engines. Specifically, what's going on inside the combustion chamber.

Getting an engine to make power is simple - in theory - but the good old internal combustion powerplant has always been pretty bad at it.

Your car only extracts about 10 per cent of the potential energy of every litre of gas it burns. This is where hybrids with helper electric motors come in.

Mazda has gone for a more straightforward approach: instead of bolting on electrics, why don't we try to get the engine running a little more efficiently?

On paper, this is pretty straightforward. Increasing the compression ratio of their gasoline engines to 13-to-1 allows Mazda to get a more complete burn, and reducing the friction of moving components helps free up a little horsepower as well.

In practice though, things get a bit more technical.

It's all well and good to have an engine that's more pressurized than that of a Ferrari 458 Italia, but Mazdas need to compete for reliability with cars like the Toyota Corolla. Also, when they're not broken or on fire, Ferraris guzzle fuel like the Space Shuttle.

Mazda gets around sticky thermodynamic issues with, for instance, a speciallydesigned piston cavity that allows the flame-front to radiate outward from the sparkplug more evenly to prevent knocking. What does that mean to you? No need for premium fuel.

What's more, new multipoint direct injectors help create a more evenly blended, ideally composed mixture of air and fuel. Using precisely the right amount of fuel prevents waste, and should see a further reduction in costs at the pump.

You'll be able to get your hands on some Skyactiv tech in midline models of the 2012 Mazda3 starting sometime in October. These cars will have the new Skyactiv engines and transmissions, but we will have to wait until next year for the all-new CX-5 small crossover: Mazda's first complete Skyactiv vehicle.

Having driven the prototypes, I can tell you in confidence that these cars are going to be great. What the real-world fuel numbers are going to be remains to be seen, but they should be highly competitive, and what's more, they still all drive with a little more zoomzoom than everybody else.