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Mazda SkyActiv-X first-drive: The internal combustion engine lives

by Brandon Russell | March 4, 2018March 4, 2018 12:00 pm PST

The future of the auto industry is electric. At least, that’s what every automaker, from Tesla to Ford, would have us believe. Even some U.S. states and countries across the globe are banking on the electrification of vehicles. But while most automakers are prepared to move on from the internal combustion engine, Mazda has different ideas.

Last year, the Japanese company revealed a new type of engine, dubbed SkyActiv-X, that sits somewhere between a typical internal combustion engine and diesel. The result, according to Mazda, is greater efficiency without compromising performance.

Mazda invited TechnoBuffalo to its R&D office in Irvine, Calif. to see first-hand what its technology is all about. While the automaker has plenty of tuning to do over the next several months, it’s well on its way to changing the industry in a significant way.

Disclaimer: Mazda invited TechnoBuffalo and other U.S. media to an event in Laguna Beach, Calif., where the automaker paid for meals and accommodations.

Mazda’s next-generation engine

Basically, Mazda’s new engine uses gas but functions like a diesel (without the icky emissions). As part of its “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030” plan, Mazda says its homogenous charge compression ignition (HCCI) engine will utilize spark plugs to ignite the air-fuel mixture at low revs, and piston compression at higher revs.

The goal is to provide drivers with high fuel economy and low emissions—essentially the holy grail of the combustion engine. But why do this as other companies are banking on EVs? Because battery technology isn’t reliable enough.

Think of it this way: The battery in your phone has not progressed over the past decade. Not to mention batteries degrade over time, giving them a relatively short lifespan, as opposed to engines that can remain reliable over several years (with proper care).

“At Mazda, we believe that there is still ample room for further evolution of the internal combustion engine and that this technology has the potential to contribute in a major way to conservation of our global environment,” the company said last year.

According to Mazda, the breakthrough that makes Skyactiv-X possible is spark-controlled compression ignition, which the company describes in detail:

Using SPCCI means that the range where compression ignition can take place (in terms of engine load and rpm) now covers the whole combustion range. That is to say, the potential application of compression ignition has now dramatically expanded, allowing this technology to be used in almost all driving conditions. In other words, because a spark plug is now being used at all times, the engine can switch seamlessly between combustion using compression ignition and combustion using spark ignition.

Mazda claims the SkyActiv-X engine can increase torque by 10 to 30 percent over the current family of gas engines, while improving engine efficiency by 20 to 30 percent.

For a much more thorough (and much better) explanation of what SkyActiv-X is capable of, read through Mazda’s announcement from last year

Going for a stroll

Mazda let us drive on a pre-determined route through Orange County in two different prototypes, which were basically regular Mazda3 hatchbacks with matte black paint; one was manual and the other automatic (Note: I own a 2017 Mazda3 hatchback, so I was pretty excited to get behind the wheel.)

Inside, the vehicles told a strange story. The cabin was outfitted with blacked-out gauges and an iPad mini, which provided engine information as we drove. The air ducts were also pipes, while the shifter was obscured. It looked like Frankenstein’s monster, complete with a red kill switch that was more tempting to push than I’d like to admit.

While the body looked like a Mazda3, it featured Mazda’s all-new seventh-generation platform, which focuses on the driving experience, from a more natural pedal layout to tweaking the position in which a driver sits. Mazda calls its approach “human-centric engineering.”

According to Mazda, seats are more comfortable and ergonomic, while suspension features stiffer mounting ports. I don’t think the seats in my 2017 Mazda3 hatchback are uncomfortable by any means, but the seats inside Mazda’s prototype were on another level. It was very comfortable.

I got to drive the manual first, which was incredibly satisfying to drive. It was responsive off the line, producing a mean sound as the throttle reached higher RPMs. Mazda’s manual vehicles are so much fun—I drove the MX-5 RF in manual—because switching gears is incredibly intuitive and smooth, and the prototype was no different.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines are said to run at a 16:1 compression ratio with 87 octane regular unleaded. It’s unclear what horsepower the engine will produce, but the automaker previously mentioned a figure of 187, which compares to the 155-horsepower of the current 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G.

Compared to my hatchback with its Skyactiv-G engine, the Skyactiv-X had meatier torque, so passing cars on the freeway wasn’t a problem. We also tackled a few challenging hill sections, which the prototype chewed up without so much as a complaint. It was clearly a fit, capable machine.

Again, this kind of performance happens without taking a hit to fuel economy. Mazda blocked out the instrument cluster, so I don’t know what kind of mpg the prototype got. I just know it was quick, agile, and a lot of fun to drive.

I was a little less thrilled by the automatic transmission, which was more aggressive with switching between gears; it felt like the car couldn’t really let loose. That ultimately took a lot of the fun out of driving the prototype, though it was still plenty fast and capable.

More details to come

While the prototype engine was placed inside of a Mazda3 body, Mazda isn’t saying which car its technology will show up in. However, when asked if the automaker’s Kai concept would be a good candidate to debut the engine, one of Mazda’s engineers responded with a coy grin.

That would be a beautiful and exciting way to introduce the world to Skyactiv-X; Mazda also has other great concepts that would make a good home for the technology.

Mazda is promising a lot with Skyactiv-X, and the supposed improvements to fuel economy sound like a dream. As a Mazda 3 owner, I’d love to experience the improved engine efficiency. But plenty of work still needs to be done before Mazda puts the engine in a car you can buy, which should come as early as next year.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell likes to rollerblade while listening to ACDC.

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