Those in attendance at the New York Auto Show this past weekend may have spotted this curious banner from Mazda: Not Electric. Not a Hybrid. Not a Drag to Drive.
“Veeeery eeenteresting,” was my first reaction. If you just read the banner and knew nothing else about what Mazda has been up to, a major auto company pushing their chips all-in against hybrids and EVs might seem to you like a dangerous strategy, what with all the “buzz” about EVs (even if it hasn’t translated to actual sales yet) and a 2016 fuel efficiency deadline looming.
Naturally, Mazda is one step ahead of your primitive thinking. Their new SkyActiv all-gasoline engine (2.0 liter, 155 horsepower) will allow the 2012 Mazda3 to boast a hybrid-esque 40 miles-per-gallon. Given the higher sticker price of hybrid cars compared to their more traditional brethren, a hybrid’s major selling point is its fuel efficiency. Many Americans are already skeptical of whether hybrid cars really do pay for themselves over time, or they aren’t willing to wait that long for the savings. If you then gave them the choice between a hybrid or a gasoline engine with comparable mpg efficiency, it would seem to be a no-brainer.
I expect this development will put Mazda in great shape in the U.S. market. The Mazda3 was already a popular, well-reviewed consumer car before the SkyActiv engine. What’s not to like about it now?
Not that Mazda will rest on its laurels and totally eschew EVs and hybrids, even if they pretend otherwise. They’re partnering with Toyota on hybrid technology but their basic philosophy is to perfect the gasoline engine before they move on to the next generation of powertrain technology. From Robert Davis, Mazda’s Senior Vice President of Quality:
“Our strategy has been the same strategy since 2008, which is to advance the base technology first and to allow us to apply that base technology across all of our models…we felt it was more important to have that technology fully developed before we add electrical devices to then improve it as we go forward.
“Part of the sensitivity we’re looking at is the amount of hype around electrics and the reality that electric is going to be part of the solution, but internal combustion is a much bigger part of the solution. There are still large gains that can be made in the efficiency of internal combustion that need to be addressed and talked about to move the whole issue of overall efficiency forward.”
The bottom line? “You can have hybrid-type efficiency and still have cars that are fun to drive,” says Davis.
Jackpot! So there we have it, the honey-sweet “you can have it both ways!” message we spoiled American consumers have grown so fond of hearing. Kudos to Mazda for finding an untapped niche in the crowded automaker market. You think the SkyActiv engine is impressive now? It could become downright terrifying for rival automakers when it eventually goes hybrid.