Mazda is a small Japanese car company – fifth in Japanese-brand U.S. sales behind the "Big Three" of Toyota, Honda and Nissan and just behind distant-fourth Subaru – that prides itself on being different, more youthful and more fun to drive. Hence its "Zoom-Zoom" marketing theme and the goofy toothless grin on the faces of most recent Mazda products.

Now Mazda is taking a very different approach to meeting government and customer demands for fast-increasing fuel efficiency that may (or may not) pay off. Instead of betting billions on plug-in and hybrid vehicles, Mazda's approach is a comprehensive effort to substantially increase the efficiency of every element of every vehicle, beginning with engines and transmissions and continuing through bodies and chassis.

Mazda has been working on these efficiency-enhancing technologies for half a decade and is now applying them – beginning with new powertrains in its revamped 2012 Mazda3 compacts (pictured), which join the vaunted 40-mpg highway economy club – under the marketing name "Skyactiv." Some critics say the name is dumb. To some it may conjure images of flying cars or clear, blue skies over active lifestyles. Mazda says it means, "The sky is the limit."

But what really matters is, how well will it work? And will it sell more Mazdas?

"Our goal is to improve fuel economy globally by 30 percent," says Mazda Motor Corp. Product Planning executive officer Kiyoshi Fujiwara. "And our answer is still the ICE. Our top priority is to radically improve this technology."

So SkyActiv begins with internal combustion engines, gasoline and diesel, made substantially more efficient through innovative new technologies. Yet, he says, "SkyActiv will retain our 'Zoom-Zoom' brand character."

Fujiwara adds that SkyActiv implementation will employ a "building block" strategy of launching efficiency-enhancing technologies progressively, beginning with the least expensive and leading eventually (inevitably) to vehicle electrification to meet extremely aggressive corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements. The key is putting off the latter until those technologies are further developed and somewhat more affordable.

Another key is applying SkyActiv technologies to a common architecture with enough flexibility to underpin most (maybe all) Mazda products. "Using a bundled product planning approach," he explains, "we can integrate SkyActiv technologies into all Mazda products over time, by ourselves [no OEM technology partners] and remain affordable."

mazda skyactiv

Interestingly, both global SkyActiv-G gas engines and SkyActiv-D diesels share the same 14:1 compression ratio. That is the world's highest CR for a gas engine today and the world's lowest for a diesel. But how does lower compression make a compression-ignited diesel more efficient when the opposite is true for a spark-ignited gas engine?

"The ICE still has substantial losses," says Mazda powertrain development manager Ritaro Isobe. "We needed to reduce them further. Our vision was ideal combustion, and we have applied technology innovation to achieve that."

He calls the 14:1 CR "groundbreaking," though it's a lesser 13:1 in U.S. engines to accommodate our 87-octane regular gas. A "breakthrough" combination of technologies – including direct multi-hole injection, dual VVT, new-design pistons, a unique 4-2-1 exhaust system, shorter combustion duration and delayed ignition during start-up – prevents knock.
Mazda says the 2012 Mazda3's new 2.0L SkyActiv gas four-cylinder consumes 15 percent less fuel than its same-size predecessor – roughly equivalent to a 2.2L conventional diesel – and makes 15 percent more torque, especially in the low-to-mid-rpm range. It is also 10 percent lighter and has a whopping 30 percent less internal friction.

For a new 2.2L SkyActiv turbodiesel, the low CR improves efficiency by enabling better fuel mixing and a higher expansion ratio. It also allows the engine to weigh 10 percent less due to its lighter block, crankshaft, pistons and connecting rods. It has 20 percent less internal friction vs. Mazda's previous 2.2L diesel four and delivers 20 percent better fuel economy, improved low- and high-rpm torque and more power at a high (for a diesel) redline, not to mention (U.S. Tier 2, Bin 5) emissions compliance without an expensive NOx catalyst.

He adds that there were two major issues to overcome with the low-compression diesel: difficult cold start and misfiring during warm-up. Mazda's solutions include piezo injectors, ceramic glow plugs, a two-stage turbocharger and variable-lift exhaust valves. The U.S.-market 2.2L SkyActiv-D should be available by early 2013.

The new Mazda3 compacts also offer a choice of efficiency-enhanced SkyActiv six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. The former is a substantial 30 percent lighter than its predecessor, with shorter throws and less friction. The latter delivers smoother launch, quicker shifts, more direct feel and up to seven percent better fuel efficiency.

What the new Mazda3 does not have (because it's not an all-new design) are the SkyActiv body or chassis. These will debut on the 2013 CX-5 small crossover. Mazda says the CX-5 structure is eight percent lighter with 30 percent greater rigidity to optimize both handling dynamics and crash performance. The suspension is 14 percent lighter and incorporates, among other advancements, highly efficient electric power-assisted steering (EPAS).

mazda skyactiv engine

We test-drove mid-size Mazda6 sedan development "mules" powered by early versions of SkyActiv 2.0L gas and 2.2L diesel engines with both SkyActiv transmissions, and they delivered on Mazda's promises. Both engines were smooth, responsive, reasonably powerful and torquey enough to be fun to drive ("Zoom-Zoom"), and all four combinations seemed subjectively more satisfying than the ones they will replace. Most impressive was the surprisingly high-rpm diesel driving through the manual six-speed.

Of course, every automaker is working hard on powertrain and full-vehicle efficiency from roof to tire patch. But Mazda is betting that its major competitors' enormous investments in EVs, hybrids, fuel cells and other advanced technologies will limit their near-term investments in ICEs, transmissions, bodies and chassis enough that key competitive advantages can be gained and CAFE requirements met with much-improved conventional powertrains. At least for the next few years – until it, too, will have to electrify to meet CAFE.

That said, we just learned that the 2012 Mazda3's SkyActiv gas engine has been named one of Ward's Auto World's 2012 Ten Best Engines. Nice first step!

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    • 1 Second Ago
      Doug Danzeisen Sr
      • 3 Years Ago
      This is a well trodden path to those of us witness evolution, as well as revolution in technology-older technologies (think ICE) that are being supplanted by newer tech (think electrification) often have very surprising evolution quite late in their life cycle. For example, when CDs first came out all the media attention was focused on their supplanting the then currently dominant vinyl and cassette. Interestingly enough I believe Dolby labs came up with a system of compressing the analog signal generated by the surface of the vinyl record, which when decoded resulted in a huge leap in both signal to noise ratio as well as retaining the warm sound that analog vinyl is now prized for. Did you ever hear of it or see it demonstrated? Yet I know it exists, as I have one, as well as several of the discs and it is very eye opening to listen to a demonstration. Today, everyone that drives a car can thank Charles Kettering for the electric starter, invented in a barn here in Dayton, Ohio. Modern high compression fuels, freon, which revolutionized refrigeration were all developed under his guidance at GM, as well as leaded gasoline ( we all have a dark side). "Boss" Kettering flatly stated that a gallon of gasoline could make a car traveo well over 200 miles, if you could optimize the engine and systems well enough, he said this about 80 years ago. So, the take away- Will this work? Computer control enables exponentially finer tuning, and structural mods just make sense with all the bloated overweight barges we now have for sale. And doing it with less costly investmen just makes good sense. But, there is a question mark regarding final outcomes here. If the real world numbers are good so they can get some buzz going, and if they can pull it all off with good quality and durability, then they have a good chance with success.
      Dan Frederiksen
      • 3 Years Ago
      I was thinking of his appalling article about how global warming wasn't real.
      Arun Murali
      • 3 Years Ago
      It certainly achieves higher thermal efficiency by getting closer to the Otto Cycle with shorter combustion times and higher compression. But it does not guarantee any increase in dynamic efficiency of the engine. This thermal efficiency increase is directly visible in the high cruise or Highway efficiency that these engines display. Despite all this the thermal efficiency gained might be only a little bit higher than the Atkinson cycle engines that Toyota uses on the Prius. If Toyota manages to deliver their next generation Atkinson cycle engines reaching close to 40% thermal efficiency(37-38% in reality) in a year or two that will surpass this engine. The long waited DCCI engines will probably take it to even higher levels(45% ?). The only thing that increases dynamic efficiency of this engine a bit is lower internal resistance, which is stated in just % increase over the other engines rather than strict numbers or preferably graphs over operating range of the engine. Even the 15% increase might be over some the worst engines in the industry, without even roller cam followers and Molybdenum cylinder coatings. The high pumping losses at low RPM over small throttle openings is a bigger problem to the current crop of engines than efficiency losses over high RPM operations. Today's computers, some high speed, high power butterfly valves might solve it to a great extent. The other technologies that I have seen solving it are the Twin Air Engine from Fiat(apparently not that efficient) and also low rpm turbo units(something that is active from 1000 RPM till about 3000 RPM after which it will bypass). CVT and electronic throttle also solved it to some extent. Most engines operate at 1000-2500 RPM and in city their speed varies a lot. This means the more constant speed these new high efficiency engines operate, the higher efficiency the car will achieve. The only technology that promises higher dynamic efficiency are hybrids. May be some one will invent a Flywheel based hybrid transmission system that will allow the engines to operate at a more constant rpm to really take advantage of it. Something that allows the engine to operate at 1500RPM constant, absorbing energy when lower speed is required and emitting it as the car speeds up. This has to happen as the car shifts through all the gears. Again the only technology that can do it somewhat well at present are hybrids, especially the Volt. Other known technologies like a non stepped CVT(Multi stage toroidal) are either too expensive or have too much loss. We are still stuck in ages where PR and theoretical numbers form the basis of selection of engine technologies.
      Allch Chcar
      • 3 Years Ago
      The only thing "Novel" about this is that this is happening in the US using a straight ICE without "Atkinson cycle." I think it's a good temporary approach but the gains they make won't be competitive for long. If anything they are playing catch up as it is.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Mazda has a long and well documented history of Fail-New-Tech for the last decades. The oil burning seal leaking rotary, the abandoned Miller Cycle Supercharged V6, brought back a NA rotary only to observe 4 banger torque and 8 cylinder gas milage. (don't forget theRX8 engine flooding issues) There was a time when Mazda had decent engines - that was actually when Mazda used Ford engines. I feel sorry for people who will become the new crops of Guinea pigs for Mazda's newest fail experiments.
        • 3 Years Ago
        The funny thing is that all those engines won "best engine". The problem is that people who had no idea what they were getting into remained ignorant and then cried foul when it blew up and cost more to fix than the normal ICE's they were boat anchoring for years before. The '00-'04 S2000 engine ate just as much oil and gas as a wankel while making less power for the exact same reason: It revved to 9000 RPM. The miller cycle engines cost just as much as the turbo Buicks to fix, GM just got saved by the "well what did you expect with your crappy American car" stigma. If they were truly failed experiments they wouldn't have gone on for as long as they did. Compare any of their models to the "experimental" Cadillac Diesels or 4-6-8's of the 70's gas crisis. Mazdas kept putting out their "experiments" for 6 or more years and still have loyal and loving followings. Your ire lends me to wonder what Mazda you or "your friend" got that upset you so much. Must have been one of those 626's with the crappy Taurus automatic or something. I'll readily admit I had a "Monday car" VW that sent me running to Mazda and I never looked back.
          • 3 Years Ago
          Actually no, the 626s with Taurus automatic V6 are bullet prof. The S2000 doesn't burn anywhere as much oil as the wankel if you ever own one or know people who do. The miller cycle engine was utter crap, horrible heat sink, cost as much as turbo Buick? please~ the compressor unit cost $4500 to 'rebuild.' It never performed like it should and gas milage was horrible for a 2.3L V6. Miata remains the only Mazda worthy of consideration for its bullet prof drivetran and exceptional chassis. I wouldn't know about your comparison to GM experiment though...... I was gullible to buy Mazda with their Zoom Zoom, but never been gullible enough to consider a GM.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Some might say novel, others might say it's all they can afford.
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 3 Years Ago
      With this motor, the low hanging fruit for efficiency has been picked with the internal combustion engine. Gonna take some serious engineering magic from here on out. Seriously, what's left after direct injection, dual variable valve timing, diamond-like piston coatings ... ? Other than atkinson cycle hybrids, i have a feeling that the ICE doesn't have too much life left in it..
      Dan Frederiksen
      • 3 Years Ago
      Mike, that's thoughtless status quo talking. a relatively small company has the opportunity to steal market share by capitalizing on the others' retardation. nissan is harvesting a lot of image despite it being a rather unimpressive product at a high price. imagine what a light, aero, fast, good looking EV could do for mazda. they could even make it a kei car to minimize the cost
      • 3 Years Ago
      The Mazda fallacy is based on the idea that it will compete its way and the others will compete with expensive alternatives. Doesn't like that, especially if what they are doing is cheaper. Their competition will have their alternatives and will improve the efficency of the the conventional parts of their cars. Many scientists urged their fellows years ago not to debate creative design because it gives religious nut jobs equal standing with science. It just gives them a platform and they don't have to just rant in the public park any more. It is the same argument against debating global warming denial.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Big car companies should be able to get 60 mpg if they hired some hypermilers to help them design and engineer new cars. If you can do it in a garage, the big companies can do it.
        • 3 Years Ago
        "If you can do it in a garage, the big companies can do it." 100% False. Building a one-off prototype is in no way, shape, or form anywhere near the level of making a mass-market vehicle. Do those garage-built cars pass gov't crash testing? How about lasting for 10-15 years without completely falling apart?
      • 3 Years Ago
      It's not a novel approach. It's just a marketing term applied to what other companies are doing too. Will it work? It's working so far.
      • 3 Years Ago
      huh? what are you guys smoking? It's lame to continue to refine the ICE? You do realize that it will be many years before complete electrification of cars occurs. In the meantime, the vast majority of cars will be ICE or hybrid. It is a good thing that people are refining the ICE. In fact, I'm sure other manufacturers are working on similar ideas. For a small company, they really have no choice but to continue down this path and then license hybrid tech as it becomes more affordable.
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