Mazda's timing might work out favorably. Through a massive initiative called SkyActiv, first announced three years ago, Mazda has given its engineers a clean slate to take a fresh look at all aspects of vehicle engineering—a company-wide brainstorm of sorts—aiming to improve fuel economy (and cut emissions) by 30 percent from 2008 levels by 2015. The goal of the effort is to "radically evolve base technologies," said executive officer Kiyoshi Fujiwara, who with his engineering team recently gave us a sneak preview of a host of future technologies that won't be limited to a flagship, but to all Mazda's models.
Through this effort the automaker hopes to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles that are also more enjoyable to drive—in turn appealing to more people than it currently does with its products. Mazda would like to increase its worldwide shares by the end of the SkyActiv initiative to 1.7 million annually, up from 1.2 million.
Weight is certainly a big obstacle for meeting fuel-efficiency targets, so structurally, Mazda has managed to cut about 220 pounds—about eight percent of the existing C/D-platform car like the Mazda6—while actually improving rigidity as well as safety. Vehicles will be built with three safety rings, and the use of high-tensile steel in core structures will go from about 40 percent to 60 percent. Meanwhile, structure frames are straightened to be more continuous and easier to manufacture, and multiple load paths help safety not only width-wise but height-wise in offset crashes.
Chassis engineers also rethought the suspension layout, to shave off more weight yet also give the vehicles a more stable, planted feel. In front, engineers increased the caster angle from 4 degrees up to 7 degrees—for a heftier on-center feel—then quickened the steering ratio and retuned the electric power steering. In back, they worked to give SkyActiv vehicles more of an anti-lift geometry (fighting brake dive and acceleration lift) by moving the trailing arms upward about 1.7 inches and giving the damper towers more of a 'recession angle'—effectively helping quell the pitchiness that can plague shorter vehicles.
All-new fuel-saving powertrains
The strategy also includes completely new six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions, designed and made in-house. In the manual, the company, cut weight in the transmission case by adding stiffening ribs, and worked to shorten the shift throws and make shift action even better—more like the target MX-5 Miata. And for the completely new automatic, Mazda aimed to use the torque converter as little as possible, minimizing its size and weight but instead adding a sophisticated multi-plate clutch (all managed by a sophisticated mechatronics module) to make engagement almost undetectable.
This is all in addition to all-new Sky-G direct-injection gasoline and Sky-D diesel engines. The 2.0-liter Sky-G that's slated to debut in the 2012 Mazda3 has the highest compression ratio of any gasoline engine and makes 15 percent more torque than former engines its size while also reducing consumption by 15 percent. It's also extremely smooth, with nice, linear power delivery, as we found in a drive of a Sky-G-equipped test mule. And it will run on 87-octane gas. Meanwhile, the Sky-D, through a radical redesign that we'll cover in a future post, achieves a 20-percent improvement in fuel efficiency.
If all this sounds expensive...it is, yet it isn't; all of the SkyActiv efforts follow a common architecture, so costs could be reduced over the long term, too.