As a performance-oriented brand Mazda has been a little late to the green game, but last year the company made its first steps towards raising its average fuel economy across the board with the announcement of the SkyActiv suite of fuel saving technologies.

Up until now SkyActiv tech has been sprinkled here and there in the Mazda lineup, but with the introduction of the completely new CX-5 small SUV at the 2011 LA Auto Show, Mazda has taken the wraps off its first full implementation of SkyActiv-including a completely reworked engine, highly efficient manual and automatic transmissions, a sleek aerodynamic exterior, and a plethora of lightweight but high-strength advanced steel alloys.

The keystone in the CX-5's SkyActiv skunkworks lies in its unique 2.0-liter engine. Instead of including a turbocharger to increase efficiency (as Ford has done with its EcoBoost engines), Mazda pursued a different tack, opting for an incredibly high compression ratio. To get around the harsh knocking that typically goes along with high compression ratios, Mazda's engineers designed a new exhaust system and special pistons, which, as an added benefit, make the engine 10 percent lighter.

Mazda has also said they will be bringing a SkyActiv diesel engine to the U.S. and many had expected the CX-5 to be its first implementation here. While the option has been left off this first generation, Mazda says it may add it later in 2012. The diesel option will likely be 30 percent more efficient than the gasoline engine, delivering fuel economy on the highway close to 40 miles per gallon.

"We're the only Asian manufacturer that has earnestly talked about bringing diesels to North America," Jim O'Sullivan, Mazda's CEO of North American Operations, told AutoTrader.com on the sidelines of the 2011 LA Auto Show. "We're still 12 to 14 months away from delivery of that technology here and we're looking at which vehicles would fit it best, but the CX-5 has been engineered to accept it and would be a good fit."

The delivery of a diesel powertrain from an Asian manufacturer would be a significant development in the North American diesel market, which has been dominated by German brands to this point.

Even without the SkyActiv diesel immediately available, the new gasoline engine increases fuel economy immensely over Mazda's older 2.0-liter powerplant. As one piece of the SkyActiv suite, the engine's efficiency is amplified by several other technologies. Both of the new SkyActiv transmissions on the CX-5-a manual and an automatic-are designed to shift quickly and have reduced friction through all six gears. The SUV's copious amounts of lightweight, high-strength steel also contribute to increased efficiency with an incredibly svelte 3,200 pound curb weight (3,400 with AWD). And with aerodynamics inspired by the movement of a cheetah, the CX-5's slippery body is designed to cut through the air with minimal resistance.

All of these SkyActiv technologies add up to an expected 26 city/32 hwy mpg for the front wheel drive automatic transmission. Configuring the front wheel drive trim with a manual transmission should raise the hwy mpg by one to 33. Even on the AWD-equipped cars, the fuel economy is expected to only drop slightly, to 25 city/30 hwy mpg. These numbers place the CX-5 at the top of the small SUV class for fuel economy.

While the great fuel economy by itself may be reason enough to view the CX-5 as a real contender in the highly competitive small SUV market, the competitiveness of the SkyActiv technology lies in the fact that it delivers good performance as well. The high strength steel lends itself to more stability in the corners and better crash performance, the high compression engine delivers good acceleration, the efficient transmissions provide smooth shifting, and the aerodynamic skin creates an aggressive look.

Mazda, like many manufacturers, is hoping to translate this combination of performance and fuel economy into sales success as consumers increasingly demand no compromise solutions. Look for this new "sustainable zoom, zoom," as Mazda calls it, to spread across all of the brand's nameplates over the next few years.

 

See more LA Auto Show news.

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Nick Chambers is a "next generation" car enthusiast, recognized for his green automotive coverage in Gas 2.0, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. In addition, he's been syndicated in Matter Network, AP and Reuters.

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