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Mazda SKYACTIV-X Technology: What Is It?

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author photo by Mark Elias January 2018

Mazda, that Hiroshima-based little carmaker that could, invited Autotrader and others to their U.S. headquarters in Irvine, California, for a deep dive into the latest in SKYACTIV-X technology. Almost like expectant parents, they offered a genuinely excited face over their new baby, which takes a 3-prong approach to reduce emissions, increase power, improve ride quality and enhance the joy of Mazda SKYACTIV-X vehicle ownership.

One of the smaller automakers in existence, Mazda has traditionally had to make do with less. While other car manufacturers have racing budgets that dwarf the gross national product of some third world countries, Mazda, following the spin-off from their previous Ford Motor Company patron, has had to engineer smarter in an effort to achieve the desired goals of high power, low emissions and driving satisfaction, all at an affordable price for consumers. Since 2012, the company has been ranked number one in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to today, making it the most fuel-efficient brand in the United States.

The Three-Pronged Approach

Mazda starts with a somewhat pie-in-the-sky approach called Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030. Part mission statement and part lofty goal, it is the company's desire to bring forth a beautiful earth, through conservation initiatives, where people and cars coexist "with a bountiful, beautiful earth." That's the pie in the sky part, although they are nice thoughts. Seriously, with their SKYACTIV-X initiative, the company will seek to beautify the earth through reduced CO2 emissions, with the goal of reducing emissions to 50-percent of the 2010 levels by 2030, and with plans for a 90-percent cut by 2050.

The second crucial element and the real meat of the matter is the development of the new next-generation internal combustion engine. A 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, it's a peppy, high-revving gasoline engine, with more power than its 2.5-liter big brother, and the torque characteristics of Mazda's European 1.5-liter diesel powerplant. Using Miller cycle protocols, which are similar to those of an Atkinson cycle engine, this new 4-banger will be the first commercial use of compression ignition which causes the fuel-air mixture to ignite spontaneously on the compression stroke. Mazda claims this procedure overcomes two hurdles that have stymied such ventures in the past, namely maximizing the compression-ignition zone and creating a seamless transition between compression ignition and spark ignition.

The new Mazda SKYACTIV-X 2.0-liter engine incorporates a supercharger as a high speed, high pressure, variable air injection system to expand the compression ignition operating window, which is typically quite narrow in engines of this type. With this new engine, the fuel is mixed with the air, then compressed, causing it to auto-ignite. The result is a higher compression ratio, allowing for a greater fuel/air mixture to burn. That in turn results in greater fuel efficiency. According to Mazda, SKYACTIV-X is capable of very lean burns that will save on fuel consumption overall. Finally, it speeds up the combustion process. Mazda has what is essentially an ignition hybrid engine, which uses a spark plug to extend the operational range of the engine and to manage a transition from spark to compression ignition. With everything working as intended, the fuel consumption does not climb as much, while still giving a spirited ride. You know, Zoom-Zoom.

Mazda officials point out that this spark plug-controlled compression ignition (SPCCI) helps increase the engine's torque from 10-to-30 percent. The super lean burn that results from this procedure improves engine efficiency from 20-to-30 percent over the current SKYACTIV-G engine. Mazda says it's an improvement of 35-to-45-percent fuel economy over the 2008 model year engine and even equals or exceeds the fuel efficiency of the latest SKYACTIV-D diesel engine.

Part three of this technological triumvirate is the new Mazda Next Generation Platform. Not just the literal chassis, but also new disciplines yielding improvements in tire function, suspension, body and seats for "comprehensive vehicle optimization." Along the way, they have also attacked Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) with the goal of making Mazda vehicles as quiet as possible. This improvement in ride quality continues in the brand's quest to move upmarket. Mazda designers have noted that life's stress levels have increased through lack of exercise. Their goal is to face these stressors through the driving pleasure in one of the company's cars or crossover vehicles.

Mazda's ergonomic designers have completed a wholesale redesign of the seating positions so the "human body's natural ability to balance itself can be realized." As such, they've tried to place the average driver's pelvis in a proper seating position. They claim no slouching as a result.

The success of such a venture is where Mazda hopes a driver will achieve the desired "Jinba-Itta" state of driving pleasure. Roughly translated, the Japanese phrase refers to the "connection between horse and rider."

Drivetime

Behind the wheel of our stealthy, matte black-finished test mules, we had a chance to play Mazda test pilots for the day. Under the skin, our testers featured many of the next generation platforms that will further make up the next Mazda3. Driving through Irvine, California, gave us the full array of traffic situations that a typical driver would face on a daily basis, including stop-and-go traffic, high-speed highway jaunts, traffic jams and more. The cars, due to their test car nature, were in some ways crudely finished, lacking in creature comforts like a full climate control system or a multimedia display screen, but we were up to the task regardless.

We tested the new SKYACTIV-X engines mated to current versions of the company's 6-speed manual and 6-speed automatic transmissions. Before starting out, we glanced under the hood of our charge to examine the basis of all this change for calendar year 2019. The first thing that catches your eye is that the engine has been covered by a large piece of composite material in what some have described as a second hood. It does nothing to show off the new 2.0-liter powerplant, but goes a long way toward suppressing the noise that comes from it. According to Mazda powertrain engineers, the way it has been constructed does not hinder engine cooling whatsoever.

Acceleration was impressive as the supercharger spooled up the high-compression air mixture that's also part of the new SKYACTIV-X protocol. Once underway, the engine starts to pull like a mill twice its size, torque and all. We could actually feel the sensation of being pushed back into our seats during this exercise. Highway driving was more sure-footed than we recalled from previous stints behind a Mazda3 steering wheel, and was extremely quiet, thanks to the noise suppression shroud under the hood. Road noise has largely been eliminated by way of added insulation and improved tire selection.

Mazda officials tout improvements in fuel economy, but since we were on limited drive loops for short periods, we'll just have to wait until production vehicles appear in the 2019 calendar year before commenting on whether the company has achieved its goal.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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Mazda SKYACTIV-X Technology: What Is It? - Autotrader