Eternal Flame: Will Mazda’s New Engine Reignite the Passion for Gas-Powered Cars?

By: Bridget Clerkin August 30, 2017
Mazda's new, efficient Skyactiv-X engine technology could give gas engines a new lease on life in North America.
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When gasoline met oxygen, it was love at first sight, and the chemistry between the two was explosive.

Channeled correctly, the combustible combination has been used to propel cars for more than 100 years.

The twosome proved so popular among auto engineers that gas-powered engines quickly became the default in our vehicles, despite there being other ways to move a motor. But recently, an electric new presence has come on the scene—and automakers are increasingly flirting with the idea of incorporating it into their machines.

Battery-powered engines are the way of the future, many predict, with their lighter weight and gentler environmental impact making them attractive options for companies from Tesla to Lyft.

Still, our once red-hot relationship with gasoline continues to smolder, and a new engineering breakthrough by carmaker Mazda may be just the thing to bring back the passion for such technology.

With an interest in revisiting gas-powered motors renewed, will we ever be able to divorce our fossil fuel engines?

Fueling the Fire

Every great love affair starts with a spark, and our romance with gas-powered engines is no different—literally.

The technology relies on spark plugs to create the combustion needed to keep the engine purring. After a cocktail of gas and air is funneled into a cylinder, a piston descends, squeezing the gaseous mixture into a smaller space, where it’s ignited by the spark, producing the explosive energy needed to push the piston back out and keep the whole thing running.

Mazda’s engine technology is reportedly able to reach the fuel efficiency levels of a diesel engine—without the extra pollution.

Mazda’s breakthrough leaves the fire out of the equation, relying instead entirely on the pressure caused by compression and the heat flying off the piston to produce the necessary detonation. It’s called a homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI), and it’s reportedly able to reach the fuel efficiency levels of a diesel engine—without producing the extra pollution long associated with that technology.

All told, the Japanese automaker said their HCCI, dubbed the “Skyactiv-X,” would be 20 to 30% more fuel efficient than any of their current engines, and up to 45% more efficient than models the company put out a just a decade ago.

The innovation represents a new type of hybrid engine, combining the powers of gas and diesel, and has been hailed by auto engineers and enthusiasts alike as “the holy grail” of motor building.

The magic formula has been sought after for years by scientists around the globe, but Mazda announced that consumers will be able to purchase it in their cars as early as 2019. (Making that distribution easier will be the new $1.6 billion manufacturing plant Mazda plans on building in the U.S. in a joint venture with Toyota.)

In a world supposedly stepping away from gas-powered technology, all the hype around a new combustion engine may seem misplaced, but it could be an indicator that the trend line toward electric cars isn’t as strong as many believed—and a new batch of numbers may also point in that direction.

Flaming Out

Despite much fanfare, electric vehicles like Chevy's Bolt still account for less than 1% of all U.S. auto sales.

When it comes to our embrace of battery-powered cars, the desire for such models is a slow burn at best.

Last year, plug-in vehicle sales topped out at 159,139, making up about 0.8% of all autos sold in 2016, according to numbers provided by InsideEVs. This year, the models aren’t faring much better, with 104,863 units sold through July.

And even the boldface names hyping the vehicles can’t seem to move the needle. The much-publicized Chevy Bolt produced just 9,563 sales this year, and electric vehicle powerhouse Tesla is also faltering. The glamorous Silicon Valley automaker—briefly the country’s most valuable car company—posted a $330 million loss in the first quarter of 2017, and followed that up with a loss of $336 million in quarter two.

Despite the economic turmoil, CEO Elon Musk has promised the company will continue building its new Model 3—to the tune of 10,000 vehicles per week by some point next year, and 430,000 units total by the end of 2018.

To whom Musk will be able to sell that many cars remains a question.

Electric vehicle sales are projected to total just 1.17 million in North America by 2025, according to statistics compiled by the company InfoSys. Globally, that number is expected to reach 25 million units over the same time period.

And even further down the road, we may still have a majority of gas-powered engines on the streets. By 2050, a full 60% of our light-duty vehicles could still run on combustion, predicted John Heywood, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, the technology may yet meet its end—starting in the place of its origin, Europe, where a spate of new initiatives has been passed with the intention of breaking our fossil fuel fever.

No Love Lost

Both France and Britain recently announced bans on sales of petrol-powered cars by 2040. In Germany, the end for combustion is coming sooner: the engines will be illegal there in 2030, in accordance with new laws.

All three countries cited a growing concern over climate change as their biggest motivation to restrict gas- and diesel-fueled cars, noting the move could help improve the region’s failing air quality, which British scientists recently said was responsible for 40,000 deaths every year in the U.K.

And it seems automakers across the globe have also heeded the call. (Even Mazda is working on electric models.) With their battery-powered push, we may no longer be married to the idea of combustion engines, and be free to pursue greener pastures.

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