Sky's the limit with new engine tech from Mazda

Mazda Skyactiv-X engine (Image courtesy of Mazda USA)

The first rule about future product in the automotive world is: We don’t talk about future product. The second rule about future product: We don’t talk about future product.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Fight Club,” you probably know what the third rule about future product is. (In case you haven’t, it’s: We don’t talk about future product.)

Which is why it’s extremely rare for an automaker to draw back the curtain and give a glimpse at (gasp) future product.

And that’s exactly what Mazda did at its recent Tech Forum. In addition to getting a crash course in compression ignition, the automaker actually let us drive a prototype, which housed its new spark controlled compression ignition (SCCI) engine and its next-gen suspension.

While Mazda was cagey about a lot of the specifics, here are a few fast facts we were able to glean:

  • The Skyactiv-X engine will be the first production engine in a vehicle to use a form of compression ignition rather than just spark ignition.
  • Skyactiv-X will be a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder that operates on 87 octane gasoline.
  • The new engine is expected to get about a 20-percent improvement in fuel economy over the current Skyactiv-G engine.
  • This new powertrain will also create about a 30-percent bump in low-end torque.
  • Skyactiv-X is slated to be in a production vehicle by the 2020 model year – Mazda just hasn’t announced which vehicle will get it first.
  • Part of the fuel-savings will come from mild-hybrid electrification and idle stop.

Before we even hit the road in the prototype, Mazda almost lost me with the words “idle stop.” I loathe this feature.

Dave Coleman, manager of vehicle dynamics engineering at Mazda North American Operations, however, tried to allay my fears by stating their system will be a good one. In fact, it’s currently in operation in vehicles in Japan, but they haven’t brought it to the U.S. because it isn’t perfect yet.

Coleman even mentioned a hypothetical “what if” when I followed up with him after the press briefing: What if the current-gen sign reader could tell the system if you were coming up to a stop sign or stop light and react accordingly?

In other words, what if it would allow the engine to stay on for the stop sign and turn off for a stoplight?

He also mentioned the current system available in Japan isn’t mandatory; there is an off button.

OK, Mazda, you have my attention, and haven’t lost me.

Though, of course, the idle stop feature wasn’t turned on for our test drive, so I have no idea how it operates or if the sign reader will actually play a role in deployment.

But the engine itself? Impressive.

Even in it’s prototype form, I found it to be smooth and fast if a bit glitchy. Mazda is still working out the kinks, so there were a few knocks and burbles along the way. But with two years to figure things out, I’m fairly confident they will.

We had quick 20-minute turns in both automatic and 6-speed manual transmission versions paired with the Skyactiv-X engine, and I hate to admit this in print, but the low-end torque available with this engine actually makes the automatic fun to drive.

As Jay Chen, powertrain engineer at Mazda North American Operations, put it: It’s like driving a current Mazda in sport mode all day long.

The bonus is, you don’t get dinged for high-RPM driving in the fuel economy arena – this engine actually wants to be in the higher RPM range.

So what’s the big deal about this engine? Compression Ignition has been considered a holy grail of internal combustion engines. It more efficient, fast and can produce more power. But, it’s also highly unpredictable.

When Chen was trying to describe compression ignition versus regular spark ignition, he likened it to letting the air out of a balloon. A traditional internal combustion engine is like blowing it up and then letting it go, allowing the air to fizzle out slowly. Compression ignition is like blowing it up, tying it off and then pressing the edges of the balloon until it explodes.

The challenge, of course, is controlling exactly when the “balloon” pops.

To combat this, in its simplest terms, Mazda introduced a single spark that will control when the proverbial balloon will burst.

There is obviously a lot more technology and engineering involved, but the bottom line is: This new engine technology will be 20 percent more efficient, have more low-end torque and generally be more fun to drive. Win-win-win in my book.

Assuming the idle stop isn’t awful.

In addition to testing the next Skyactiv-X engine, Mazda gave us the opportunity to check out its next-gen suspension and seats. Without an immediate back-to-back test, it’s difficult to give too many details about the differences, but I can say the seats were super comfy, and the overall ride comfort was very even – meaning it didn’t jump over any of the potholes and bumps in the road.

Details on when and where these new technologies will appear is kind of sketchy. But I imagine we’ll see the seats and suspension show up in the refreshed Mazda6 coming soon.