Traditionally the LA Auto Show isn’t the motor show that will dominate headlines, at least not on the scale of Detroit, Geneva or Shanghai. Think of it as the Oscar season to the summer blockbuster, only without the expected critical acclaim. This year, however, was a little different as the show made headlines with one particular unveiling, the fourth-generation Mazda 3.
For something to grab the limelight away from Audi’s new 440kW “Tesla Model S challenger” concept and the long awaited return of a Jeep pick-up truck since the end of the Comanche in 1992, it has to be something exceptional, and it is.
Its design, while stunning, to say the least, is nothing unexpected, and neither is the headlining Skyactiv-X engine, which Mazda has been developing and demonstrating it to the press since the beginning of this year. It is, however, the fact that Mazda is right at the cusp of delivering to the public the holy grail of combustion engines, compression-ignition petrol combustion.
For decades compression-ignition petrol engines have been impossible to commercialise simply due to the sheer unpredictability of achieving petrol combustion through compression instead of spark plugs. Compression-ignition allows engines to run at a much leaner air/fuel mixture, but it requires the combustion system to have absolute control over the air-fuel mixtures, internal and intake temperatures, and fuel quality to achieve a stable combustion without utilising spark plugs. Think of it as nitroglycerin – in diluted form it can prevent heart failure, in concentrated form it will cause heart failure with a good dose of blast trauma.
With so many variables at play, commercial viability has thus eluded car makers, until Mazda’s engineers cracked to formula with the use of a spark plug to aid in initiating a combustion just before the power stroke, and employing a small supercharger to broaden the engine’s operating speeds. It is still a fantastically complicated method of achieving compression-ignition that is still elegantly simple in its execution.
No specific power or torque outputs have been released on the Skyactiv-X engine as of now, nor is its rated fuel consumption or emissions, but Mazda has plenty riding on its new 3 and its cutting edge engine. An impressive feat for a company that had an uncertain future just 10 years ago after the instability left in the wake of The Great Recession, which eventually lead to Ford relinquishing control of the company it held since 1996.
Without Ford, Mazda embarked on an ambitious rebirth that saw the creation of a focused product development strategy many would recognise as the engineering aspects tied under the Skyactiv banner, which made its debut in its full form with the 2012 CX-5 SUV. Not only did the engineering path Mazda chose went against the tide of favour towards downsized turbocharged and diesel powerplants, the CX-5 was a gamble. It was, after all, an all-new model in a segment that Mazda wasn’t particularly known for.
Needless to say, Mazda’s gamble paid off. Not only was the CX-5 a worldwide success, the Skyactiv engines steered clear of the disrepute of downsized turbocharged engines as the Dieselgate scandal hit and legislative bodies began to scrutinise the cycle-beating nature of turbocharged engines.
That being said, Mazda’s bet on the CX-5 pales in comparison to their current latest foray into compression-ignition engines. With former champions of diesel and downsized turbocharging engines, Volkswagen, shying away from the Dieselgate fallout and shifting their focus towards electric vehicles, Mazda’s venture might seems callous in comparison. The combustion engine ship is sinking, futurists predict, and Mazda seems to be busy arranging the deck chairs. After all, while Mazda is in rude health as compared to where it was a decade ago, they are still nowhere as big as the major car makers.
It isn’t as though they aren’t strangers to taking the path less taken, as they had demonstrated with the commercialisation of the rotary engines in the 1963. However, such a bet against the market consensus could ruin the company as they had demonstrated with their commitment to rotary engines amidst the 1970s fuel crisis.
Conversely, Mazda’s compression-ignition engines could save the combustion engine. It could go on to prove naysayers wrong; that the ship isn’t sinking as fast as they believe and that there is still life and more efficiency to gain from this century and a half old technology. If that pans out to be true, the 2018 LA Auto Show will be remembered as the moment of Mazda’s greatest triumph.