While most automakers are developing multiple hybrids and EVs, Mazda has mostly remained on the sidelines when it comes to battery-powered vehicles. The company’s executives have insisted that its small, efficient gasoline engines provide all the necessary fuel-economy—and that future research and development should be aimed at wringing additional efficiency from internal combustion technology. However, in recent weeks, Masahiro Moro, chief executive of Mazda North America, hinted that the Japanese automaker will produce a plug-in hybrid or EV by about 2020.
It’s important to recognize that internal combustion and electrification are not mutually exclusive—because plug-in hybrids sell in nearly equal numbers to pure EVs. Dave Coleman, manager of vehicle dynamics engineering for Mazda North America, recently explained, “In the future, when we electrify cars, all of these improvements [in internal combustion engines] go along forward. It’s an investment in that future.”
The end game for many EV advocates is reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Plug-in hybrids significantly contribute to those reductions—although it’s not yet clear if Mazda will introduce a conventional hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or pure electric car.
While Moro, as recently as last month, pointed to the use of Mazda’s famous rotary engine—also known as the Wankel—for its potential role in onboard generation of electricity, this is not a new concept for the company. In 2013, Mazda said it was conducting an engineering study for a prototype called the Mazda2 RE Range Extender. (In 2012, the company also ran a pilot EV program in Japan, leasing about 100 units of its Mazda Demio EV. That car reportedly provided about 120 miles of range.)
Use of the Wankel engine for a hybrid goes further back in history to the 1970s. Victor Wouk, an engineer and shade-tree mechanic, developed one of the first hybrid vehicle prototypes—using a Wankel rotary engine to assist propulsion for a Buick Skylark.
The Wankel engine substitutes the reciprocating pistons of a traditional internal combustion engine with triangular rotors that revolve in ellipses, converting combustion pressure into a rotating motion. Moro last month said that Mazda continues to improve fuel combustion and quality of the rotary, which it last offered in the discontinued RX-8 sports car.
Meanwhile, Mazda is continuing to improve the efficiency of its SkyActiv combustion platform—targeting a 20-percent gain. The company believes that internal combustion engine will play a prominent role in cars at least until 2050. But, with its plans to release a hybrid or EV in about two years, its resistance to electrification is apparently starting to fade.