As big automakers go electric, Mazda squeezes more from gasoline engines

Tue Nov 19, 2013 4:04pm EST
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By Yoko Kubota

HIROSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Japan's Mazda Motor Corp (7261.T: Quote) has only a tenth of Toyota Motor Corp's (7203.T: Quote) research and development budget, but is betting it can make the century-old internal combustion engine as fuel efficient as hybrids like its rival's pioneering Prius.

The gamble on developing gasoline engines, while others move increasingly towards electric cars, could also show whether a small automaker can survive independently in a high-stakes market for mass-produced passenger cars dominated by the likes of Toyota, General Motors (GM.N: Quote) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG.DE: Quote).

"People used to say there's no way a small carmaker could survive unless they find a partner because it wouldn't be possible to independently pursue costly technologies like fuel cells, electric vehicles and hybrids," said Mitsuo Hitomi, Mazda's top powertrain engineer. "But these may not become mainstream."

Mazda, valued at $13.5 billion and with its roots as a 1920's machinery toolmaker, has chosen to focus on reducing the energy loss in combustion engines, with technology that is a side-show for bigger companies focused on headline-grabbing electric and hybrid vehicles. The move has already helped achieve big fuel-efficiency gains in Mazda vehicles.

Gasoline engines now utilize at most around 35 percent of the fuel's energy, with the rest lost mainly to heat and friction. Engines also typically operate well below the peak, at around 20 percent efficiency.

Mazda wants to improve that to 50 percent at peak efficiency and maintain operation closer to peak levels. A first step would be with a breakthrough technology called HCCI, or homogenous charge compression ignition, Hitomi said.

Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote), GM and others have also been working on the technology for years, but it has yet to be mass-produced.

"ONLY OPTION"   Continued...

Mazda Motor Corp Chief Executive Officer Masamichi Kogai speaks during an event ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo November 19, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai