So what is Mazda SKYACTIV all about, anyway?

by Dan Heyman

The SKYACTIV’s the limit.

2013 Mazda CX-5 front 3/4

2013 Mazda CX-5 SKYACTIV trunk badgeMonterey County, CA — The Mazda CX-5 is about to start hitting dealers (actually, you should start seeing them by the time you read this) and we just had the opportunity to put the vehicle through its paces both on the track (well, two tracks, actually) and on the open road and considering how important first impressions are, the CX-5 should fare pretty well from the outset.

We discussed the vehicle’s performance here, but it’s important we supplement that by having a look at the ideologies behind the CX-5, for this is not “just another Mazda CUV”. Far from it, in fact, as this is not only the first Mazda CUV to use the manufacturer’s new SKYACTIV technology from the ground-up—it’s the first Mazda model to do so.

Yes, we recently drove the Mazda3 SKYACTIV, but that was a retro-fit in that it had the SKYACTIV-G two-litre engine and SKYACTIV-Drive six-speed auto fitted to the pre-existing Mazda3 platform. When we drove the car, we noticed slightly better fuel efficiency and a motor that was keen to rev but, if we’re honest, it was not a huge departure from 3s past.

However, ask Sam Hortinella, CX-5 Product Development Engineer, and he will quickly tell you that there’s a lot more to SKYACTIV than just dropping in a lighter motor and transmission into a pre-existing platform. In fact, that’s an almost anti-SKYACTIV way of thinking.

“Basically, the name ‘SKYACTIV’ came from a feeling that the sky’s the limit,” he said.

2013 Mazda CX-5 rear 3/4

CX-5 is lighter and more efficient than not only the Tribute and CX-7, but is the most fuel efficient crossover on the market (photo by Dan Heyman)

It goes back to Mazda’s belief that simply “hybrid-izing” an existing platform like what Toyota did with the Camry or Nissan did with the Altima was not the way to go–the cancellation of the Altima Hybrid for the 2012 model year just goes to show that this practice is not always a completely viable one.

“We made a commitment back in 2008 where we wanted to improve our fleet fuel economy by 30 per cent by 2015,” said Dave Coleman, director of engineering for the CX-5. “We eliminated the (hybrid) idea early-on because you have to sell 30 per cent of your fleet (as hybrid or electric models to meet the 2015 emissions requirements)…there just aren’t that many electric customers.” Not to mention it’s hard to make a hybrid fun to drive, always an important factor over at Mazda.

So Mazda’s solution was to literally start from the ground-up with SKYACTIV, which is not as simple as some may think. Rare is the case that a car called “all-new” is, in fact, all new; the Mazda3, for example, uses a transmission that got its start in a 323. In 1980.

But the CX-5 is truly all-new; Mazda is calling it the beginning of the sixth generation of the Mazda model family, but it may as well be called the second generation because of how new it is. This is the clean slate needed for SKYACTIV to work.

“We decided to focus on the core technologies that make up a conventional car now, and see how much improvement we could make on those,” Coleman said.

That means taking all the components that make a car apart, and optimizing, optimizing and optimizing as much as possible.

2013 Mazda CX-5 SKYACTIV-G engine

Massive network of pipes that make up the exhaust manifold help SKYACTIV-G two-litre maintain a 13:1 compression ratio (photo by David Dewhurst)

In the engine department, the SKYACTIV-G  (“G” meaning “gas” as a diesel engine is in the works) now runs a 13:1 compression ratio, highest among any production fuel engine you’re going to see on dealer lots. Higher compression means less fuel needs to be burned to make power but often leads to “knocking” where un-burned fuel combusts out of sync with a piston’s stroke-cycle.

To eliminate this, Mazda developed an exhaust manifold who’s twists and turns recall what you might see in the engine bays of race cars dating back a long ways. A manifold like this, however, takes up room in the engine bay which is why the SKYACTIV 3 we drove couldn’t be fitted with it. That would mean changing the radiator and firewall which can’t be done overnight to an existing platform, but what Mazda could do with the blank-slate given to the development of the CX-5, so a 13:1 compression ratio was reached. This also allows the catalytic converter to warm up more quickly which is important as so much fuel is burned during cold-starts.

Other engine internals have been changed as well—the cylinder heads have been given “bowls” atop them in order to allow them to burn a richer fuel mixture. Even the path that water takes throughout the engine has been made less drag-ridden with the elimination of sharp corner throughout the radiator pipes and hoses, and the turbine in the water pump has been made smaller and lighter, and been given a shroud to prevent drag caused by wasteful leakage—here, we see a 23 per cent increase in the water pump’s efficiency. All this in the name of leaving no stone unturned when it came to optimizing the inner workings of the engine. The result is 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque which is a little down on the competition, but more importantly, Mazda can now say that theirs is the most fuel efficient crossover on the market today. And it’s not a hybrid.

Yes, the power-figure is low but remember that big-power has never really been paramount over at Mazda. Dating back to the Miata roadster (now called the MX-5 in Canada) in 1989 , lightweight and fun-to-drive are the orders of the day. In that light, other mass-reducing moves for the CX-5 include a lighter-weight all-wheel drive system (it’s almost 40 kilograms lighter than that which is used in the CX-7) and shorter-throw gear lever; even the bolts used to mount the front and back seats have had their heads shorn to save weight. These are the steps necessary when starting from scratch, and what will help every new Mazda model going forward weigh at least 100 kg less than the model it replaces. Mazda refuses to admit that the CX-5 is replacing the CX-7—there will be a 2013 version of that car—but Coleman may have shed a little light on the fate of the CX-7 when he illustrated that the FWD CX-5 weighs 131 kg less than the CX-7, AWD versions a whopping 261 kg lighter.

2013 Mazda CX-5 SKYACTIV-G engine cylinder

Low-profile cylinder heads include indentation for richer fuel mixture (photo by David Dewhurst)

Also important is the fun-to-drive factor. “Just because you have kids who play soccer, it doesn’t mean you hate driving, remember that,” said Coleman. It’s a good point—even someone who treats their car as an efficient tool for A to B progress may not realize that they actually enjoy driving as well. So why can’t a people-mover like a CUV be fun? Probably because the concern is that would be a hit to efficiency but the CX-5 is already the most efficient crossover out there so that argument goes right out the window.

The all-new platform allowed Coleman and his team to work with the handling dynamics as well—case in point the adjustments that needed to be made to the rear sub-frame to make for a better handling car without compromising too much in ride quality.

Normally, the pivot point for the rear trailing-arm that attaches the wheel to the chassis sits lower than the center of the wheel. This means that when you hit a bump, the wheel and tire has to go up the bump, crest it and come back down in line with its starting point. On the CX-5, the pivot-point is moved upwards so the wheel follows a more natural, forward path which makes for a smoother ride even with suspension tuned for better handling. Manufacturers don’t usually do this because it would push into the underside of the back seat, so Mazda developed the chassis with the system in mind, allowing them to create a housing for the trailing arm. Now, you have more sports-car like handling without an overly-bumpy ride in the back.

In the safety sense, large amounts of high- and super-high tensile steel has been used throughout the body, with a reinforcing “ring structure” around certain points but the directness of the steering and chassis, Coleman says, is the first thing you should look for when it comes to driver safety.

“We’ve got air bags for days and a really strong crash structure and all of that for when somebody runs into you, but we’d prefer that you just don’t crash in the first place,” and so the steering feel, directness and suspension system have all been tuned to accurately depict exactly what’s going on beneath you when you’re at speed, as opposed to numbing you like other electrically-assisted systems do.

2013 Mazda CX-5 SKYACTIV-G engine transmission

New transmission attached to an all-wheel drive system that is almost 40 kg lighter than the system found beneath the CX-7 (photo by David Dewhurst)

More than just the start of a new chapter when it comes to engineering Mazda products, the CX-5 is also the first model to show the styling direction of the brand. Called “KODO: The soul of motion”, the language aims to add class to a model line-up that had descended a little into satire over the last few years. The demented grin that would look more appropriate on a certain Batman villain than it does on the Mazda5 and 3 has been replaced on the CX-5, with a nice, adult five-point grille and les squinty headlights. Derek Jenkins, lead designer of the CX-5, calls special attention to the chrome strip beneath the grille, which will be seen on all new Mazda products going forward.

Jenkins credits an extensive use of clay modelling which he thinks Mazda uses more than other manufacturers who resort mainly to digital imaging for the creased and flowing side, hood and rear panels.

All that, plus the cab-rearward stance, low roof and extended rear spoiler lead to what Jenkins is calling “a little more up-market quality to (the) vehicle.” We agree; the CX-5 looks strong and sturdy from certain angles, athletic from others and above-all, very un-CUV or minivan like. It’s much more akin to a car-based station wagon on steroids.

I hope that the CX-5 does well for Mazda and does, in fact, become the brand’s highest-volume seller after the 3. I really do. And it’s not because Coleman said “if this doesn’t’ work (to entice the driver in us), I don’t know what will” at dinner the night of his presentation and not because I have family members that work at Mazda (I don’t).

No, I hope it does well because I love to drive and as more and more automotive PR types talk only about cargo space, cup-holders, hybrids and fuel economy, “Zoom-Zoom” and everything it brings with it, I fear, will become a thing of the past not just for Mazda, but for the mass automotive market in general. If we forget that feeling we had when we first got behind the wheel, or when we took delivery of our first driver’s licence, unlocked the car, twisted the key and set off down the road for the first time, well, I’m sorry to say that the culture of the car, as we know it, is doomed.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nalliah Thayabharan November 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Incorporating the advanced modern alloys to reduce reciprocating mass and increase internal strength, overall piston compression ratios are increased to 12:1 resulting a spark ignited gasoline-air mixture which burns more completely, effectively squeezing more energy out of the fuel and reducing hydrocarbon emissions. Mazda has also introduced enhancements to its transmissions, via internal friction and mass reductions. Mazda claims that optional 6 speed automatic transmission suffers less rotational losses through a quicker locking torque converter. The 4 cylinder 2.0 liter Mazda engine makes 155 hp @ 6,000 rpm, and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm.


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