Eco warrior: inside Mazda's first EV, and why they aren't giving up on petrol
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The Mazda MX-30 is right at home in the glitter of the modernistic Tokyo motor show. Its sleek outer shell houses a 35.5kWh power plant in the form of a water-cooled lithium ion battery. Metallic paint gleams across the side sections of the cab. The roof is blacked out.
Not so obvious is how the vehicle’s smooth 21st-century lines began as brush strokes on paper by Mazda’s head of design, Ikuo Maeda, inspired by the freedom of nature. Computer screens were soon involved, but the start of the visual journey sprang from his creativity.
And while engineering over years, not months, has led to what lies at the heart of the MX-30, the company’s first electric vehicle, it is just a strand in a much wider-ranging plan.
Mazda’s managing director in New Zealand, David Hodge, says the company aims to launch the MX-30 in New Zealand early in 2021. Left-hand drive MX-30s will arrive first in Europe; New Zealand is likely to be one of the earliest countries to get the right-hand drive model.
Hodge is open about the commercial impact of the car. “Is it a winner commercially? Not in terms of volume,” he says. “The intention was never that it was going to be a big volume car. But EV is a segment in the market that is growing, and a lot of people want to get into them early.”
How much will the MX-30 cost?
“We’re a long way from a final decision. You’re paying extra for the battery, which is basically your lifetime of fuel. Our focus will be on urban dealership. All dealerships will be able to sell it. But they’ll have minimum requirements around charging facilities.”
Which brings us to a point non-EV users raise. How far can you drive relying entirely on a battery? The MX-30 promises to run for just over 200km on a single charge.
“What gets all the noise is the range of an EV,” says Hodge, “but we need to look at it differently. Before you commit yourself to an EV, study what your driving habits are.
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“How much do you really drive? How often do you drive 100km in a day? If 90 per cent of your driving is short length, maybe an EV suits you. You don’t buy a cellphone because its battery lasts eight days. As long as it lasts a day, you charge it every night just as you will with an EV. When you buy a petrol car, the size of the petrol tank is not on the list.”
For those who remain fixated on range, Mazda continues to work on developing a rotary engine, to add to the battery in the MX-30, and make a vast change to the range of the car. The company believes the rotary engine would be compact enough not to impact on cabin and boot space, and quiet enough to be practical. But no exact date for the introduction of the rotary has been decided.
Range aside, the MX-30, which carries the MX prefix because it is the latest in Mazda’s concept vehicles, has what Hodge calls quirky features. The freestyle doors, with only the front doors having external door handles are the most obvious.
To open a back door you must first open the front door. The back door then swings towards the book, so the effect is opening two opposing cupboard doors.
That means both sides of the MX-30 flow almost seamlessly, and the Toyko designers swore there is no loss of rigidity, and therefore safety, in loss of a centre pillar that would usually be part of the chassis. There’s what amounts to a virtual pillar in the back door, and the car passes the strictest worldwide safety specifications.
Other touches hint at broader ecological concepts Mazda has been engaged with since 2007.
Using the shavings from the manufacture of wine bottle corks for a tray on the floating console beside the driver, or developing a process to make material for interior trim from recycled plastic bottles can feel a little like an extraneous touch of virtue-signalling for a more ecologically aware age.
But the day after the MX-30’s unveiling at Tokyo there’s a briefing forthree New Zealand journalists on the 18th floor of the corporate office of Mazda. Hidetoshi Kudo, Mazda’s project officer in charge of research and development, speaks with such unabashed enthusiasm about where Mazda sees itself in the drive to reduce CO2 emissions that he could almost be guesting at a Green Party convention.
“Our aim is not to just meet the regulations, but to protect the beautiful earth. You may smile when we say that, but we are very serious”.
How serious? Twelve years ago, he says, Mazda started a building block strategy, trying to improve the technology step by step.
The targets for Mazda vehicles?
To reduce CO2 emissions by 50 per cent in 2030, and by 90 per cent in 2050.
The approach for such ambitious changes is not to throw everything into electric cars. In some countries, notably China and India, where coal plants are used to manufacture electric power, while the EV leaves virtually no carbon footprint, the process to make the power that charges the car’s battery, does involves massive CO2 pollution.
So, says Kudo-san, the biggest part of Mazda’s building blocks for a cleaner future lies with improving emissions from an internal combustion engine. Mazda has been developing the Skyactiv-X which combines the flame propagation of the petrol engine with the compression ignition of the diesel engine. If perfected, emissions would drop to almost zero.
“We’ll never give up on that idea for the future,” says Kudo-san.
A second approach is just as radical, to promote algae biofuels, by cultivating algae that draw CO2 from the atmosphere.
Mazda has been cooperating with Hiroshima University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology with the aim of producing a green fuel that would be carbon neutral.
“If it is established we can use existing gas stations, so it can allow a long range,” says Kudo-san. “Our target is to start using the biofuel from this year, but the amount will be limited. Renewable biofuel is technically identical to existing diesel fuel, so it can be mixed with existing diesel at gas stations.”
The third leg of the plan involves EVs, and Mazda is mindful of where in the world clean electric power for charging is produced. “So Norway uses natural gas, and is very clean, so we think battery power is a very good solution for them,” says Kudo-san.
As we have cleaner power production in New Zealand than in coal-burning Australia, it’s likely the MX-30 will be on roads here before it arrives across the Tasman.
“In countries where the production of power isn’t so clean, we think improvements to the internal combustion engine is better.”