Barely a year ago, you could get 40 miles per gallon on the highway in exactly one conventional gas-powered car–the two-seat, toaster-size ForTwo, from Smart. But with fuel prices approaching $4 a gallon, membership in the 40-and-over club is growing fast. Hyundai, Chevrolet and Ford have introduced efficient sedans and hatchbacks. Now an unexpected entrant is joining the club: Mazda, the carmaker that built its reputation on affordable performers like the 155mph Speed3 and the rotary-engined RX-8.
Mazda’s fuel-efficiency program, Skyactiv, involves a multiyear rollout of new engines, transmissions and other reinvented components across a range of vehicles. The goal is to boost overall fuel economy by 30 percent by 2015, one year before American fuel-economy rules require automakers to reach a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg.
The plan starts with the new Mazda3, whose 2.0-liter, four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine will use direct fuel injection and dual variable valve timing to squeeze out 158 horsepower while achieving 40 mpg. A new six-speed automatic transmission will use two internal clutches to reduce energy-wasting gear slippage by 14 percent, while a redesigned exhaust manifold will collect and quickly disperse gases from all four cylinders, reducing heat losses.
Beyond the 3, Mazda’s plans get even more interesting. This fall in Japan, the automaker will introduce a new version of the subcompact Mazda2, with a 1.3-liter Skyactiv-G engine mated to a continuously variable transmission. Expected mileage: nearly 70 mpg.
In 2013, Mazda will bring a compact crossover to America called the CX-5; its 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D diesel should generate 310 pound-feet of torque while most likely topping 40 mpg, better than any SUV on the market today. And unlike other diesel engines, Mazda’s lightweight, high-revving aluminum-block diesel engine requires no particulate traps or pricey exhaust after-treatments to meet emissions standards. Barring any holdups, the CX-5 would become the first modern diesel Japanese passenger vehicle sold in the U.S.