Despite not launching its EV until 2018, Alasdair Suttie finds Mazda already has a capable tester on a trip to Hiroshima.
Experimental electric Mazda2 EV is on the right track
Mazda is leading the way in new engine development. Its Skyactiv programme is rapidly producing cleaner, more economical and powerful petrol and diesel engines, which we'll see the first fruits of in the new CX-5 SUV. However, Mazda's devotion to the internal combustion engine has not blindsided its engineers to the possibilities of electric cars and is why it has unveiled a battery-powered Mazda2 EV.
Mitsuru Fujinaka, project manager for the Mazda2 EV, explains the thinking behind the car at Mazda's research and development facility in Hiroshima, Japan. "All car companies will need electric vehicles sooner rather than later to meet environmental requirements for zero-emissions vehicles," he says. "Mazda wants to make sure we have the right technology to meet these challenges, so we are developing an electric car, but it won't be on worldwide sale until 2018, maybe a little sooner."
In the meantime, the Mazda2 EV is being introduced in Japan for use by government agencies and businesses to gauge its effectiveness. To begin with, 100 Mazda2 EVs will be on the roads and we tried the car out at its world debut in Hiroshima.
At first glance, the Mazda2 EV looks identical to its petrol-powered siblings. There are no extra holes or panels to access the plug-in charger for the battery pack, as this is fitted where the petrol filler cap normally resides. Step into the car and it's still difficult to spot any differences between this model and any other from Mazda's supermini line-up. A standard automatic gear selector puts the car into drive, neutral, reverse or park and the dash is completely standard. It's only when you look for the fuel gauge that you spot any difference, as this is now a battery charge indicator.
A standard ignition key primes the car. Press the throttle and the Mazda2 EV pulls away crisply and feels lively. Fujinaka says it was the engineering team's aim to match the performance of the company's 1.5L petrol engine with the electric motor, though he won't say exactly how powerful the motor is. From the feel of the acceleration and a smile from Fujinaka, it produces about 70kW, equivalent to 95hp. This places the Mazda2 EV's power slap bang in between the petrol 1.3 and 1.5L engines used in the standard production car. It also exactly matches the output of the 1.6L turbodiesel offered in some markets.
On the move, the obvious difference with the Mazda2 EV is the near complete lack of engine noise. There is some turbine-like whine from the motor, but it's not intrusive or grating and it settles into a distant background hum when cruising. The only downside to this is that the lack of engine sound means wind and road noise are more apparent.
Getting up to a 120kph cruise is no problem, thanks to strong acceleration that benefits from the linear power of the electric motor and its instant shove from the moment the driver brushes the throttle pedal. It has an estimated 200Nm of torque on tap so it's no surprise it feels so eager off the line. Use all of the power and the top speed is more than 150kph, but this will drain the battery very quickly.
Mazda has also succeeded in making the EV's throttle more progressive and sensitive compared to many other electric vehicles, which can feel like it has more of an on-off switch than a throttle pedal. This helps underline the keen driving manners of the Mazda2, so apparent in the petrol models.
Maintaining the driving dynamics in the EV version has taken considerable effort by the company's engineers. The extra weight of the electric motor and battery pack, which is arranged in a T-shape along the transmission tunnel and between the rear wheels, has added 100kg to the overall weight of the car compared to a petrol version. This added weight is not noticeable in the way the EV turns into corners, holds a line or deals with cracks in the road. If anything, it has a smoother and more settled ride quality than the petrol models, even though it uses stiffer springs and shock absorbers.
No boot space has been sacrificed to accommodate the battery pack either, while the electric motor sits under the bonnet where you would normally find the engine. In this EV, the motor drives the front wheels only, but Fujinaka also confirms Mazda is looking at all-wheel drive systems using electric motors.
In the Mazda2 EV, the battery pack can be quick-charged in 30 minutes to about 80 per cent of its maximum. If you want the full 200km range, you'll need to slow charge the car and that takes eight hours. Fujinaka admits this is not ideal for many drivers, but he says that this is also why Mazda has begun its trials of the Mazda2 EV to establish customer use and needs.
To simulate everyday use, the company is not only providing 100 Mazda2 EVs to government departments and some businesses in Japan, it has also been carrying out extensive trials at its base in Hiroshima. The huge factory stretches for 7km around the bay of Hiroshima and the test track is contained within this nest of factory buildings.
With everything from motorway stretches to convoluted city roads available to test, engineers don't ever need to leave the test track. Mazda is able to hone its cars long before they reach the near-production stage of being tried on public roads. Among the early build CX-5s driving around, the Mazda2 EV still turns factory workers' heads and Fujinaka is proud that everyone within Mazda's main production facility is so interested in what he and his team are working on.
"Skyactiv is the main focus of Mazda," says Fujinaka. "But to ignore other power options would be wrong of us, which is why we are also looking to introduce a hybrid-powered car soon, which also extends our knowledge of how electric vehicles behave."
This hybrid model will use a petrol-electric combination developed with Toyota, but Fujinaka's real passion is the electric vehicle, starting with the Mazda2 EV. "We have a big opportunity at the moment in the auto industry to shape how cars will look, drive and be built for future generations, so we need to take this responsibility very seriously," he says. "That doesn't mean we cannot make fun cars that are good to drive, which I think we have achieved with the Mazda2 EV."
These broad brush aims set out by Fujinaka are bold and clear, but the development of Mazda's electric models for launch in 2018 remains a closely guarded secret and our time at the research and development centre is carefully chaperoned to keep prying eyes from anything they are not supposed to see.
However, this doesn't stop Mazda's engineers proudly showing off the new facility that is building its new engine range. Both petrol and diesel engines of all capacities are made alongside one another, including the V6 petrol, without the need for separate production lines. Mazda has also streamlined the process so that a new engine rolls off the line every minute of every day, 365 days a year.
Streamlining has allowed the company to make its engine plant more efficient, cutting waste by more than 40 per cent in some areas, which allows cost savings to be passed on to the customer.
Even so, this has not deflected attention from the electric vehicle programme. "All of our vehicles have to meet the zoom-zoom philosophy that every Mazda has good acceleration, is fun to drive and good value for the customer," says Yoshiaki Anan, staff manager of the vehicle development team that fine tunes every new Mazda. "We believe the Mazda EV more than meets these goals and this is very encouraging for future electric vehicle projects."
Given Mazda's claim that the EV is simply an engineering project and not the main focus of the company's future powerplants, the Mazda2 EV is an impressive car. It feels production-ready and more entertaining to drive than other electric cars already on sale.