Mazda is aiming to join the band of Japanese car brands offering vehicles with “electrification”.
It will first offer a hybrid in 2013, using Toyota’s well established ‘Hybrid Synergy Drive’ petrol-electric drivetrain found in the likes of the Prius.
But last week in Mazda’s home city of Hiroshima, Japan, CarAdvice was given a brief stint behind the wheel of a car that, while set to be leased in tiny numbers to government in 2012 in its current guise, is another few years into the future after that: a Mazda2-based battery electric vehicle.
There’s no futuristic styling here. Mazda’s development EV is pure 2011 Mazda 2 city car - or Mazda Demio as it's known in its domestic market.
Turn the ignition switch and of course there’s no familiar cough of an internal combustion engine firing into life. There’s just a beep and a green ‘Ready’ sign in the instrument panel telling you the car is ready to drive.
Then there is a more familiar process: palm the gearlever into D, release the handbrake and press the accelerator pedal. With a gentle prod, the Mazda2 EV moves quietly away. That eerie silence now so familiar when driving electric-powered cars continues, with just some tyre roar and wind rustle noticeable in the cabin.
Push harder on the loud pedal and it doesn’t get louder – only a more audible high-pitched whine from the electric motor that sits under the bonnet, driving the front wheels. Acceleration is linear and, unlike some other electric cars we’ve driven, there isn’t any aggressive ‘engine braking’ effect when you lift your foot off the accelerator.
A heavy, T-shaped battery pack that sits underneath the floor means the Mazda2 EV weighs about 100kg more than the regular, petrol-powered version of the city car.
But there’s a decent surge of acceleration, and the Mazda2 feels noticeably quicker than the first contemporary electric car to make into showrooms, the tardy Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Mazda engineers say 0-100km/h acceleration is about the same as the 1.5-litre four-cylinder Mazda2 (a figure not published by Mazda).
“Because of zoom-zoom brand strategy we are looking for good acceleration,” says Yoshiaki Anan, staff manager of Mazda’s vehicle development division.
Mazda remains coy about power outputs for the electric motor, though the suggestion was that the 2 EV sits between the i-MiEV and Leaf in that respect – meaning somewhere between 49kW and 90kW.
After 18 months of Mazda2 EV development, the company is more confident about revealing range expectations, however.
“For this program our target is 200km [battery range],” says Mitsuru Fujinaka, program manager of Mazda’s program management division. “I think we can [go beyond that] but it depends on the performance of the battery.”
He says the Mazda2 EV’s battery can be recharged in just 30 minutes using a fast-charge facility, but the process will take up to eight hours if using a standard power outlet.
Fujinaka says Mazda needs to build electric vehicles to cater for countries where tougher emissions laws are in play or coming into play.
“We have worked on improvement of combustion engine but now we are looking into a new phase of the environment and [new-car] market. Because we need to develop … another zero emissions vehicle. As you know, regulations will become more stringent in green states of US.
“[The EV] will be from 2018 model year so we want to be ready for that year with this vehicle. We are trying to pursue an earlier than that if possible. Sooner or later all have to have EVs otherwise won’t be able to sell in California.”
Mazda is considering whether it will build a dedicated EV as well or expand an electric drivetrain to other models. Emissions regulations are certainly unlikely to encourage Mazda Australia to import such models.
Australia is also a country that currently cancels out the benefits of a zero emissions car because electricity is predominantly produced by coal-fire stations.
“If [the Mazda2 EV] was offered to Australia someday we would consider it,” says Mazda Australia spokesman Steve Maciver. “But we don’t think the market is quite ready for it yet in Australia. Our main focus is to get SkyActiv technologies into Australian market and then look at that.”