TOKYO – Mazda Motor Corp. pulls ahead by six months its testing of a hydrogen-powered rotary engine, as the auto maker announces advanced powertrains will drive development of its next-generation product lineup.

“We are making good progress towards developing a hydrogen rotary engine for a mass production vehicle,” Mazda President and CEO Hisakazu Imaki says. “We will start leasing RX-8 RE hydrogen cars from next spring, a half year earlier than planned.”

The auto maker gave the public its first look at a hydrogen-powered rotary engine at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show. (See related story: Hydrogen Rotary on Horizon as Mazda Unveils '03 RX-8)

Imaki also reveals Mazda is betting on direct-injection technology as its short-term solution to volatile gasoline prices and unwavering consumer demand for performance-oriented vehicles.

Within three years, the auto maker will bring to market a direct-injection engine that saves fuel by shutting down instead of idling. Start-stop technology isn't new, but Mazda's “Smart Idling Stop System” can function without a starter, thus reducing fuel consumption further.

Additionally, Mazda soon will ramp up testing of hybrid-electric versions of its Tribute SUV. The auto maker hopes to piggyback on parent Ford Motor Co.'s commitment to hybrid-electric vehicle development.

Imaki made his remarks at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show here. He says Mazda is compelled to develop new, fuel-stingy powertrains to counter rising gas prices, but it won't compromise the spirit of “Zoom-Zoom.”

Zoom-Zoom is Mazda's 4-year-old marketing tagline. It is intended to reflect a philosophy that favors stylish, sporty, fun-to-drive vehicles, the auto maker says.

“Mazda's brand message is Zoom-Zoom, and it will not change in the future,” Imaki adds. “Mazda will continue providing fun to drive performance while paying greater attention to protecting the environment and safety.”

Richard Parry-Jones, Ford group vice president-global product development, heralds Mazda's Smart Idling Stop System as a means of advancing the proliferation of direct-injection technology.

“The engine's stopped, and then the sensors tell the engine exactly the position each piston is in,” Parry-Jones says. “It chooses the best piston to start the engine up with, fires an atomized mixture into that cylinder; the spark plug fires it off, and the engine starts going. No starter motor turning the crank over.”

Currently, only direct injection can supply cylinders with an atomized mixture of air and fuel.

The only drawback to Smart Idling Stop is that it doesn't eliminate the need for a starter, Parry-Jones says. “We won't be able to get rid of the starter motor because (Smart Idling Stop) doesn't work in very low temperatures.

“But during normal city stop-start conditions, the engine's already warm. You get the efficiency because you have almost no crank time. As a result, you get instant start-up and lower emissions.”

Mazdaspeed Mazda6

Neither Parry-Jones nor Imaki reveal which Mazda vehicle will feature the technology. But Mazda is rolling out its first products with direct-injection: an Atenza bearing the brand's Mazdaspeed performance badge is on sale in Japan and Mazdaspeed6 is available in North America.

Both sport sedans, which feature a supercharged 2.3L I-4 with a 6-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive, meet strict Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicles requirements.

Mazda's newfound interest in hybrids flies in the face of the auto maker's stance of 16 months ago. Senior executives at the time suggested hybrids could not be made to fit the brand's sporty image. (See related story: Whuzz, Whuzz of Hybrids Doesn't Fit Mazda's Zoom-Zoom Image)

But Imaki says Mazda is fully onboard with battery-powered technology that has taken Asia and North America by storm.

Mazda MPV

“Leveraging synergies with Ford, we are making steady progress towards the introduction of a hybrid vehicle,” he says. “As a first step, we will soon commence pilot testing a number of Tribute hybrids in North America. In the near future, we promise to introduce further hybrid mass production vehicles.”

Ford recently announced it is beefing up its rollout of hybrids. (See related story: Ford Promises More Hybrids as Part of 'Innovation' Strategy)

Mazda also uses the Tokyo show to unveil its new-generation MPV minivan. Destined only for Japan, it is smaller than the MPV sold in North America. Mazda's North American MPV is expected to be phased out in the next year or two.

emayne@primediabusiness.com