Fueled by steady growth in sales and earnings since the start of the decade, Japanese auto makers are pouring record sums of money into research and development. In this third installment of a 4-part series, Ward’s discusses trends with Mazda research and development chief Seita Kanai.

HIROSHIMA, Japan – Mazda Motor Corp. filled in many of the blanks about its midterm technology plan leading up to the Tokyo Motor Show in late October.

The auto maker reconfirmed plans to revamp its model lineup between 2007 and 2010 with next-generation B, C and C/D vehicles, plus a new, unidentified core model.

First up in the product retooling effort is the Demio/Mazda 2, the auto maker’s B-segment entry that underwent a full model change in July.

Mazda also reiterated plans to overhaul its gasoline engine lineup and introduce a new clean diesel that meets Euro 6, U.S. Tier 2 Bin 5 and Japan’s H12 emission standards. In addition, it will introduce a new and improved direct-injection rotary engine.

The new powerplants are scheduled to come on stream beginning in 2010.

Mazda’s next-generation gasoline engine, a direct-injection type, is being designed to achieve 20% better fuel economy and 25% better dynamic performance compared with Mazda’s current MZR engine series, which now includes 1.3L, 1.5L, 1.6L, 1.8L, 2.0L, 2.3L and 2.5L units.

Engineers intend to improve fuel economy and performance through advances in variable valve-timing, direct-injection, combustion-control and catalyst technology.

Specifically, the auto maker will employ sequential valve-timing with a variable-phase mechanism and a new 3-way catalytic converter using single-nanotechnology that offers potential to reduce precious metal requirements by as much as 90%.

The prototype engine displayed at the Tokyo show displaces 2.0L.

Mazda’s next-generation diesel will adopt an aluminum block, like Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s i-CTD-i and Toyota Motor Corp.’s D-4D series engine, along with a common-rail injection system featuring piezoelectric injectors, a 2-stage turbocharger and other systems to bring about a 10% improvement in fuel economy. The prototype displayed in Tokyo, like the next-generation gasoline unit, also is a 2.0L.

The auto maker’s next rotary, dubbed the 16X, will adopt a similar direct-injection system that is featured on the rotary powering the RX-8 Hydrogen RE test vehicle. Despite plans to boost the engine’s displacement by 0.3L to 1.6L, engineers note that outer dimensions of the new rotary will be equivalent to the current 1.3L unit.

The new engine will perform much like a conventional 3.0L gasoline powerplant, insiders say, with a driving range, in its hydrogen mode, of 250 miles (400 km). It will weigh less than the 1.3L.

Meanwhile, Mazda plans to introduce a smart-idle stop system in Japan and an E85-compatible flex-fuel engine in Europe in 2009. Researchers claim the idle-stop system (called SISS) improves fuel economy 10% in Japan’s stop-and-go driving mode.

Management also plans to introduce a new automatic transmission, most likely a 6-speed unit, that feels like and offers the fuel efficiency of a manual gearbox.

Seita Kanai, director and senior managing executive officer in charge of Mazda’s research and development organization, recently spoke with Ward’s about these and other research developments.

Kanai, 57, served as project leader of the first Atenza/Mazda6, the inaugural “zoom-zoom” car in 2002. In addition to his current position on Mazda’s board of directors, he is president of Mazda Engineering and Technology Co. Ltd., a wholly owned research subsidiary. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Ward’s: Please highlight the main points of Mazda’s “sustainable zoom-zoom” strategy as it pertains to powertrains and drivelines.

Kanai: Our strategy is omni-directional. But since our business scale is relatively small, we can’t afford to focus on all areas. Thus, where possible, we will divide research activities with Ford Motor Co.

As for zoom-zoom, it means fun-driving. Thus, sustainable zoom-zoom means fun-driving again and again. As an example, we don’t want owners of Mazda cars to incur high fuel costs. We want our products to be both fun to drive and economical.

More fundamentally, zoom-zoom involves driving performance. We will focus on improving performance in low- and mid-torque ranges. A major challenge is to expand the range of engine speed and torque that achieve optimum combustion. We want to realize optimum combustion at all engine speeds, from low to high. And if we can do that, we will improve fuel economy. Then, by introducing a more efficient transmission, we can develop a good car.

Basically, Mazda doesn’t feel that we need a CVT (continuously variable transmission). That’s the bottom line for us once we develop our next-generation engine.

Ward’s: Specifically, what sort of (automatic) transmission do you envision – 5-speed, 6-speed, 7-speed?

Kanai: I think 6-speeds cover a majority of operating areas. We still must develop technology to minimize shift shock and to insure smooth transition between gears – and of course an engine that performs well in all speed ranges, one with constant combustion throughout the gear range. But I am confident we can eliminate the traditional fuel-economy disadvantage of multi-step transmissions.

Ward’s: When will this new transmission be available?

Kanai: Shortly after 2010.

Ward’s: Will Mazda work with (leading Japanese transmission suppliers) JATCO (Corp.) or Aisin AW (Co. Ltd.) to develop this unit? Or will you develop and produce it yourself?

Kanai: Since this issue involves suppliers, I’d rather not comment.

Ward’s: How many items are included in Mazda’s midterm technology plan?

Kanai: Around 10, including smart idle-stop, biofuels, hybrids and a new lineup of internal combustion engines – diesel, gasoline and rotary. Also: combustion, direct-fuel injection, torque enhancement, transmissions and, last but not least, our hydrogen rotary. These are the main items.

Ward’s: Will you also include all-wheel-drive technology?

Kanai: No.

Ward’s: So Mazda won’t follow the lead of Honda and Mitsubishi (Motors Corp.), both of which have introduced advanced AWD systems?

Kanai: Frankly, there’s not much demand for this technology, perhaps for rallies and races but not for average consumers.

Ward’s: So, another feature of Mazda’s midterm plan is to focus on technologies that support volume sales?

Kanai: With the exception of our rotary engine, we will not develop technologies for niche markets.

Ward’s: Switching to your hydrogen rotary cars, the RX-8 Hydrogen RE and Premacy Hydrogen RE, Honda President Takeo Fukui believes hydrogen combustion engines are significantly less efficient than fuel cells and, unlike fuel cells, will not eliminate nitrogen-oxide emissions?

Kanai: Gasoline engines also emit NOx. So that’s not unique for (the combustion of) hydrogen. However, with hydrogen we can virtually eliminate NOx, reaching almost zero, through better management of the air-fuel ratio. This is not the case with gasoline.

On the issue of efficiency, it is true that fuel cells outperform hydrogen combustion engines by about 1.5 times. That said, I feel that fuel-cell proponents are overly optimistic. Until a solution is found to address the platinum problem, fuel cells will not experience the sort of growth many in the industry expect. With existing technology, all the platinum produced in the world can only support 200,000 fuel-cell vehicles. That’s out of total global production of 70 million cars and trucks, thus one out of 300.

Of course fuel-cell proponents don’t discuss this issue. It is also a fact that they are working hard to reduce the amount of platinum (needed in the stack) to as low as 10% and possibly even replacing platinum with a non-precious metal. But to date, there hasn’t been much progress.

So, if we only focus on the good points of fuel cells, they are more efficient than (hydrogen) combustion engines. But will we ever be able to make them available in all cars? I think this is an enormous problem for advancing fuel-cell technology.

An added problem: Fuel cells require a virtually pure form of hydrogen. Otherwise they can be damaged easily. Internal combustion engines do not require the same level of purity. Moreover, in the case of Mazda’s dual-fuel system, we can switch to gasoline (if there’s no hydrogen refueling station available). Fuel-cell vehicles don’t have this flexibility. So at this point in time, I don’t see a scenario to bring fuel-cell vehicles into the mainstream.

Ward’s: Can the rotary engine run on biofuels as well as gasoline and hydrogen?

Kanai: Yes. It’s technically possible.

Ward’s: Are there any areas Mazda’s zoom-zoom technology strategy matches Ford’s? Or is Mazda basically developing these technologies by itself?

Kanai: We do various things together. Some I’m not at liberty to discuss. What I can say is that we work jointly on small diesel engines and on B-car and C-car platforms, where we have put considerable effort into reducing weight. Weight reduction will improve fuel economy. It will also contribute to better driving performance. The same with all key components – engines, tires, brake systems. The lighter they are, the more zoom-zoom.

Ward’s: How much can you reduce car weight? (In announcing its midterm technology plan, Kanai said Mazda hoped to reduce the weight of all core models by 220 lbs. [100 kg]).

Kanai: Possibly 10%, although this is a gross figure. As we add new safety features, weight will go up. So I can’t say what the net will be.

Ward’s: Are you planning any changes in Mazda’s platform lineup? For instance, how many platforms will you have in 2011 or 2012?

Kanai: Mazda has introduced what we call “monozukuri” innovation – or how to make things more efficiently through commonality (systems, components and processes). As a result, it has become more difficult to count platforms. As an example, if we change the wheelbase of a particular platform, do we categorize this as a new platform? Should we count it as two platforms or one platform? Mazda regards it as one, even though there might be substantive differences.

Ward’s: So Mazda won’t be moving up market into the luxury segment? Several years ago you produced the upscale Millenia, then withdrew from the segment.

Kanai: The CX-9 is currently our most upscale platform. We have no plans to produce a model above the CX-9.

Ward’s: Also in March, Mazda announced it would increase R&D expenditures by 30% over the next four years. Where will most of that additional outlay go?

Kanai: Mainly powertrains.

Ward’s: Including the three new engine series you announced just prior to the Tokyo Motor Show?

Kanai: As well as transmissions and hybrids.

Ward’s: Will Mazda’s smart idle-stop system be used in conjunction with your new clean diesel?

Kanai: We’re not planning that combination. For the time being, SISS will be used only with gasoline engines.

Ward’s: Regarding Mazda’s Premacy rotary hydrogen hybrid, when will such a model be realistic from a cost standpoint, 2015?

Kanai: Earlier. At least that’s our hope.

Ward’s: And that will be for average customers, not just local governments, research institutes, and the like?

Kanai: We don’t know how much demand there will be from the general public. Moreover, Mazda is too small to grow the market by itself. So for the time being, we want to raise people’s awareness through participation in activities such as HyNor (a Norwegian project promoting hydrogen transportation), where we will supply 30 RX-8 Hydrogen RE cars beginning in 2008. I would assume that the first customers would not be ordinary people, but research institutes, energy-related businesses and governments, as you suggest.

Ward’s: Will you open the technology – to avoid the problem you had many years ago with the rotary, when it was just little Mazda against giant Toyota, General Motors (Corp.) and other larger makers?

Kanai: We haven’t studied that yet. But as I said before, when the hydrogen society eventually arrives, there will be limits on fuel cells. And at that time, we can expect a hydrogen combustion engine, whether Mazda’s rotary or BMW (AG)’s liquid hydrogen engine, to attract greater attention.

Ward’s: Speaking of which, isn’t BMW’s engine, because it runs on liquid hydrogen, more efficient?

Kanai: Liquid hydrogen is clearly more efficient. So, yes. But we’re not talking about fuel efficiency, we’re talking about storage efficiency, since liquid hydrogen has greater density (than hydrogen gas), thus a greater driving range.

Ward’s: What advanced safety technologies are part of zoom-zoom?

Kanai: As we move forward, we will focus increasingly on active safety, but not on technologies that lead to automatic driving or automatic braking. This is not the direction we will head. So, as a first step, we will try to create an interface with the driver that communicates to him or her the most pertinent information about road conditions, etc. Then, only if an accident becomes imminent will the system intervene. And if an accident occurs, we want to employ technologies that mitigate injury. Under our zoom-zoom concept, we assume the driver drives the vehicle, that the driver is in control.