Mazda has announced plans to introduce a compression-ignition gasoline engine to meet its long term sustainability goals, bucking the industry trend toward electrification technology.
Compression-ignition technology works by igniting the fuel-air mixture through the compression of the piston; there is no need for spark plugs. It is a technology many automakers have been working on but have been unable to commercialize.
Torque is improved up to 30% and fuel-efficiency boosted up to 45% compared with a 2008 gasoline engine of the same displacement, Mazda says.
Compression-ignition gasoline technology offers the low-gear torque and fuel-economy benefits of diesel, while overcoming its problems of limited fuel availability, cold-weather starts and tepid acceleration.
However, the new technology faces roadblocks from intellectual-property protection, long-term testing needs, governments and the advent of electric vehicles.
While compression ignition may buy Mazda some time, the technology does not fundamentally differ enough from conventional internal-combustion engines to offer a meaningful alternative to electric.
The automaker’s proprietary Spark Controlled Compression Ignition technology will give Mazda a distinct competitive advantage, but the increasing popularity of EVs may prevent the technology from going mainstream unless Mazda shares it with other automakers.
Mazda is a small player, controlling just 1.8% of the global passenger-vehicle market in 2015, according to Euromonitor International and JATO Dynamics.
By comparison, Toyota and Volkswagen controlled 9.4% and 8.6% of the market in 2015, respectively. Premium marques Mercedes-Benz and BMW accounted for 2.7% and 2.6% of sales in 2015, respectively.
Given its history with rotary engines – another unconventional engine architecture that ultimately proved unreliable and fuel inefficient – Mazda needs to quickly prove the long-term durability of compression ignition and its viability in the market, which may not be feasible without other automakers buying in.
Compression-ignition engines may delay widespread electric adoption, but they will not stop it. Electric technology offers technical advantages that ICEs cannot overcome. Specifically, electric motors take up far less space than ICEs and operate using fewer moving parts, which means less R&D for automakers and less wear and tear for consumers.
Electric motors also deliver full power nearly instantaneously, besting the improved torque from compression-ignition gasoline engines.
EVs still have major hurdles to overcome – namely a lack of fast charging stations and prohibitively high prices. However, as an increasing number of automakers embrace electric technology as a means to reduce build complexity and governments embrace EVs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, investment in charging stations will increase to meet consumer demand and the price of batteries will decrease due to scale and research and development.
The compression-ignition gasoline engine may have the power to effectively challenge diesel, but it is too little, too late when it comes to pushing aside electric.
Eric Totaro is an automotive analyst for Euromonitor International.