Mazda may become the next automaker to commit to building an electric car, possibly one with a range-extending gasoline engine. That’s the gist of numerous of conversations between journalists and Mazda executives at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show. Company officials said Mazda plans to launch an electric car in 2019, dangling hints that it may offer a gasoline engine as a range extender.
“We’ve set the goal of 2019 to accommodate ZEV [zero-emission vehicle] regulations in North America,” Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai told The Wall Street Journal (subscription) at the L.A. auto show. Kogai was understood to be referring to California’s zero-emission vehicle mandate, which requires automakers that reach certain sales volumes to offer zero-emission cars. Mazda is part of a second tier of carmakers that must begin complying with the mandate in 2018.
Along with other small automakers, it successfully lobbied for plug-in hybrids to be included in the “zero-emission vehicle” category, alongside battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell cars. The Mazda electric car could be the most visible product of a technical agreement the automaker signed with Toyota last year. The larger automaker might provide components for a plug-in hybrid powertrain, or share some of its current battery research.
After years of bad-mouthing battery-electric cars, Toyota recently pivoted and announced that it had assembled a team with the goal of launching a mass-market electric car by 2020. Last year, Mazda began testing a hybrid version of its 3 compact hatchback using a version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, combined with one of its own SkyActiv gasoline engines. It’s also tested all-electric and range-extended versions of the Mazda 2 subcompact in Japan.
The Mazda electric car for 2019 may include a range extender at least as an option, R&D boss Kiyoshi Fujiwara said in a separate interview with CarAdvice at the L.A. Auto Show. The range extender could be a Wankel rotary engine, something Mazda has demonstrated on one of its previous prototypes. Wankel engines are a Mazda calling card, but high oil use and fuel consumption have kept them out of recent production cars—to the dismay of their fans.
Mazda hasn’t offered a Wankel engine in a production model since the RX-8 sports car went out of production in 2012, although the RX-Vision concept that debuted at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show did feature such an engine.
Whether it includes a rotary range extender or not, Fujiwara said Mazda’s electric car will likely be based on an existing production model, rather than a dedicated platform.
Given that the model might only serve as a compliance car to sell in regions that are particularly friendly to electric cars, that might make sense for Mazda, a small automaker without the economies of scale of industry leaders 10 times its size. Fujiawara noted that the partnership with Toyota will allow both automakers to amortize costs over a greater number of units. “Volume is not so big,” he said in the interview.