OSLO, Norway — As electric vehicle powerhouses go, Mazda is an extremely unlikely candidate. Heretofore resolutely dedicated to internal combustion – for such a relatively small manufacturer, they’ve managed an incredible number of ICE breakthroughs – the Zoom-Zoom company has barely ventured into electric, and is one of the few mainstream automakers selling neither electric vehicle nor hybrid of any kind in North America.
And yet, not five minutes into the presentation from Mazda’s head of vehicle development and product planning, Hiroyuki Matsumoto, in the Amerikalinjen hotel in Oslo, Norway, I knew I was looking at exactly the electric vehicle I would be designing, were I still using my now-45-year-old engineering degree.
Let’s start with the basics. Mazda has calculated the optimal battery size is 35.5 kilowatt-hours. Now, that may seem an awfully precise and, more importantly, small rating for an EV’s battery, but thanks to some efficiencies it was unwilling to volunteer at this juncture – the final spec of the company’s first electric car won’t be released until this year’s Tokyo Motor Show – that’s good enough for around 200 kilometres of inner-city driving.
Why not go for a Tesla-like 500 kilometres of range, you ask? After all, that’s the main battlefield these days for electric vehicle supremacy, automakers competing to cram as many lithium-ions into their increasingly expensive EVs that they might alleviate our range anxieties.
Well, there are two reasons. The first – and this has been proclaimed by every EV-maker from Tesla to Toyota, not to mention pretty much every amateur commenter on Motor Mouth – people seldom use anywhere near the required 100 kWh needed to guarantee 500 clicks of autonomy. And fewer kilowatt-hours means less weight, reduced cost and dramatically better handling in any EV.
It is also, according to an increasing number of voices, including electrification-powerhouse Toyota, an inefficient use of lithium. The theory being espoused is that increasing the size of a car’s battery brings diminishing returns in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. Essentially, go the calculations, putting one kWh into 100 hybrids will reduce more CO2 – 100 times 40 per cent, or the equivalent of 40 purely ICE cars – than ladling 100 kWh into one Tesla, which is only equivalent to getting one ICE-powered vehicle off the road.
According to the projections I have seen, the break-even point – more accurately, the size of battery beyond which there is very little benefit in CO2 reduction – is somewhere between 30 and 40 kWh, pretty much in line with Mazda’s determination.
Of course, that means the basic e-TPV – electric-Technology Prove-out Vehicle – is largely an urban runabout. Oh, its 200-or-so-kilometre range will be just fine for suburban forays and the like that will almost assuredly cover most consumers’ daily drives, but it isn’t the range-monster that is going to get someone across the Prairies on a cross-Canada excursion. That’s why Mazda’s production EV, due late in 2020, will offer —
A range extender. And not just any range extender, but a rotary-powered generator.
Now, I don’t think I need to remind anyone reading Driving.ca that “Mazda” and “rotary” are fairly synonymously entwined, the company being the last automaker to produce a rotary-engined car, the 2012 RX-8, for North American consumption. What you may not know is that Wankel engines are extremely efficient in both size – the U.S. Defense department has experimented with a three-kW rotary generator small enough to fit in a backpack – and fuel consumption.
(Though greedy when revved to their extremely high redline, they are more efficient than piston engines when maintaining a constant rpm).
In other words, their small size – important when you’re trying to stuff 355 volts of battery, an inverter and a range extender into a compact crossover – serves a range-extended EV perfectly.
But, so far, the e-TPV sounds a lot like a budget version of the Polestar 1, an interesting Tesla alternative that, while both entertaining and ground-breaking, is hardly perfect. The Mazda, however, gets closer to that perfection when Matsumoto announces the TPV’s rotary range extender can run on hydrogen. That’s right: Zero-emissions, greenhouse gas-friendly hydrogen.
For all you BEV proponents out there ready to decry any hybrid’s lack of purity, that means, save for a few hydrocarbons that squeak past a rotor seal – the equivalent of a piston engine’s rings – Mazda’s range-extended rotary would be as emissions-free as any ludicrous Tesla. And, in fact, Mazda already has experience with hydrogen-fueled rotaries, having produced a fleet of H2-powered RX-8s for Norway’s “hydrogen highway” experiment (supposedly King Harald V, who kicked off the program, was a big fan).
“But,” I can already hear Tesla fans screaming, “there is no hydrogen highway!” Putting aside the fact hydrogen stations are finally starting to pop up everywhere, Mazda’s last little trick is that the rotary could be – and, to be clear, is not yet – dual-powered. That is, future Mazda range-extended EVs could run on both gasoline and hydrogen. And, here again, Mazda has already experimented with dual-fuel hydrogen/gasoline rotaries, having produced the RX-8 RE in 2003.
So, at some point in the now-much-nearer future, I will be able to drive a Mazda that will fulfill all my daily driving needs emissions-free via a convenient charging port at home, drive in between cities without poisoning the atmosphere when H2 refueling stations are available and then, if I find hydrogen not available in some far-flung rural location, I can squeak by with a dash of gasoline.
In fact, for those still trumpeting Tesla superiority, hear this: A dual-fuel, range-extended Mazda means that, in the best of circumstances, I will have completely eliminated my tailpipe carbon footprint. In a worst-case scenario, my automotive CO2 production will have been reduced by some 80 per cent.
And all this without having to visit one slower-than-molasses, my-God-the-lineups-will-be-worse-than-the-1973-oil-crisis Supercharger station.
That’s what I call the perfect electric vehicle.