Driver fun comes first, Mazda high-up insists

Mazda is planning a whole new technology push, including a second generation of its SkyActiv tech. Where does the new CX-5 fit in?


WHAT priority the latest version of Mazda’s hottest selling crossover locally will be given in regard to three on-the-boil technology developments is something the car’s programme manager cannot share.

Masaya Kodama, here for the New Zealand market launch of the second-generation CX-5 whose development he oversaw, is a senior Mazda employee who seems well in the loop about the timetable for a second-generation of the ground-breaking fuel efficient SkyActiv drivetrain technology debuted by the original CX-5 of 2012 and since introduced to almost all other passenger models.

He also appears to have good knowledge of his brand’s electric vehicle programme, which aims to deliver a car in 2020, and also its autonomous driving technology pitch.

However, he says that doesn’t mean he can discuss the details, including whether the CX-5, coming on sale on Sunday in the same grade choices as the outgoing model with modest price tweaking (the base model now starting at $39,995, a $250 lift, and the flagship topping at $57,495, or $700 more than before), is a pathfinder for debuting any of these.

In a way it would make sense if that model took the lead – SUVs and crossovers are enjoying huge worldwide success and the CX-5, here just five months after its reveal at last year’s Los Angeles motor show, is Mazda’s sales darling here and internationally.

Mazda New Zealand’s forecast of 150 units per month was exceeded within the first months of its first year of sale – even in the runout to clear the decks for the new model, it has been achieving 250 units a month. It has risen to to be the country’s best-selling medium SUV when fleet-specific registrations are excluded and the private passenger favourite.

The old one has achieved as Mazda's best monthly seller for 39 occasions; no other vehicle the distributor has sold has done as well. The new one is expected to achieve more sales, breaking 3000 units this year, a huge imprint for a brand that altogether sold 11,200 vehicles nationally in 2016.

That success also continues overseas. Having imagined it would sell around 160,000 units per year globally, Mazda in fact is pushing out far more – of the more than 1.5 million vehicles it made in 2016, around 370,000 were CX-5s.

With that kind of run rate, you’d think that the car would be the first in line for every new innovation, but Kodama says he’s not in a position to confirm or deny.

What he can say, though, is that while Mazda recognises that it has to introduce an EV and self-driving tech, it doesn’t intend that its products ever lose the strong driver enjoyment factor that is especially intrinsic to every current model, the medium SUV included.

The philosophy now and ongoing is still very much centred on man and machine – or, as Mazda prefers to put it, ‘horse and rider’ - he says.

“Driver enjoyment is important to us … we see autonomous ability as a co-pilot ability, to assist the driver, not to take over.”

Mazda cites that this already evidenced in its suite of active safety technology – dubbed i-Activsense – that is classed as ‘level one’ autonomy, meaning it is there to assist but only to a degree when a driver must be ready to take control at any time. 

In recent Mazdas, this evidences in features such as adaptive cruise control, parking assistance with automated steering, and lane keeping assistance.

The latest i-Activsense introduced on recent CX-9 now spreads to its little brother, in the GSX and Limited formats that in the outgoing range achieved more than 90 percent of sales, a trend expected to continue.

The flagship CX-5 Limited has the fullest gambit, meaning adaptive cruise control with Stop and Go function, adaptive LED headlights, driver attention warning, lane departure warning, lane-keep assist, a side camera and smart brake support.

All models come with G-Vectoring Control (GVC), which that delivers unified control over steering and chassis systems by finely controlling engine torque based on steering and acceleration inputs. GVC has also now become standard to the CX-3.

However, the car is still first and foremost intended to be a fun and enjoyable driver’s car, Kodama insists.

“We have an equal level of technologies to other car companies, but our direction is not just car-oriented.

“It must always be driver, human-oriented … our concept is for autonomous to be a co-pilot. We hate the situation where a car could take over the driving. That’s not what we see as a human-oriented situation.

“Our concept is about people driving cars, with (technology) offering support.”

Meantime, he also nods in agreement when it is suggested that the electric car it will launch in California in around 2020 is more to comply with that state’s impending zero emissions mandate than because of customer demand.

So would it be specific to that market or become a global car? “I am not sure. Actually, I know, but I cannot day.”

Mazda has previously said that the reason why it is one of the last few major car brands that has yet to talk much about EVs is simple – it still has trouble believing there is much demand from genuine consumers, other than the very wealthy. This is despite the massive penetration made by Tesla in North America and Norway (where EVs represent more than 30 percent of all new passenger vehicles).

Could the CX-5 ever take an EV role? “I cannot say. Mazda has already announced that we will introduce an EV in 2020, but we cannot say which model.”

Even though some say internal combustion engines are plateauing in term of efficiency and will eventually have to make way for electric involvement in order to keep improving, Mazda reckons its SkyActiv drivetrain is good enough to compete.

The next generation coming next year, Kodama indicates, will focus mainly on greater thermal efficiency, he says. Because this latest CX-5 has just released, albeit with engines from the previous car, is it positioned to take the lead role for SkyActiv II?

“The next generation will be coming in 2018, but we cannot say which model. As soon as we are ready, we will talk about this.”

The new models share a fair bit with the old CX-5; around half of its componentry is carried forward including the drivetrains. Kodama says the powerplants have all undergone a raft of minor changes, including a redesigned piston top on the popular 2.5-litre petrol, but outputs are unchanged, so 114kW/200Nm from the base 2.0-litre restricted to the entry front-drive GLX, 140kW/251Nm out of the 2.5 and 129kW/420Nm from the diesel. The latter match to all-wheel-drive.

Asked if the CX-5 is in line for the most powerful SkyActiv petrol engine to date, the 170kW/420Nm 2.5 turbo introduced on the CX-9, Kodama laughed and responded: “I cannot say about future plans because I would be fired.”