Mazda is leading the way in new engine development. Its Skyactiv programme is rapidly producing cleaner, more economical and powerful petrol and diesel engines, which we'll see the first fruits of in the new CX-5 SUV. However, Mazda's devotion to the internal combustion engine has not blindsided its engineers to the possibilities of electric cars and is why it has unveiled a battery-powered Mazda2 EV.
Mitsuru Fujinaka, project manager for the Mazda2 EV, explains the thinking behind the car at Mazda's research and development facility in Hiroshima, Japan. "All car companies will need electric vehicles sooner rather than later to meet environmental requirements for zero-emissions vehicles," he says. "Mazda wants to make sure we have the right technology to meet these challenges, so we are developing an electric car, but it won't be on worldwide sale until 2018, maybe a little sooner."
In the meantime, the Mazda2 EV is being introduced in Japan for use by government agencies and businesses to gauge its effectiveness. To begin with, 100 Mazda2 EVs will be on the roads and we tried the car out at its world debut in Hiroshima.
At first glance, the Mazda2 EV looks identical to its petrol-powered siblings. There are no extra holes or panels to access the plug-in charger for the battery pack, as this is fitted where the petrol filler cap normally resides. Step into the car and it's still difficult to spot any differences between this model and any other from Mazda's supermini line-up. A standard automatic gear selector puts the car into drive, neutral, reverse or park and the dash is completely standard. It's only when you look for the fuel gauge that you spot any difference, as this is now a battery charge indicator.
A standard ignition key primes the car. Press the throttle and the Mazda2 EV pulls away crisply and feels lively. Fujinaka says it was the engineering team's aim to match the performance of the company's 1.5L petrol engine with the electric motor, though he won't say exactly how powerful the motor is. From the feel of the acceleration and a smile from Fujinaka, it produces about 70kW, equivalent to 95hp. This places the Mazda2 EV's power slap bang in between the petrol 1.3 and 1.5L engines used in the standard production car. It also exactly matches the output of the 1.6L turbodiesel offered in some markets.
On the move, the obvious difference with the Mazda2 EV is the near complete lack of engine noise. There is some turbine-like whine from the motor, but it's not intrusive or grating and it settles into a distant background hum when cruising. The only downside to this is that the lack of engine sound means wind and road noise are more apparent.
Getting up to a 120kph cruise is no problem, thanks to strong acceleration that benefits from the linear power of the electric motor and its instant shove from the moment the driver brushes the throttle pedal. It has an estimated 200Nm of torque on tap so it's no surprise it feels so eager off the line. Use all of the power and the top speed is more than 150kph, but this will drain the battery very quickly.
Mazda has also succeeded in making the EV's throttle more progressive and sensitive compared to many other electric vehicles, which can feel like it has more of an on-off switch than a throttle pedal. This helps underline the keen driving manners of the Mazda2, so apparent in the petrol models.
Maintaining the driving dynamics in the EV version has taken considerable effort by the company's engineers. The extra weight of the electric motor and battery pack, which is arranged in a T-shape along the transmission tunnel and between the rear wheels, has added 100kg to the overall weight of the car compared to a petrol version. This added weight is not noticeable in the way the EV turns into corners, holds a line or deals with cracks in the road. If anything, it has a smoother and more settled ride quality than the petrol models, even though it uses stiffer springs and shock absorbers.