Mazda usually does things a little differently. They still persevere with the Wankel rotary engine, for instance, decades after every other maker walked away from it. It's still offered in their 2009 Mazda RX-8 four-door sports coupe.
And unlike almost every other Asian carmaker, Mazda has ignored electric vehicles. Its sole hybrid, the 2009 Mazda Tribute Hybrid, is a lightly restyled 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid and sells in very, very small numbers.
Instead, since 1991, Mazda has worked to marry its rotary engine to the use of hydrogen as fuel. Now, it has added an electric hybrid system to the mix as well. Last week, Mazda delivered its first Mazda Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid to Iwatani Corporation in Japan.
Based on what we know here in the States as the 2009 Mazda5 small minivan, the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid uses hydrogen to fuel a rotary engine mated to a hybrid system with a lithium-ion battery pack and a 110-kilowatt electric drive motor.
Hedging its bets, Mazda has given the van flex-fuel abilities so it can run on gasoline too (for those challenging times where you're nowhere near a hydrogen filling station). Its stated range on hydrogen fuel is roughly 125 miles.
The Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid is actually Mazda's second hydrogen rotary. The first is the RX-8 Hydrogen RE, which is offered (sans hybrid system) in limited numbers in Japan. That car holds the dubious honor of being the world's first hydrogen rotary.
Why "dubious"? Well, as we've said before, we're just not convinced hydrogen is the most likely path for clean fuels. It poses two tough challenges for use in vehicles.
First, there's no infrastructure at all (e.g. "gas stations") to deliver hydrogen to cars. Delivered at high enough pressure to take vehicles a few hundred miles, a hydrogen filling station requires entirely new equipment (which many US municipalities aren't sure how to regulate, meaning each station tends to require custom permitting and paperwork).
Second, hydrogen in its pure state doesn't just happen. You have to use energy to make it--a lot of energy--by splitting apart more complex molecules. Depending where that energy comes from, the overall impact on carbon emissions (known as the "wells to wheels" or "mines to wheels" energy balance) may be worse than burning petroleum fuels.
Many analysts feel that the alt-fuel of the future is much more likely to be electricity. It can be generated in many ways, including renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and most of the world's car owners have it in their homes already.
President Obama's 2010 budget slashed funds for research into hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles from $169 million to $68 million. But the budget increases the amount dedicated to programs for batteries, plug-in hybrids, and cars with large battery packs.
Mazda Motor Corporation