Small Japanese automaker Mazda is in a tough spot.

It's been on its own for most of a decade now, after Ford sold its shares in the company, and now Mazda must fund numerous new models all by itself.

With global sales of just 1.5 million vehicles, it's one-seventh the size of Toyota or Volkswagen.

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But as the saying goes, 'You dance with the girl that brought you" (or perhaps "Run what ya brung"?), so Mazda product strategists have doubled down on highly efficient gasoline and diesel engines.

While the carmaker will sell a plug-in hybrid in California within a few years to meet that state's zero-emission vehicle rules, the technology for that model will likely come fully or in part from Toyota.

Instead, Mazda is plowing its research dollars into the next generation of its Skyactiv efficient combustion technology, which it has suggested will give gasoline engines the efficiency of the best diesels.

Mazda SKYACTIV-D clean diesel engine - Courtesy Mazda

Mazda SKYACTIV-D clean diesel engine - Courtesy Mazda

It is soon to sell its first diesel vehicle in the U.S. as well, the 2018 Mazda CX-5 diesel crossover utility vehicle. In other words, it's all about combustion engines.

Robert Davis, the brand's North American senior vice president for special assignments, addressed the idea that internal combustion engines are on their way out head on, calling it "overrated."

He spoke yesterday at the Management Briefing Seminars held every summer in Traverse City, Michigan. His presentation was summarized by industry trade journal Automotive News.

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Davis opined that electric-car sales would collapse if the federal income-tax credit of $7,500 for purchase of a plug-in vehicle were withdrawn.

That theory will likely be tested within 12 to 18 months by Tesla, whose 200,000 credits will run out if it is able to build and sell the number of its less-expensive Model 3 sedan it is targeting.

Davis echoed the suggestion that rather than favoring a particular powertrain—plug-in electrics—the government should mandate a performance standard and remain neutral about which technologies are used to meet it.

Mazda Demio EV test-fleet electric car in Japan (aka Mazda2) - charging port

Mazda Demio EV test-fleet electric car in Japan (aka Mazda2) - charging port

That's slightly disingenuous, in our view, since the performance standard is quite clear: the ability to run at minimum several miles with no tailpipe emissions whatsoever. (Hydrogen fuel-cell cars get similar tax credits as well, remember.)

Davis noted that many electric cars, especially low-volume compliance cars, lose money for their makers. He cited in particular the Fiat 500e, which Fiat Chrysler chairman Sergio Marchionne has long said loses FCA $10,000 to $14,000 a car.

He also raised a number of familiar concerns: the recycling challenges of lithium-ion battery packs and the displacement of emissions from "zero-emission" vehicles to other sources, i.e. electric power plants.

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What he didn't address is the ability of zero-emission vehicles that plug into the grid to be virtually carbon-free when recharged on renewable energy.

Unless Mazda can develop a 100-mpg gasoline car without any electrification—and it simply can't—the carbon footprint of driving even its most efficient future cars will always exceed that of electric cars recharged on even relatively clean electric grids.

Mazda Demio EV test-fleet electric car in Japan (aka Mazda2)

Mazda Demio EV test-fleet electric car in Japan (aka Mazda2)

And grids all over the world are now decarbonizing at a rate that's far faster than considered possible even a decade ago.

Where Davis may find common ground with electric-car advocates is in his statement that "it makes the most sense for every car to be as efficient as it can be."

But "before we go into the time and effort and expense of adding electrification," he argued in his presentation, "we were convinced that a solid, efficient internal combustion engine was critical.”

For the short and medium term, that's absolutely appropriate—and Mazda's EPA ratings are often among the highest for vehicles in any given segment.

The challenge for Mazda will be to see beyond combustion and learn how to design vehicles with electrified powertrains. The article did not mention how Davis suggests that will be achieved.


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