With the decision to scrap plans to use the SkyActiv-D engine in its Mazda6 sedan, the Japanese automaker has formally abandoned the idea of offering high-mileage diesel engines to U.S. buyers.
The news comes just months after Mazda announced it had certified the SkyActiv-D for use in its midsize sedan. But its fate seemed uncertain as, almost to the day last October, the automaker also said it was ending diesel production in Europe. That has traditionally been the biggest market for “oil-burner” technology.
While Mazda hasn’t offered a clear explanation as to why its suddenly soured on diesel technology there appears to be a number of reasons, including high production costs, declining demand and the damage done to the technology’s reputation as a result of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal.
Mazda has been talking about introducing a diesel into the U.S. market for the better part of a decade, plans originally calling for what become the SkyActiv-D engine to debut in 2014. That was pushed back repeatedly, however, the 2.2-liter powertrain only showing up in the States in time for the 2019 model year. And then, it was offered only on a single product line, the Mazda CX-5.
But Mazda buyers turned a cold shoulder to the diesel, realizing that it was substantially more expensive than the crossover’s base inline-4 gas engine. And it couldn’t compete with the more similarly priced turbo offering. That 2.5-liter package turned out as much as 250 horsepower – using premium fuel, 227 on regular – and 310 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, the SkyActiv-D managed only 168 hp and 290 lb-ft.
The diesel did deliver 3,500 pounds of towing capacity, or 1,500 more than the gas turbo alternative. But it was questionable how many CX-5 buyers would care, especially considering there was only a marginal improvement compared with the base gas engine’s fuel economy.
With little to recommend it, the CX-5’s diesel option was pulled from the order list at the end of the 2019 model year. Still, Mazda continued to say it would reappear in the Mazda6 sedan, especially after receiving U.S. certification last autumn. But, there appeared likely to be even fewer selling points when sliding the SkyActiv-D under the hood of the sedan – for which Mazda doesn’t recommend towing.
The proverbial handwriting on the wall, however, appeared last October when Mazda announced it was ending diesel production in Europe and planned to sell out remaining stock by the end of the year.
In terms of basic economies of scale, that hit to production volumes certainly didn’t enhance the Mazda diesel’s business case. But other factors clearly contributed, including the SkyActiv-D’s questionable consumer advantages, as well as the steady decline in diesel sales.
Then there’s the ongoing damage caused by the Volkswagen scandal which revealed the automaker rigging its diesel engines to improperly pass emissions tests. Regulators in the U.S., Europe and other markets have since fined a number of other manufacturers for engaging in similar subterfuge.
Diesels aren’t expected to go away, at least not in the near term, but several recent studies have suggested that plug-based electric vehicles are likely to outsell oil burners in the U.S. market by 2022, with demand for diesels largely relegated to pickup trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles where they can deliver notable advantages.
For Mazda, the good news is that its gas-powered SkyActiv technology is some of the most efficient on the market, routinely putting the automaker at or near the top of the charts in terms of fleet average fuel economy.
That said, with emissions and mileage mandates rapidly increasing around the world – and with a number of markets, such as the U.K. and the State of California pressing to ban internal combustion engines entirely – Mazda still faces some challenges.
The automaker recently launched its first battery-electric vehicle in Europe. It’s a relatively short-range model and, much as BMW did with its i3 electric city car, Mazda will add a range extender for those who want the option to travel longer distances. For that, however, Mazda has returned to its old toolkit and dusted off the Wankel rotary engine that once was a key part of its powertrain portfolio.
While no formal timetable has been announced, Mazda North America President Jeff Guyton last month told TheDetroitBureau that “our plan” is to bring the EV to the U.S. “The range-extender option would be more appropriate” to meet the expectations of American motorists than the battery-only version, he added.