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Mazda Works for a Head Start on Fuel Efficiency Crisis

MONTEREY, Calif. -- Tougher federal gas-mileage standards are an auto industry crisis that will outlive other issues that are in the spotlight today, like bankruptcy for Chrysler and General Motors, the U.S. recession, and the current downturn in U.S. auto sales.

Mazda North American Operations, for instance, is pledging to improve its gas mileage across the board by an average of 30 percent by 2015, for the Mazda lineup.

That's impressive, considering Mazda's fuel economy is already above average.

Mazda is leaving no stone unturned, to squeeze out a few extra miles per gallon. As it introduces new models, Mazda is already employing weight reduction, gasoline direct injection, improved automatic transmissions, electronic power assisted steering and improved aerodynamics to get better gas mileage out of today's cars equipped with gasoline engines.

Seita Kanai, director and senior managing executive officer, research and development for parent Mazda Motor Corp. in Japan, said in a presentation here on Aug. 19 that Mazda is also working to improve the engines themselves.

For instance, in markets outside the United States, Mazda offers a "stop-idle" feature for gasoline-powered cars that shuts off the engine at stops. Many gasoline-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius have a similar feature. Mazda is also working on a new generation of cleaner-burning diesel engines, he said.

Mazda's partner, Ford Motor Co., is taking many of the same actions, and so are competitors around the world.

But the sobering news about Mazda's ambitious target of 30 percent better gas mileage is that it's not much better than Mazda will be required to achieve by U.S. law. That means other brands really have their work cut out for them.

Robert Davis, Mazda North America's senior executive vice president, research, development and quality, said that Mazda estimates it will need to achieve about a 24-percent improvement in gas mileage, just to comply with future U.S. standards for Corporate Average Fuel Economy.

"I'm sure glad I don't have (Toyota) Tundras or Sequoias to contend with," he said, referring to full-size pickups and SUVs. However, most other automakers in the U.S. market, especially the domestic brands, will have to include big trucks in their fleet average numbers.

That's going to be a tall, tall, order.

Photo: Mazda

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