It’s a very long way to Hiroshima, Mazda’s HQ. You wouldn’t want to start from here, but it’s a 12-hour flight to Tokyo Narita from the UK, over an hour to Tokyo’s main railway station and another four hours (and 800km) on the quickest of Japan’s bullet trains.
It was my first visit to the city and when we arrived, we were tipped straight into a tour of the Peace Museum which was – along with the rather chilling view of the skeletal remains of the Atomic bomb dome – all rather thought-provoking.
Mazda’s U2 plant is an extraordinary, sprawling, space running along one of Hiroshima’s outlets into the sea, and along the sea front itself. From one end to the other, the factory site is 7km long. Built in 1972, it has its own bus service and 37 individual bus stops. Mazda built a bridge to link the two sites, which sees 1200 truck movements per day, shifting components to the production lines.
Mazda bosses were most proud of the engine factory, which was just ramping up production of the new super-frugal SkyActiv petrol engines. These are built alongside the big 3.7-litre V6, which is fitted to CX-7 SUV. The SkyActiv engines are not just technically extremely clever, but the way they are made has also been completely re-thought. Current four-cylinder engine manufacturing requires 45 machining operations and 15 assembly operations, the SkyActiv units require just four machining process and six assembly operations.
This is an extraordinary leap forward and no wonder other carmakers are said to be sniffing around at the possibility of buying SkyActiv engines for their own use. Mazda also allowed us to take a short spin (two circuits of a straight-up and down track) in an electric version of the Mazda 2.
Company sources made plain that the car had been built ‘to prove that Mazda could do a competitive EV’ even though it has no plans to sell the car to the public. A short production run of the 2 EV will be leased to government departments and utility companies, but Mazda believes that its SkyActiv technologies (unusually frugal engines and lightweight platforms) will underpin the the company’s new models for quite a few years to come, before electric assistance is needed in production cars.
The engineers remained tight-lipped about the car’s exact make-up, aside from the fact the battery packs are mostly package under the seats. On the track, the 2 EV was impressively quick and felt particularly torquey, more so than the Nissan Leaf I have been driving since March.
This car has a claimed range of 200km or 120 miles, rather more than the Leaf in best-case conditions, which suggests that the 2’s lightweight monocoque is paying dividends. After a day at the Hiroshima facility, I was left with the impression of a comparatively small (Mazda makes around 1.3m vehicles per year) and very independent carmaker, but one that has shown with its SkyActiv technology that it is also remarkably innovative.
Mazda is hoping to sell an extra 400,000 cars by 2016. If the new CX-5 and the super-frugal SkyActive 2 supermini are anything to go by, Mazda deserves to succeed.