Mazda is joining the race to stock up our electric car options. And its new MX-30 is a beauty, even with those rear-hinged back doors.
I first encountered it at last year's Tokyo Motor Show, somewhat by accident. Amid a myriad of electric models being unveiled, the covers were being pulled off the car as I passed the Mazda stand. It stopped me in my trek between a Mercedes presentation and a Mitsubishi press conference. It's a real head-turner, sleeker than the formulaic, boxy SUV-styled crossover these days.
That’s why I was initially so disappointed with the decision to offer it with such a relatively low range between battery charges.
Mazda's first all-electric crossover has a 35.3kW battery pack with an estimated range of 210km and initially carrying a price tag of €32,295. That's a competitive price, but it's the battery's range between charges that catches the eye. In 2012 Mazda developed an electric version of its Mazda2. It was just an R&D exercise, with only 100 cars leased in Japan. It had a range of 200km between charges.
While the size and styling of the MX-30 may be significantly different, it doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far in terms of range in the last eight years. Surely, with range anxiety still high on the list of concerns amongst those considering making the Maleap to electric, it’s a big mistake to lowball the recharge range?
Not so, argues Christian Schultze, director and deputy general manager at Mazda Europe's R&D centre, during a Zoom call.
“From the beginning it was not our idea to make a ‘one size fits all’ vehicle. We were thinking about what customers are really doing [in terms of mileage], and what are their transport needs.
If charging is made easy, then the range of the battery is not an issue for the customer
“Another issue came from our environmental concerns. As you know, in the public very often the discussion is that electric vehicles are very clean, are CO2 neutral and everything is nice. The reality is not the case, because the production of the battery requires a lot of energy and also the production of electricity – to power the car – is not free of CO2 or other emissions. So, together with some scientific researchers from universities, we considered what are the energy needs to produce a battery and usage.
"The customers we are looking at are those in cities or suburban areas who have the need for transportation but they don't drive 500km a day. When we looked at Europe, the typical [daily] distances are far below 500km. Of course we understand there are tremendous efforts in every national area to develop a network of charging infrastructure, even for quick chargers. So, if charging is made easy, then the range of the battery is not an issue for the customer, and if they don't need 400km a day then this story becomes obsolete."
He says that with the MX-30, “now we have a vehicle that, for a very large number of people, the 200km range which we have is more than enough. People can quickly recharge the battery because it’s not so big, but also the energy consumption is also okay because the car is not so heavy. So overall we think this is really a good package and based on this smaller battery and lower weight we have less impact on the environment. And for the vehicle itself, it gives us very nice driving behaviour.”
Yet, it’s worth taking a run through the mainstream market to see what the MX-30 will be up against. In terms of range it is definitely one of the lowest in the net €30,000-plus price range.
Take the popular Hyundai e-Kona. It has a 64kWh battery with an official range of 449km on a single charge and a 0-100km/h performance of just 7.6 seconds. It's on the market for €38,000 after grants and VRT rebates. The hatchback Ioniq from Hyundai manages 311km with prices at €29,175. From its sister brand Kia, you could pick up the funky Soul crossover for €32,000 post-incentives and expect over 300km on a charge of its 64kW battery pack.
The current electric leader, Nissan’s Leaf, manages 270km with its 40kWh battery pack at €28,690, while the company also offers a larger 62kWh battery pack that pushes the range up to 385km, although the price does rise to €40,500.
Move into the supermini category and you get the new Peugeot e-208, starting at €27,334 with a range of 340km from its 50kWh battery pack.
Even the new electric Mini is claiming between 235km and 270km from its 32.6kWh battery pack, for just under €28,000 net. And the upcoming Honda e, lauded for its cute looks but criticised for its battery range of just 220km on a single charge, will officially deliver more than this Mazda.
We did not make the MX-30 to be like a petrol or diesel car. It was never our approach
Will it limit the market, given that so many motorists making the transition will be put off by the low range?
“No, I don’t think so, because it has many desirable characteristics,” argues Schultze. “For example, it has behaviour and characteristics that makes moving from a traditionally powered car very easy. It also feels like a true Mazda car when you drive it, with nice cornering performance and a very natural way of accelerating, not this massive surge of acceleration which some of these electric cars have, and where people feel it’s nice for three or four times they hit the accelerator, but after that your passenger is asking if you have a problem with your right foot.”
He reckons that passengers don’t appreciate being jolted back and forward in their seats every time an electric car pulls away from a traffic light or stops at a traffic junction.
“We did not make the MX-30 to be like a petrol or diesel car. It was never our approach. But we have set internal targets based on what is a natural cornering behaviour, what is a natural acceleration feeling, what is a good way of approaching digital displays, how can we make the vehicle damping so that the driver feels comfort but also is given the best feedback from the road on grip conditions and such things. So our target setting is centred on the human. That’s why this car is similar to our other cars.”
That ambition to offer a driving feel closer to the “natural” way of a traditional Mazda means that even though this new crossover carries Mazda’s sporty MX moniker, it delivers a rather sedate 0-100km/h time of 9 seconds.
Schultze explains this by reference to the trade-off in terms of energy economy. “The electric motor has certain trade-offs. For example, when have a petrol model, the difference between driving in eco-mode and driving in sports mode is 20 per cent or so, but in an electric vehicle driving it sportily can mean you could double or triple your consumption. So that is why we try to make things in a way that you feel comfortable without experiencing these negative points.”
If you put a sustainable fuel into a combustion engine you can also make it a zero emission vehicle
Mazda’s big move to electric does not spell the end for petrol or diesel models. Mazda’s R&D engineers are also working on a new diesel engine, due to be introduced next year. It seems an odd move given that so many car makers are either abandoning diesel development entirely or at the very least winding it down.
Schultze reckons that traditional engines still have a major role to play, however.
“We are on the march forward to the ideal engine because we understand that electric vehicles is just one of the opportunities for sustainable mobility, but if you put a sustainable fuel into a combustion engine you can also make it a zero emission vehicle,” he says.
“For example, if you can make a synthetic or biofuel which is CO2 neutral and you burn it in an engine, then the only CO2 emissions is whatever was captured in the original source of the fuel. We think for the long term future this is something we might need, for example for aircraft, for they will not go on batteries. It will also be beneficial for trucks. This sort of technology we should consider in addition to electrification.”
In terms of new synthetic fuels, Schultze says Mazda is researching opportunities based on micro-algae.
“These are saltwater algae and we are researching together with some universities to optimise these kind of fuels for the production of lipids, which is a kind of pre-material towards producing the ultimately liquid fuels.”
The fear for researchers and engineers is that blanket bans on traditional engines, such as Ireland’s intention to ban the sale of all new non-electric cars from 2030, will scupper the opportunities offered by these new developments. “We really believe that more knowledge about these opportunities will spread. There is a general trend [within the motor industry] to show that combustion engines can be really clean.”
But for now Mazda’s focus will be on rolling out its new electric MX-30, arriving in Irish showrooms towards the end of this year for sales in 2021. If you can live with its range then it certainly scores high in terms of its looks, and the initial pricing of €32,295 – which will rise for future versions – should mean it will sell well to Irish buyers eager to join the electric revolution that’s well under way.
Lowdown: Mazda MX-30 First Edition (limited availability)
Price: €32,295 (after grants and VRT relief)
Specification highlights: Adaptive LED headlight; signature LED lights; 18-inch alloys; rear privacy glass; high-end interior trims