Mazda Kai con­cept is food for thought


If there’s one thing every­body at Mazda is sure about, it’s that the Kai con­cept re­vealed last week at the Tokyo Mo­tor Show is not the new Mazda3.

Ex­cept that it re­ally is, of course. This ‘‘pro­duc­tion con­cept’’ model is a five-door hatch­back with broadly sim­i­lar di­men­sions to the cur­rent Mazda3, and is built around the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion SkyAc­tiv plat­form and SkyAc­tiv-X eng­ine that will make their show­room de­buts un­der­neath the 2019 Three.

True, the fin­ished car prob­a­bly won’t have 20-inch wheels and it prob­a­bly will have proper mir­rors and door han­dles. But in essence, this is surely the Ja­panese maker’s next fam­ily hatch­back.

Why is Mazda so re­luc­tant to ac­knowl­edge the ob­vi­ous? Be­cause it wants to em­pha­sise its de­sign ef­forts with both the Vi­sion Coupe Con­cept and Kai ahead of all else at the mo­ment.

Kai is a sis­ter car to Vi­sion Coupe: both were re­vealed at Tokyo and both show­case Mazda’s sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Kodo de­sign phi­los­o­phy, which has es­chewed some of the in­tri­cate de­tail and promi­nent char­ac­ter lines of the cur­rent Mazda range in favour of el­e­gance, sim­plic­ity and an ob­ses­sion with the way light re­flects on com­plex sur­faces.

This is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in both cars along the side pan­els, which are con­cave and ma­nip­u­late light de­pend­ing on what an­gle you’re view­ing them from.

This de­sign sig­na­ture was im­por­tant enough for Mazda’s de­sign­ers to re­lax their rul­ing on shap­ing new cars en­tirely by hand with clay mod­els. For both Vi­sion and Kai, com­puter sim­u­la­tion was used to es­tab­lish how light would re­flect on the cars in a va­ri­ety of con­di­tions.

Mazda global de­sign and brand style boss Ikuo Maeda de­scribes Vi­sion and Kai and ‘‘book­ends of next-gen­er­a­tion de­sign’’. Which means one is more ethe­real, the other more prac­ti­cal.

Kai is a Ja­panese word mean­ing pi­o­neer or van­guard.

‘‘The name means it’s spear­head­ing the next gen­er­a­tion and it’s also the driver to pull the next mod­els for­ward,’’ says Kai chief de­signer Ya­su­take Tsuchida.

Tsuchida-san worked on the dra­matic Fu­rai con­cept car in 2009 and was lead de­signer for the pre­vi­ous Mazda3 in 2010.

Com­pared with the cur­rent Mazda3, the Kai con­cept is 50mm shorter, 60mm wider and 80mm lower. Don’t ex­pect the dif­fer­ences to be quite as pro­nounced when the pro­duc­tion Mazda3 is re­vealed, but don’t ex­pect the ba­sic pro­por­tions to change much either.

Com­pare Vi­sion and Kai, two very dif­fer­ent ve­hi­cles in terms of genre and shape, and it’s ob­vi­ous how much work has gone into es­tab­lish­ing a new sig­na­ture ‘‘look’’.

A less-is-more ap­proach ap­plies equally in­side. Kai’s cabin styling looks pro­duc­tion-ready, but it’s also much cleaner and more el­e­gant than the cur­rent Mazda3.

A key devel­op­ment for both Vi­sion Coupe and Kai is the re­moval of the tablet-like in­for­ma­tion and en­ter­tain­ment screen that sits proud of the dash­board in most cur­rent Mazda mod­els.

‘‘That screen makes a wall in the in­te­rior,’’ says Maeda-san. ‘‘That means we can’t cre­ate real space in the in­te­rior.

‘‘For the Vi­sion model we do have a big screen, but it’s trans­par­ent. Right now we are work­ing with an elec­tron­ics com­pany to de­velop a see-through screen. This will give us the ad­van­tage of a very sim­ple in­te­rior space.’’

Kai is based around the nextgen­er­a­tion SkyAc­tiv plat­form and SkyAc­tiv-X eng­ine tech­nol­ogy.

SkyAc­tiv-X is so called be­cause it’s a ‘‘cross’’ be­tween petrol and diesel, re­sult­ing in a claimed 20-30 im­prove­ment in ef­fi­ciency over con­ven­tional petrol en­gines.

Mazda also says the X-petrol pow­er­plant is po­ten­tially bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment than some elec­tric ve­hi­cles on a ‘‘well to wheel’’ ba­sis – from ex­tract­ing the fuel to burn­ing it in the car. That’s if the elec­tric­ity for the lat­ter comes from a non-re­new­able source.

The break­through for SkyAc­tiv-X is the use of the spark plug to con­trol the switch be­tween com­bus­tion types and broaden the op­er­at­ing re­gion of com­pres­sion-ig­ni­tion.

The spark is used as an ‘‘ex­pand­ing fire­ball’’ that be­comes the right size to en­sure op­ti­mum air-fuel mix­ture and ig­ni­tion tim­ing. Mazda calls it Spark Con­trolled Com­pres­sion Ig­ni­tion (SCCI).

Mazda says the new eng­ine gives the flex­i­bil­ity and top-end power of a petrol, but with the fuel-ef­fi­ciency and low-down throt­tle-re­sponse of a diesel.

We pre­viewed the new plat­form and eng­ine at a driveevent in Ger­many ear­lier this year. At that time, the tech­ni­cal pack­age was un­der­neath the cur­rent-gen­er­a­tion Mazda3 body shape. But it’s very easy to imag­ine it in a set of Kai-clothes.

The Mazda3 SkyAc­tiv-X will be just one element in a Mazda plan to of­fer a range of cleaner-look­ing, greener-ve­hi­cle op­tions over the next few years.

In the 2019 the com­pany will launch a new EV that will be avail­able in both pure-elec­tric and range-ex­ten­der con­fig­u­ra­tions – the lat­ter with a ro­tary eng­ine act­ing as gen­er­a­tor.

Then, in 2020, we’ll see a plugin hy­brid de­vel­oped in a joint ven­ture with Toy­ota. Whether this model will use the SkyAc­tivX eng­ine, Mazda wil not say. But the un­der­pin­nings will be shared be­tween the two mak­ers, with dif­fer­ent styling for each.

Ex­trav­a­gant Vi­sion Coupe is a con­cept-sis­ter-car to Kai.

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