By on August 2, 2011

The Sea-to-Sky highway in British Columbia, Canada, carves a winding route from the gorgeous – and occasionally riotous – city of Vancouver to the world-class ski resort of Whistler. Its looping curves were rebuilt to make it a high-speed corridor for tourists and athletes during the last Winter Olympics, and as a result, it’s probably one of the top five roads in this country. Mind you, it’s also a favourite hang-out for the local constabulary.

So here I am then, at the wheel of a priceless prototype, sitting on the wrong side of the car next to an emeritus journalist, on a blind on-ramp to one of the most highly-patrolled roads in Canada. What’s called for here is a little decorum, a careful merge, some light throttle application, a few gentle gear-changes and so on. Anything else would be at-worst dangerous and at-best unseemly.

By a curious co-incidence, “unseemly” is my middle name. So I floor it.

But first, a little background on the rare beast to which I have been (somewhat irresponsibly) handed the reins. Essentially a Mazda6 in guise, this prototype boasts all four of Mazda’s SKYACTIV technologies: chassis, suspension, transmission and twin-turbo diesel engine.

More on that mill later, but the important thing to note is that this is a true full-SKYACTIV vehicle. When the next-gen Mazda3 drops later this year, the mid-level trim will be sporting SKYACTIV transmissions and the new gas engine, but it will be a full year before the first vehicle – the CX-5 – arrives with a full complement of Mazda’s new tech. Additionally, it’s going to take even longer for North Americans to have access to a manual-transmission diesel mid-size sedan that doesn’t have a German-Mexican accent.

So this Mazda6 is something quite special. It’s also a bit of a hack-job.

Nagare styling doesn’t work range-wide for Mazda, but the ‘6 was always quite a handsome car. Here though it’s been chopped apart and pop-riveted back together, and somebody’s painted its ears yellow. Obviously, these aren’t styling cues that have any shot at making it into production, but they’re worth mentioning to give an idea of how unique the car is. It also looks great, in a dystopian-future kinda way.

Dr. Frankenstein has been at work in the interior too. Exposed screws. Deactivated airbags. There appears to be an inner-tube wrapped around the steering column. The horn is a button marked “horn” and the turn signals don’t self-cancel.

It’s quite a lot for the mind to process: the last time I was in a car this duct-taped together, it was a Ford Escort GT I’d bought for a hundred-and-fifty bucks. That car should have sucked, but funnily enough, it had a Mazda BP power-plant, and what with the chopped coils and zero-interior treatment, it felt incredibly raw and interesting to drive.

Mazda’s probably going to be extremely annoyed I’m comparing their prototype to a hunk of early-90’s Ford flotsam, but it’s important for everyone to be on the same page here. This car boasts no new fancy touch-screens or intelligent voice-activated massaging seats. This is an engineering pin-up; this is an enthusiast-minded company showing us how they’re trying to keep building driver’s cars in an increasingly technology- and efficiency-obsessed market.

Back on the on-ramp, the SKYACTIV mule responds with a kick like a – er – mule. The first of the sequential turbos is a tiny hairdryer that you could spool with a sneeze. Peak torque of 310 lb/ft comes at a low 2000 rpm, but it was already cresting into the 200s at a little over half the revs.

But so what? Diesels have always been about low-range grunt: high-gear highway pulls sans downshifting make driving easy, but lack the fun-factor of a gas engine. Or rather, that’s usually the case.

Here though, the low-compression SKYACTIV-D pulls a neat trick: revs to match the shove. A 5200rpm ceiling would be laughable in a gasoline engine, but in a diesel it’s excellent. There’s no need to ping it off the rev-limiter, but the Mazda’s diesel is flexible and revs up surprisingly quickly, and that big secondary turbo doesn’t appear to lose steam until the very upper reaches.

That and a six-speed manual transmission make this car fun. Lots of fun. I forgot to look at the taped-in speedometer when we hit the bottom of the on-ramp, but we were clipping along very nicely.

Hitting the well-cambered curves of the Sea-to-Sky at speed also shows off the ‘6s chassis and steering refinements. Rigidity and weight-loss are welcome but incremental; the real progress has been made with the way the steering feel is enhanced by a significantly quickened ratio and an aggressive amount of caster for a front-driver. It’s not quite Miata (sorry: MX-5) territory yet, but the DNA is there.

There was apparently a little Lost In Translation confusion when journos came back from driving the SKYACTIV-D mule. “I don’t need to drive anything else today!” can be interpreted more than one way, and it caused quite the consternation when overheard by Mazda’s Japanese engineers.

I’ll try to be more clear. This isn’t a real car you can buy yet, but depending on what the fuel figures look like, it’s going to be a great one. If they bring their SKYACTIV-D technology to the North American market, Mazda has a real opportunity to eat Volkswagen’s lunch.

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43 Comments on “Capsule Review: Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D Mule...”

  • avatar

    A lot of posters are suggesting Mazda will exit the NA market in a few years. I think not. Decent diesels are possible and this one could give M-B a run for it as well.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Congrats to Mazda for having the stones to give this mule to some auto-journos to flog. The only way they would have proved having more guts is if they gave it to Jack B.

    Does anybody know if the Sky-D will be 50 state legal or is this just a tease they’re giving us in the U.S.?

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      The main reason for the ultra-low (13:1) compression ratio on the Sky-D was to minimize NOx formations inside the engine rather than resorting to wacky post-combustion treatment schemes. The lighter internals allowing for a higher redline was a nice bonus. Theoretically the engine should pass both US and Euro specs, but whether it will ever be sold here is another matter.

      • 0 avatar

        They announced at the New York Auto Show that they’re planning to bring the diesel to North America with a projected date of Spring 2013, but a lot of things could happen between then and now.

    • 0 avatar

      What Dan said!

  • avatar

    It’s about time Mazda’s proposed SkyActiv system finally got some real attention on this site. As I said sometime back, if this technology comes even close to working as well as Mazda is suggesting, then this could be revolutionary for Mazda’s place in the automotive landscape.

    If Mazda can truly produce a line of vehicles that are safe, fuel efficient and affordable, while at the same time actually improving their ‘zoom zoom’ performance qualities, then watch out!

    (p.s., Thanks Zachman, mikey, geozinger, and especially Steven: Good advice! I still have a lot of work to do, and so may not be posting as often as I have, but I see no good reason not to add my $.02 every now and then.)

    • 0 avatar

      …or not. Mazda is swimming against the tide here. VW finally realized that there are more customers interested in a boring ride than in a thrilling one – much as Toyota has known for years. Likewise, the Corolla-ish Cruze outsells the driver-centric Focus. Everyone but Mazda (and Ford) builds a passenger-oriented compacts and then plumps up the model for a sport version. Ford is big enough to carry it off. Will Mazda carve out a niche focused on the driver? Or will it find that such a niche is too small, and slowly fade away?

      • 0 avatar

        Mazda has tried both: their current cars are all pretty mainstream (excepting, say, the 5, RX and Miata), and they’ve certainly tried going full-bore milquetoast in the past with disastrous results.

        Their current path served them pretty well through the worst of the recession, but their problem—much like Volkswagen’s in North America—is that there’s no compelling reason to pick a Mazda. They’re sportyish, but no one really cares, they’re always down on power, they’re about as noisy, about as reliable, slightly thirstier, slightly odder-looking than the competition, all for about the same price.

        SKYACTIV might work, but honestly I wouldn’t expect a miracle. At best, it’ll give them competitive (in power/economy terms) powertrains, which they need, but otherwise it buys them at most a year or three before they’re back in the pack.

        For erstwhile-losers, the way to automotive sales salvation is pretty clear: you need a compelling advantage. For Nissan, it was power (recall the 2003 Altima), for Hyundai it’s warranty and value. Chrysler (!!) pulls a design rabbit out it’s hat every decade or so to save it’s bacon.

        Mazda, like Suzuki and Mitsubishi, hasn’t gotten the memo. Unlike those two, though, it’s a full-line manufacturer of decent cars so there’s at least a foundation to work from. But they have to do something, and fast.

      • 0 avatar

        Those are good questions, and I agree that Mazda is definitely swimming against the tide here. But that’s part of what makes their project so interesting. It’s definitely the path less traveled (and could well be quite risky), but it also seems to be well thought out and equally well conceived (at least if you accept certain assumptions regarding people’s purchasing decisions, driving preferences, the nature of technological progress as well as current, potentially contingent limits to such progress, and so on). I find their entire approach quite intriguing and am looking forward to seeing how things develop. I actually wish them well, but as with all such things, you never really know until the rubber actually hits the road.

      • 0 avatar

        I disagree. The Mazda 3 has sold well around the world. The issue with Mazda’s in North America is fuel consumption – if what is said is true SkyActiv should fix this. A Hyundai matching warranty would also help

        A theory that I’ve often used is when you see everyone doing one thing do the complete opposite – the same could be applied to cars. It worked for Subaru why not Mazda?

      • 0 avatar


        I agree with you based on Mazda’s current product line that there is no compelling reason to buy a Mazda over anything else in the market apart from SKYACTIV and some more interesting driving dynamics.

        So pardon me if these are dumb ideas, but I think Mazda can try to eke out a compelling market advantage out of their corporate identity with these options, supposing they survive the recession and become profitable:

        1) Draw inspiration from their motorsport heritage and expand their sports car range like they did in the 90s. All the Celicas, S2000s, MR2s and others are dead, but not the MX-5. With their research and knowledge into suspension, G-force relationships on the neck and arms, shifting feel, and other things to promote oneness between car and driver, they could be the authority on the lightweight poor man’s sports car, and maybe have RWD/Stick variants or coupes of their mainstream cars this way. Scions, Mitsus and toys like the Cube, Kia Soul, Element, CR-Z can all move aside. Would also make a Genesis Coupe, 370Z or FT-86 feel pricey.

        2) Add paddle shifters as an option to any vehicle they sell with AT. What is normally an exclusive premium option for other carmakers becomes 2 extra flippers on a Mazda steering wheel for a small price; a fair compromise for married couples where the wife still gets her AT and the husband can shift without having to reach for the knob or burnout his knees/wrists due to arthritis/old age.

        3) In the far future, invest in R&D to develop hybrid EVs with small rotary engines as backup generators. That’ll put the rotary back in the game and in it’s proper application of being a small unit that produces high linear power instead of one that’s constantly subjected to the varying loads of slowing/accelerating.

        Again, it’s a question of making it financially feasible. At this point, making the 3rd gen Mazda6 a better sports sedan is the only obvious step to take.

      • 0 avatar

        The issue with Mazda’s in North America is fuel consumption . . .

        That’s because it’s only an issue when looking at EPA numbers. It seems they’re not willing to adjust the programming and gear ratios of their transmissions to suit the test. Or maybe they just don’t fudge the numbers that they provide the EPA as well as other manufacturers. Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Consumer Reports found that the 3 was not only competitive with the other compacts in real world test drives, it often beats those with significantly higher EPA ratings.

  • avatar

    Mazda seems to be turning into a Japanese Citroen

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t worry about spotting any cops on the first section of the sea to sky from Vancouver to Squamish (ie the really pretty/windy bit) – they’re usually on the bit from Squamish to Whistler, trying to ticket all the sleep deprived semi-drunks piling back to the city after a weekend of Redbull induced, X-treme, Sick, Gnarly, Halfpipe, Dudeness. Or whatever the hell they do up there.

  • avatar

    The big question — what’s the price premium on a twin turbo diesel engine? If it’s too steep, it won’t matter how terrific it is.

  • avatar
    A D H

    Owned two Mazdas and great experiences with both. Kicking myself for not buying a Speed6 when I had the chance.
    First Gen 6 sold like a hotcake. They dumped it down and tried to compete with Camry and lost market share. Biggest knock on them is gas mileage penalty from their peers.
    This is a more reliable company than VW and can take market share if they come up with better mileage numbers.
    A skyactive system with mileage in low-mid 30s in gas or diesel form seems it would be well received. I could see buying one even if it means not having a wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      That’s what drives me insane – when the little guys try to compete with the Camry or Accord, making an enthusiast car larger and/or more appliance like. I know profits need to be made but how bout keeping the company small and profitable?

    • 0 avatar

      First-gen 6 owner here.

      I see lots of ‘my’ car here in HNL, not so much of the 2nd-gen model, though sightings are becoming more frequent. I think Mazda made a few mistakes: 1. making the 6 bigger and heavier; 2. the first (of few) ads depicted the 6 as some sort of Roman gladiator. WTF? 3. Not making the 6 stand out in any way (price, performance, mpg, etc.). It became another me-too product.

      I think the combo platter of SkyActiv plus more focused marketing (and a Hyundai-like warranty) could revive the company’s fortunes.

  • avatar

    Bravo, I applaud Mazda. Now, if they decide to price SkyActiv engines like VW prices diesels, at $3-5K premium over the gas engines, then it is pointless because you need around 5-7 years to recoup that initial cash outlay, which makes diesels cars in the USA a proposition for poseurs, just like Prius premium over say a 2.4l Camry.

    • 0 avatar

      Not pointless when you consider all that low-end torque my friend. I view the efficiency as a perk, if these engines are as good as we have been led to believe.

    • 0 avatar

      Since the SkyActiv diesels will have a significantly lower compression ratio, then I would assume this should all them to reduce the size of the engine and engine components overall (including the need to control excess NOx production). Since high-compression related requirement are often cited as among the reasons for the extra cost of diesels, then hopefully the cost of producing the SkyActiv diesel can be lowered (though I’m not sure what this would mean for the gasoline engine). This is all speculation at this point, of course, but it does at least seem plausible (at least at first blush).

  • avatar

    I hope Skyactiv delivers more in the real world than Ford’s Ecoboost. In the latest CR a Ford F150 with Ecoboost returned exactly the same fuel economy both city and highway as the V8 version. The Ecoboost was .2 seconds faster 0-60.

  • avatar

    They still make the Mazda 6?

  • avatar

    Judging from the photo, one key to the Skyactiv motor’s efficiency is lighter weight components. Anybody know how Mazda manages to pull that off? Normally, shaving metal from pistons and connecting rods in a diesel is an invitation to disaster. I did some googling, didn’t find much besides marketing hype.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Lower compression ratio. Diesels have those heavier components because the compression ratio is about double that of a gas engine of similar size and power. Mazda went down to 13:1 on the Sky-D, which is perhaps not coincidentally the same ratio as the Sky-G gas engine.

      • 0 avatar

        Interesting. I was worried they’d developed some magical new alloy, which 50,000 miles from now we’d discover isn’t so magical. How do they ignite the diesel, I assume a glow plug won’t cut it at 13:1?

  • avatar

    This engine sounds like a winner… but similar to all the other diesels (and most turbos) the real question is will it ever arrive in the US? Mazda could do well to fill Honda’s shoes by making fun-to-drive good MPG vehicles, but currently they are way behind in the MPG part. With Hyundai doing so well Mazda days in the states look numbered. Sad because I considered getting a Speed 6 a few times. The RX-8 is another vehicle that does so many things well but fails so bad on others (oil/MPG) its sadly off my list.

  • avatar

    To really differentiate themselves, Mazda could bring back the B2000 and put a diesel in it. I’d consider one. A neighbour (auto shop teacher) had an ’86 B2000 when I was growing up. While the truck rusted away around it, the engine was still going strong. So yeah, a B2000 that doesn’t rust apart after a year with a diesel engine. Sign me up for one when that exists (it never will).

    But assuming Mazda actually decides to sell a diesel engine in NA I think they will sell well…as long as they can fix the rust problems they’re still known for and as long as the Sky-D gets equal or better economy than a Jetta or Golf TDI.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not like they don’t have a B to sell. The new for 2012 BT-50 would certainly be like no other truck for sale in North America. Mazda just needs the temerity to bring it over.

      • 0 avatar

        Rust is the #1 thing that would keep me out of a Mazda. The rate that the 3’s, especially, corrode is disgusting for a modern car. The Miatas seem to do well, but I suspect that’s because most never see a salt-covered road in their pampered lives as summer toys in Canada.

  • avatar
    George B

    Interesting car. Does Mazda give up efficiency/mpg when they reduce the diesel engine compression ratio to 13:1? I was interested in diesel when diesel fuel was relatively inexpensive, but not when diesel typically costs $0.40 per gallon than regular unleaded. Higher fuel cost makes it harder to justify a diesel.

    A friend owns an 80s Mercedes diesel station wagon that can run on used cooking oil. Not sure if current EPA regulations make it impossible to make a diesel that can run on used cooking oil and (illegally) red dye offroad diesel.

  • avatar

    Another first gen 6 owner here. I echo the “WTF?” comments about why the 2nd gen had to get longer/fatter/taller and no longer offered a manual with the V6. If they freshen/lighten/smallenize the 3rd gen and put this funky, peppy new diesel motor with a 6 speed in it, I will most likely be a repeat offender.

    I think a lot of you are confusing Mazda with Hyundai, Toyota, VW, etc. in terms of world domination plans. Mazda’s overall lineup is much more engaging to the driver than the competition’s, and some car companies can operate profitably at a lower market share.

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    I’d love for Mazda to “embrace the niche” and stop racing to the middle to go head to head w/ Accord, Camry, Altima. Sadly, they need to chase profits and they figure that’s where the sales volume is.

    Mazda needs a core competency/differentiation from the big main stream players. They have it on the fun to drive front. When Ford helped cover development costs, this worked out OK. As a stand alone, the strategy won’t work.

    Subaru, to some degree, is getting some stability from their relationship w/ Toyota and can remain an “embrace the niche” brand. Not sure who Mazda could now pair up with? Ford was a good partner for them!

    pity…I likely won’t ever be able to find something like my Mazda6 Wagon 5MT again

  • avatar

    “I don’t need to drive anything else today!”

    Reminds me of my brother-in-law’s response when my sister asks him about a new dish she’s cooked that he doesn’t like:

    “Honey, I don’t think you need to make this again.”

  • avatar

    14.1:1 compression. 310lb/ft and a stick is awesome.

  • avatar

    This is all nice and good, but what’s being done about a new rotary?

  • avatar

    I’ve received word that like the BMW X1 the Diesel version of the CX-5 will sell first in Canada, to be followed by the US. The location of the reveal is no accident. And by “word” I mean someone who works for a Canadian manufacturer of Diesel diagnostic equipment, who is writing software in both English and French.

    The reasons:

    1. Canadians already pay a premium for cars as dollar parity is recent.
    The premium for a Diesel will be less of an issue.

    2. Different emissions requirements in Canada will allow for a urea-free version to be sold.

    3. The Diesel market in Canada is quite strong, especially in Quebec where nearly half of all
    Volkswagens are Diesels. Furthermore, small cars sell well in Canada.

    4. Diesel is about 10c a litre cheaper in Canada than gasoline.

    5. Mazda’s market share in Canada is much higher than it is in the US.

  • avatar

    Russycle you do know that glow plugs are not spark plugs right? the glow plugs have nothing to do with igniting the fuel they are only for warming the cylinders before starting the engine diesel fire by and only by compressing the gas to the point of blowing up it has no spark!

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