By on January 30, 2018

Mazda Skyactiv-X prototype

In an era where just about every automaker is talking about electrification of its powertrains to some extent or another, Mazda is taking a different tack — remaining heavily focused on the good ol’ internal combustion engine.

This doesn’t mean electrification isn’t part of the company’s future powertrain strategy – it is – but in the nearer term, the company is working on ways to increase power while boosting fuel economy in its small gas-powered engines.

(Before we get to that, yes, the company’s long-promised diesel is still coming to America, though there’s still no official date.)

In order to show off its new tech, Mazda invited journalists to its research and development HQ in Irvine, California to drive prototypes outfitted with the Skyactiv-X engine.

Full disclosure: Mazda paid for my flight to Southern California, my hotel room, and several very nice meals. The company also gave us very nice Moleskin notebooks and pens.

The tech seminar wasn’t just about engines. Mazda is also working on improving chassis tuning in the name of comfort, as well as working on front seats designed to better fit the human body, thus reducing fatigue on long drives.

Right off the bat, I can tell you this was no normal first drive, so don’t expect a regular review. For one, the data is very much incomplete – Mazda reminded us that the engines haven’t been fine-tuned for production yet. Not to mention the cars we drove had bodies matching the current 3 – and Mazda won’t stay if this engine goes in the next 3 or something else.

Mazda Skyactiv-X prototype

That’s not surprising, but it’s a safe bet that the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-X four-cylinder I drove ends up in the next 3. Other possible applications include the CX-3, CX-5, and as a base engine in the 6. Still, given that the 3 seems due for an update and the next 6 was previewed by a concept at the Los Angeles Auto Show last fall, I’d look for this engine to show up in one of those two applications first.

I’m no engineer, but since a journalist is duty-bound to get the facts right, I am going to do my best to not screw them up. And frankly, there’s a lot to mine here.

Skyactiv-X uses what Mazda calls Spark Plug Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI). It has some similarities to a Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) engine, but Mazda claims to have conquered some challenges that have kept larger automakers from getting HCCI engines to market. The solutions Mazda came up with differentiate the Skyactiv-X enough that Mazda gave it the SPCCI name.

The simplest way to explain Skyactiv-X is that it works in some ways like a diesel. The engine uses an extremely high compression ratio (16:1) in cahoots with a very lean air-fuel mixture. That’s just the start.

Mazda Skyactiv-X prototype

Most of us know that if the air-fuel mix is compressed enough, it can detonate without a spark, but it’s also difficult to predict the point at which it will detonate. Ignition at the wrong time, of course, leads to knocking, which can damage an engine.

Mazda claims to have solved that problem by injecting a little extra fuel into the combustion chamber after the main fuel-air charge and sparking it at just the right time to keep things controlled. Essentially, instead of having all the fuel injected at one time, the injection timing is split. This keeps the air-fuel mixture too lean for auto ignition, and the fuel also has less time to heat up, again to prevent auto ignition.

A longer stroke and smaller bore also helps with this, as does a crater carved out in the piston. The engine does not have balance shafts. A longer exhaust manifold prevents exhaust pulses from one cylinder from interfering with airflow in another.

Because driving conditions change, the engine needs a lot of computer power to make everything work correctly, aided by pressure sensors that monitor conditions inside each cylinder. A clutched supercharger helps add in air when needed to get the mix correct, and valve timing adjusts/lowers the compression ratio for scenarios when the engine needs to operate more like a conventional gas engine.

Other key components include a mild hybrid setup for stop/start and aluminum construction. Mazda claims the engine will run just fine on 87 octane – no premium needed, thanks.

On the road, it’s hard to tell how different this engine really is. The only clue to its unusual operation is that occasional knock did occur during our drive – but Mazda says this will be refined out by time the engine makes production in “late” 2019.

Mazda Skyactiv-X Prototype

Otherwise, it felt slightly torquier and more responsive than what’s offered in the current 3. We’d driven current-gen 3s from the hotel to the headquarters, about a 30-minute drive, and I’d snagged a manual transmission car. With both the manual and the automatic, the prototype felt peppier. However, the prototype almost certainly weighed less – there was no radio, and many under-skin production pieces likely weren’t present. I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess that most sound-deadening material, for example, and some driver aids and safety components were absent. Update: Upon publication, Mazda has reached out to clarify that the prototypes do have sound-deadening (the company says the mule is “significantly” quieter than the current car) and that they likely weigh about the same as the current model.

Mazda claims a 20 to 30 percent increase in combined fuel economy over the current 2.0-liter four-cylinder. That makes for a maximum combined fuel economy number of just over 41 mpg. A manual transmission car could see close to 50 mpg on the highway in a best-case scenario.

That’s the goal: a more fuel-efficient engine with a broader and flatter torque curve for more around-town responsiveness. If Mazda gets it right, you could have a fun-to-drive small car that also sips fuel.

Mazda skyactiv-x

Aside from the engine experience, Mazda wanted us to take note of the improvements to the chassis tuning, which aims to jostle passengers less over bumps, plus the seat comfort. I didn’t notice a huge improvement in either area. The car was maybe a tad smoother over bumps than the current 3, but I didn’t feel any less fatigued after 30 minutes of seat time than I did on the drive over. Either Mazda needs to do a little more work or my keister isn’t finely tuned enough.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a section on what it’s like to drive a priceless, hand-built prototype in Orange County traffic. Maybe more-jaded journalists will scoff, but this was probably my first time behind the wheel of such a contraption. The engineer assigned to ride with us told me that if I stalled the manual, the restart procedure would be a pain, so please don’t. Which meant I slipped the clutch in ways I never do – it was like I was 17 again, learning how to drive a manual – in order to keep the car fired.

mazda skyactiv-x prototype

I also drove extremely conservatively to make sure I returned the vehicle without a scratch, though that doesn’t mean I was afraid to get on the gas in order to suss out the differences between the Skyactiv-X and the current engine.

One neat thing car geeks will nerd out about: an iPad attached to the dash showed which combustion mode the engine was in – SPCCI, HCCI, or conventional spark-ignition. Don’t count on this feature making production.

Mazda is geeked about the new tech, and I can understand why. Achieving more power and better fuel economy at the same time is a worthy goal, and as complex as this tech is, Skyactiv-X is based mainly in a rethinking of existing principles. It’s still an internal combustion engine, just one that’s built differently. Significantly so.

I still have questions that can’t be addressed before the engine reaches market – questions beyond whether Mazda will hit its power and fuel economy targets. For example, will Skyactiv-X engines be costlier to maintain and repair? Will this new tech run into reliability problems? Can the engine be refined in time?

Mazda told me they aren’t yet ready to discuss those issues, but they do want to provide a “positive user experience.” No matter the PR answer; the real world may have other ideas.

Mazda Skyactiv-X Prototype

I’m cautiously optimistic that Mazda may be on to something here, but until the engine is officially on the market, likely under the hood of the next 3, all I can say is that the concept sounds good.

If it works, it may lead to a major change in engine design right at a time in which electrification is becoming a larger piece of the puzzle. If that happens, don’t think of it as too little, too late. Instead, think of it as one more act in the long-running series that is the ICE.

[Images © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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52 Comments on “Mazda Skyactiv-X Prototype First Drive – Is the Future Highly Compressed? [UPDATE]...”


  • avatar
    slavuta

    “Will this new tech run into reliability problems?”

    Oh yea!

    • 0 avatar
      Ah_non_e_mouse

      I’m genuinely curious why you say that, as the first gen SkyActiv engines have been very reliable from everything I’ve seen. This just seems like another level of refinement of the basic principle. I remember everyone was skeptical about running the SkyActiv engines with their high compression on regular gas.

      We have a couple of SkyActiv engines in our family fleet and so far so good.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick_515

        slavuta has gone on record here saying “women cannot be trusted.” you really expect him to trust a new engine?

      • 0 avatar
        notapreppie

        The first gen SkyActiv engines weren’t anywhere near as large a departure from the rest of the internal combustion world as SkyActiv-X is.

        The changes here are more like the changes between the 13B from the RX-7 to the 13B-MSP of the RX-8 (which is a reliability disaster).

        • 0 avatar
          WheelMcCoy

          True. Most first generation designs have growing pains. Problems can be mitigated by a good warranty, and leasing. That said, Mazda’s processes have improved with each succeeding generation.

  • avatar
    ScarecrowRepair

    Assuming this all pans out, I assume Mazda will sell a lot more cars, although it may take several years to really get going as people wait for the first adopters to show problems.

    How does a tech advance like this play out with copycats and patents? If Mazda’s lawyers have done their bit right, it will make life difficult for other manufacturers to copy. Do these things usually migrate by licensing deals? I imagine those could be kept quiet for more money, of course, unless the parties think there are benefits to spreading the trademark name around.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      “… unless the parties think there are benefits to spreading the trademark name around.”

      As a promo, Racer X should drive the SkyActiv X!

    • 0 avatar
      legacygt

      I don’t know. Mazda seems to have an obstacle to selling “a lot more cars” and I’m not sure what it is. Right now, every model Mazda sells is at or near the top of its class, yet their sales are low pretty much across the board. The CX-5 is a sales success but it’s in a hot segment. It’s still getting trounced by the sales leaders. Why can’t it leapfrog something like the Rogue or RAV4? Why isn’t the CX-9 one of the top selling 3-row CUVs? And how is it that I can go months in between Mazda6 sightings? It can’t be because these cars aren’t powerful or efficient enough.

      • 0 avatar
        notapreppie

        Right now the obstacle is what they’ve chosen for their market differentiation – the thing that sets them apart from the rest.

        It’s been driving dynamics (“ZoomZoom” or “Jinba Ittai”) but most buyers of mainstream cars don’t care about that. They’ve sort of painted themselves into a shrinking corner.

        • 0 avatar
          WheelMcCoy

          Reliability, fuel economy, and a nice cabin interior — Mazda has those traits near or above the levels of their competitors, so it isn’t just only about “Zoom-Zoom” or “Jimba Ittai.”

          Fear sells better than fun, as Subaru AWD proves. Most people are hard-wired for that, but there is a niche for whom “Driving Matters.”

        • 0 avatar
          cbrworm

          They also don’t have much Zoom.

          I’ve always found them to be good looking and good driving cars. I owned a ’84 626 sedan, which was a good car at the time. I sold it before it had enough miles to show any reliability issues, but in the first few years, there were no problems – which wasn’t super common at the time.

          If the Mazda 6 was RWD with just a little bit more power, I would probably buy one. I am not anti front wheel drive, but I don’t want a sporty highish power FWD car.

          • 0 avatar
            WheelMcCoy

            Zoom-Zoom doesn’t refer to raw speed or power. It is meant to celebrate motion as perceived by a child. Hence, the voice that whispers “Zoom Zoom” at the end of the commercials is that of a child.

            Just as well Mazda moved on. Zoom-Zoom didn’t work because it was misunderstood. I, however, do understand, and being a child (at heart), have a zoom-zoom license plate frame on my Mazda3.

      • 0 avatar
        arach

        For me it was the price and power. They barely discount those things. The MSRP is competitive, but by the time you take into consideration discounts, they are much pricier.

        When it comes to power, the competition pretty much all is in the 250HP range, and they are in the 100s. That is significant.

        And the fact that you can buy a manual GT in canada but not in the US. Makes me feel salty.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Yes, tighten the already tight compression, so that so many variables must stay in such a short range at any given time lest things fail. What could possibly go wrong?

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      “Start the engine HAL”

      “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      Couldn’t we have made the same criticism in the early 1980s, when automakers were bringing in more aggressive spark timing and more precise air-fuel mix by way of fuel injection and more advanced electronic engine controls?

      What was the result there? V8s that formerly made 135 hp increased output by ~50%, much better fuel economy, and no hit to reliability.

      Sometimes progress really is progress.

      • 0 avatar
        WheelMcCoy

        “Sometimes progress really is progress.”

        Well said. Computers are exceedingly good at managing minutia… HAL not withstanding. :)

        Actually, HAL went mad because he was asked to lie to the crew about the true nature of the mission.

    • 0 avatar
      pinkslip

      If I’m not mistaken, the engine can switch out of SPCCI mode when the driver requires more power/RPMs. So it operates in fuel sipping compression-ignition mode when driving leisurely, then operates like a traditional spark-ignition when being pushed harder. Compression ratio will still be high in either mode, but then we could talk about more traditional turbocharged motor’s boost increasing with hard acceleration and “what could go wrong?” there, too.

      My concern is more around the cost- a supercharged engine with mild hybrid system that also needs to recoup the cost of the SPCCI R&D sounds like it’ll raise the price of these new models almost as much as a full-blown hybrid system would. At least this Mazda system will carry much less weight affecting the driving dynamics.

  • avatar
    JuniperBug

    Whether you like Mazda or not, you have to appreciate that a relatively small company is putting this much effort into thinking outside the box, usually with the intent of improving the driving experience. I also appreciate their results with the rotary, even though that particular powertrain doesn’t solve any problems that I currently have. It was also they who brought back the affordable, sporty roadster, a segment which had completely died by the 1980s.

    They naysayers will nay-say, but that always happens when someone tries something different.

    • 0 avatar
      Groovypippin

      +1

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      I do like Mazda, so +100.

    • 0 avatar
      dont.fit.in.cars

      It’s not that they are trying something different, plenty of capital companies do that. The bogey is making different cost effective.

      Today diesels could loose all emissions controls if they switch to ultrasonic fuel injection to break up fuel droplets. But ultrasonic generators and injectors are cost prohibitive not to mention the RF they put out would interfere with electronics.

      If Mazdas’ new tech passes real world muster and applied to truck engines, that may be beginning of the end for diesel motors.

      • 0 avatar
        colin42

        ultrasonic fuel injection? What is your source of this breakthrough technology?

        Ultrasonic is very good at providing very fine sub 5 micron droplets (like those personal humidifiers you get from CVS). The problem with really small droplets size is they have virtually no momentum and therefore you can’t get them where you want them to be in the cylinder before ignitionin.

        Even if you could inject the fuel at these very small this wouldn’t prevent all PM and would still generate NOx

    • 0 avatar
      cbrworm

      Mazda has always done a good job thinking outside the box.

  • avatar
    Numbers_Matching

    ‘valve timing adjusts/lowers the compression ratio’
    Not to sound too nit-picky here…but unless the engine’s stroke or piston geometry is changing, compression ratio is constant: (swept volume + min volume)/min volume.

    As noted, most of these concepts have been in lab test cells for decades. Combining them all together will be a real challenge for the calibration/emissions team.
    Good article.

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      My understanding of this is that they can use the valve timing to change the “effective” compression ratio. If you overlap the opening of the intake and exhaust valves you can reduce the amount of pressure in the cylinder at the end of the compression stroke.

      Of course you’re right that barring same radical mechanical trickery, the actual compression ratio doesn’t change.

      • 0 avatar
        Numbers_Matching

        The Nissan VC-T is the only automotive based engine that I know of with a true variable compression ratio. Continental did something similar with variable geometry hydraulic pistons on their AVDS 1790 series (M60A1 tank engine). There may have been others only at experimental stages.

  • avatar
    James2

    “as well as working on front seats designed to better fit the human body”

    I hope so. I find the seats in the 3/CX-3 uncomfortable, on the small side. OTOH, the seats in the 6 were fine, enough to take a test drive in one.

    • 0 avatar
      Ah_non_e_mouse

      I had a terrible time getting comfortable in my 2015 3 (I eventually did after about 1 month). The longest it took of any car I’ve ever owned.

      I still can’t put my finger on exactly why but after getting out the measuring tape and lots of fiddling I think it’s that the seat height adjuster not only changes the height but also moves you closer to the pedals if you are raising the seat and away from the pedals if you are lowering the seat. You think you have the distance right but then adjusting the height changes the distance ever so slightly. Until you are consciously aware that is what is happening it makes it very frustrating find the perfect spot.

      And in addition, the height adjuster also changes the bottom cushion angle slightly as well, which introduces another variable in getting comfortable.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick_515

        reminds me of the mkiv jetta manual adjustments. correct – the movement was not upwards or downwards to raise or lower seat… it was upwards closer to the wheel, downwards and away from the steering wheel. It sounds like you discovered the same thing.

        • 0 avatar
          WheelMcCoy

          My 2010 Mazda3 seat adjustment also follows a similar arc. I think Mazda looks toward German design cues — interior, controls, and driving dynamics.

          • 0 avatar
            Ah_non_e_mouse

            It’s strange, my son has a 2010 3 and I have no problem getting comfortable (I actually wish I could move his front seats into my car).

            I guess it just shows how difficult it is to design a seat that will please everyone. I think part of the reason is that I find his seat comfortable at the lowest height so I have no need to raise the seat. I set the fore/aft for my legs and I’m good. However in my 2015 I find the seat too low which is really unusual for me as I have a long torso and leave most seats at the very bottom of their travel.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That’s a lot of hoops to jump through to avoid doing a hybrid.

    For example, a 2018 Kia Optima Hybrid already offers 42 MPG combined, with more interior space:

    https://www.kia.com/us/en/vehicle/optima-hybrid/2018/features

    Mazda seems hell-bent on doing things differently, just so they don’t look like everyone else. Mission accomplished.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      From a business perspective, Toyota owns the hybrid market, and for a small company like Mazda to enter that niche would be suicide. Besides, hybrids are no fun to drive, but a SkyActiv X looks like it will be.

      Think different. I know, wrong company, but same sentiment.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        Ford and Hyundai/Kia also sell a fair number of hybrids.

        Toyota hybrids are no fun to drive because current Toyotas are no fun to drive. I drive a PHEV Fusion,and in traffic it’s much more pleasant to drive in town than is a car with a conventional drivetrain, having the electric motor to provide instant torque is a big improvement on a gasoline engine and transmission system.

        Besides, in town driving regenerative braking is huge, I can get 30% of my trip covered by the energy recaptured from regenerative braking.

        • 0 avatar
          pinkslip

          I’m sorry, but the Fusion hybrid drives like poo. I recently had one as a rental for 4 days. It is as much fun to drive as any Toyota hybrid- that is to say, not at all. I get that the instant torque from an electric motor has good low-end punch, but that doesn’t make any other part of the driving experience fun to drive. The extra weight of a second motor and huge batteries makes cars heavier and less fun to drive. When it’s a supercar making 700+ HP, that is less of an issue; but it matters for us regular folks.

      • 0 avatar
        scott25

        Toyota’s investment in Mazda means they’ll be sharing hybrid technologies in the near future.

  • avatar
    brettc

    I’m excited to see where this technology goes, and also excited that they’re apparently still committed to a diesel engine even after all the damage VW has done.

    I would think that Mazda has a lot of patents on this and that if other manufacturers want to adopt it, they’ll probably have to do some sort of licensing agreement?

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    “– but Mazda says this will be refined out by time the engine makes production in “late” 2019.” Okay, Job 1 for this engine in around 18 months or so. This is an engine that is developed enough to show publicly but still cannot be allowed to be stopped because, “the restart procedure would be a pain, so please don’t.”. I believe that it’ll hit the showrooms a little after the diesel Mazda 6 is introduced in the US for sale and close to the time the Tesla Model 3 hits 500k annual US sales.

  • avatar
    don1967

    “On the road, it’s hard to tell how different this engine really is”
    “it felt slightly torquier and more responsive”

    Another day, another Mazda technical innovation that manages to disappoint because of all the hype which preceded it. Or maybe it’s because incremental improvements to the MPG:HP ratio are just so damn boring.

    What will it take convince Mazda that it needs to make cars fun again?

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    The real triumph here is what computer power has enabled Mazda to do. All the pieces here have been in existence for a long time.

    Mazda could hit a home run with this tech sales wise too if gas prices spike, which they seem poised to do. I would still love a boosted 2.5 option in the 3 though, in any capacity. Curious to know what the deal is with tuning/aftermarket stuff for this.

    • 0 avatar
      silentsod

      Shale oil extraction techniques and other advancements in domestic oil production would have me think the price per barrel of oil probably won’t spike as high as it has in the past. OPEC doesn’t exactly have the same leverage they used to.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      Some headlines proclaim the price of oil will remain relatively flat / low for the next 2 years. The SkyActiv X is due late 2019, so maybe the timing will be good for Mazda.

  • avatar
    theonlydt

    Well colour me surprised – an article about a Mazda with 26 comments and not one mentions rust! (Happy owner of a rust-free Mazda over here).

    As with direct injection engines I think we’re likely going to need to see improvements in both fuel and lubrication to deal with the new strains these engines will be put under, but I wouldn’t expect them to be less reliable on introduction that direct injection was, or indirect injection (and waaaay better than British Lucas anything).

    Peak engine reliability was late 90s early 00s Honda (and equivalent well engineered engines). Indirect injection to clean the valves, understanding of thermal expansion rates so no gasket issues. Thin oils that lubricated well, without being so thin they burn off. No turbo. Etc etc

    However, I bet you Mazda’s skyactiv-x will be more reliable than anything available in the malaise era, most stuff from the 80s, and anything cheaply built even in the 90s and 00s. Remember, companies are terrified of carrying engine warranty liabilities (there have been enough that have seriously cost companies) and it won’t be released half-baked.

  • avatar
    manu06

    We have bought two Mazdas in the last 3 years, a new 3 hatch and ‘12 MX5.
    90k combined miles no complaints and no unscheduled maintenance. If this
    engine makes it to production and does what it claims, we will be repeat buyers.

  • avatar
    JMII

    I want to know about this clutched supercharger. The other tech I have heard about before as many predicted it could be done. Glad to see Mazda going for it. However the supercharger part sounds new to me. So I assume the supercharge is in “free spool” until the engine demands more air to ensure the correct A/F ratio then it engages the SC to add boost? In theory this sounds brilliant as the only real downside to SC are they add a constant draw on the engine, spinning and generating boost constantly. This is especially unwelcome at idle or under cruise (steady throttle) conditions. Thus having the ability to clutch off the SC would be great I think. Well provided it can really clutch back on and generate boost instantly. If not you might as well go back to a turbo and deal with the exhaust pressure lag. Modern turbos have very little lag, but they still don’t have the linear power delivery of a supercharged system.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      The clutched supercharger was a fictional item at one time (Mad Max / The Road Warrior?), but it has actually been put on production cars in the last 15 years or so. Mercedes used one (see this link: https://www.ebay.com/i/141888066868?chn=ps)

      Also, here is an informational page from Eaton on the product: http://www.eaton.com/Eaton/ProductsServices/Vehicle/Superchargers/clutched-supercharger/index.htm

      For what it’s worth, the previous generation of supercharging on demand was really a big improvement over an old-school 6-71 type blower. Eaton’s Roots blower and bypass valve system kept parasitic loss to a reasonable level by letting the air recirculate, but there were still losses from the rotors and shafts spinning. Fuel economy on the Ford and GM products with the bypass wasn’t that bad. This electric clutching system just takes the efficiency to another level.

      I think superchargers with internal compression (like screw-type compressors) still build some boost all the time, even if bypassed, so those could probably gain more from a clutch than a Roots-type system.

  • avatar
    AtoB

    “The clutched supercharger was a fictional item at one time (Mad Max / The Road Warrior?), but it has actually been put on production cars in the last 15 years or so. Mercedes used one (see this link: https://www.ebay.com/i/141888066868?chn=ps)”

    Toyota had a clutched supercharger 20 years ago on the 1988 MR2:

    http://mr2.com/TEXT/SuperChargerInfo.html

  • avatar
    AtoB

    Between FIAT multiair, Koningsegg camless engines, Nissans variable compression, Toyota’s hybrids and Mazdas SPCCI I have a lot of hope for the future of the ICE.

    Now if we can just get a FIAT multiair or Koningsegg valvetrain to play nice with Mazda SPCCI pistons and injectors on a Nissan VC crank all using regular gas

    OY!

  • avatar
    AtoB

    Quick question, the 2018 SkyactivG powered CX5 and 6 have the ability to deactivate half the cylinders:

    https://insidemazda.mazdausa.com/the-mazda-way/technology/mazdas-new-cylinder-deactivation/

    Will the SkyactivX offer cylinder deactivation as well?


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