The days of building “compliance cars” in small numbers to look good in strict markets like California may be over for Japanese automakers and their peers.
Mazda, Subaru, and Toyota, which had resisted manufacturing all-electric vehicles for years, are now ready to enter the game. Regulatory pressure is increasing in key global markets and competitors are starting embrace the technology in a big way.
“The overall industry is now shifting its electrification focus toward EVs,” said Yasuyuki Yoshinaga, CEO of Fuji Heavy Industries, the company manufacturing Subaru cars. “We are in the age where we cannot just go on launching EVs only as regulation compliance cars.”
Mazda will launch its EV in 2019, and Subaru’s will follow in 2021. Toyota recently announced it will launch an “in-house venture company” next month to start developing battery-powered eco-cars in a speedy, innovative way. That giant automaker still favors hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but like its smaller Japanese competitors, sees the regulatory and competitive climate tipping in favor of EVs.
Japanese competitor Honda seems to be going in that direction. The company said it will be rolling out an electric version of the Clarity and that more EVs are likely to follow. A few years ago, Honda launched an all-electric version of the Fit subcompact, but production and sales volumes have dwindled away.
Mazda, Subaru, and Toyota, haven’t yet released any real details on what their electric cars will look like, or how their battery packs and electric motors will be designed. The per-charge range will also have to be addressed, they said. These future EVs may be small cars, sedans, SUVs, or other vehicle classes as other automakers release concept vehicle across the gamut. Executives at the three companies have said that these electric rollouts will respond to what Automotive News describes as “an immutable trend buffeting all makes, large and small.”
Neither Mazda nor Subaru currently sells an EV. Mazda has been experimenting with a small fleet of electric Mazda2 subcompacts operating around its headquarters in Hiroshima.
Unlike Toyota, Mazda and Subaru are neophytes in hybrid technology. Subaru has a hybrid version of its Crosstrek crossover, but it falls short on fuel economy and will be pulled from its U.S. lineup. Mazda offers a hybrid version of the Mazda3 in Japan. That car uses a gasoline-electric system designed and engineered by Toyota.
Mazda and Subaru say their EVs will be built in-house, but they do acknowledge their need for tapping into outside resources. Subaru will source batteries and the electric motor from outside. Mazda says it may work with partner Toyota to jointly develop some of the necessary technologies.
Both companies have strong alliances already in place with Toyota. Toyota owns a capital stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, which manufactures Subaru’s cars, and last year Toyota signed a broad-ranging alliance deal with Mazda.
According to a Japanese press report, Toyota will set up a team to develop EVs that can travel more than 186 miles on a single charge. The automaker will sell these cars in Japan and other markets that promote EVs, including California and China.
Facing California’s zero-emission vehicle mandate is behind the planning for these companies. Mazda Motor Corp. CEO Masamichi Kogai said his company will start with introducing its EV specifically to meet California’s ZEV mandate. But beyond that, the next EV will be a global offering, he said.
Mazda sees EV technology being deployed mostly in small cars, while plug-in hybrid systems tend to go to mid- to larger-size vehicles, Kogai said.
Kiyoshi Fujiwara, Mazda’s global r&d chief, referenced the company’s strategy to that used in the BMW i3, which offers both battery-powered EV and range-extender versions.
“Just as with BMW’s i3, our idea is that we offer a simple EV model and an EV equipped with a range extender. So, customers can choose either of them,” he said.
Subaru also sees EVs as a long-term play, CEO Yoshinaga said. Plug-in hybrids will be the popular transition technology into the mid-2020s, after which all-electric vehicles should be the dominant electrified system, he said.
“Research firms say the PHEV market will be bigger for the time being, but the EV market will be on the increase in the future, and we agree with that projection,” Yoshinaga said. “Looking at the recent technology trend, I’d think EVs would be the mainstream.”