Clemson students build the sporty hybrid hatch that Mazda doesn't sell
Mazda hasn't made a hybrid, and it sure hasn't dreamed of making this six-seat, all-wheel-drive hybrid hatchback that could be seen as the RX-8's successor.
That's what a team of Clemson University students have brought with their Deep Orange 3, a bespoke concept we wish Mazda would seriously consider for a production run.
Clemson's International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) in Greenville, S.C., is the nation's only graduate program in automotive engineering. As such, it's been partnering with suppliers and automakers to turn research papers into rolling, fueled laboratories that demonstrate the future in vehicle design and technology.
The Deep Orange 3 -- so named after the school's famous Tigers -- debuted as a prototype chassis at last year's SEMA show in Las Vegas and appeared at this year's show earlier this month. But unlike many show queens, the Deep Orange 3 is a runner. It's chock full of Mazda factory parts and its fiberglass body nods to the company's Kodo design philosophy. If it seems the Deep Orange 3 could fit into Mazda's youthful, sporty -- and yes, quirky -- product strategy, that's because project director Paul Venhovens made his students do their homework.
"They have to create the value proposition," Venhovens told MSN Autos. "I ask them, 'Why would I buy this?' If this is vanilla, I wouldn't buy this."
Venhovens, a former BMW engineer in Munich for 13 years and a Clemson professor for the past five, isn't bent on dreaming. The 55 students enrolled in the Deep Orange project (close to BMW's factory in Spartanburg) had to conduct surveys, demographic studies, market analyses -- all the same things automotive product planners have to do when faced with budgets, board meetings and company shareholders. It's no pie-in-the-sky mockup with a fake dash and sealed doors.
Venhovens explains that this car's intended audience -- including the 16 Clemson students who eventually finished it, plus the designer at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. -- hate minivans but like traveling together to avoid taking two regular-sized cars. So, like the Fiat Multipla from the late '90s, the Deep Orange 3 seats six in two rows of three bucket seats. It's a remarkably sleek and cozy profile made for the occasional group trip without sufficing to a tall, van shape like the Mazda5.
Deep Orange 3 is supposed to be a millennial's car, a 5-door that supposedly plays up to this generation's desire for cheap fun (although judging how many older people like Kia Souls and Scion xBs, we're not completely sold on generational marketing). But since 4-door sedans with front bench seats are extinct -- and because a used Mercury Grand Marquis or a 5-seat Toyota Avalon is horrendously uncool, the Deep Orange 3 is the only new car to fulfill this desire.
But this isn't a Mazda3 with a front jump seat. Beneath the fiberglass body panels and tube-frame structure is an aluminum chassis designed and built by Clemson. Instead of relying on hydraulic presses and stamping machines -- which would have fried their budget, even with all the in-kind donations -- the students worked with a startup fabricator in Cleveland called Industrial Origami.
The idea: Use lighter-gauge metal to save weight and shape it, like corrugated cardboard, into very strong structures using a laser cutter. No bonding, stamping or other traditional methods of metal fabrication are used.
"That's something we don't need in our backyard," Venhovens said, referring to how students built the chassis in the school lab.
While Industrial Origami's metal work can be seen on the back of some Electrolux dishwashers, the Deep Orange 3 is the very first car with such a chassis design, and since the process claims to be more cost-effective for low-volume production, Bentley has even been experimenting with it. So far, though, no automaker has gone all the way.
The rest of the vehicle isn't that conventional, either. A 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine from the Mazda2, fitted with a turbocharger and Clemson's own engine mapping, drives the front axle, while an 80-kilowatt electric motor drives the rear wheels (hence, the ability to seat six without any drivetrain humps). Together, this two-motor system makes 208 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque and gets assistance from a 2.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion polymer battery mounted below the cargo hold. There's not much more space, so the fuel tank only holds eight gallons of gas. But there's a 5-speed manual transmission, a double wishbone front and multilink rear suspension and slick 19-inch Enkei wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber. Aside from the Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid and a few others in Europe, there is no all-wheel-drive hybrid that works quite like the Deep Orange 3.
Venhovens and his students are multitasking several projects, each of which takes up to three years to complete. Their first two projects were based on the BMW 1-Series, including a plug-in hybrid variant. By February, Deep Orange 4 will debut (it's based off an as-yet-unreleased BMW model) and Deep Orange 5, another scratch-made car using General Motors components, will be done in August. Deep Orange 6 starts next week, and like any good manager in the automotive industry, Venhovens won't tell us a thing about it.
Overworked engineers and sealed lips? From where we sit, these Clemson grads are definitely the real deal.
I fail to see how a bench seat, 1.5 liter 4 cylinder hatchback can even be looked upon as a potential successor to the RX8. Yes, the front end of the vehicle has a hint towards the possibility of the RX8 but that is where it all ends.
The side of this vehicle, and the dimensions, scream Mazda 3 and not RX8 at all.
Even if the chances are pretty slim that hybrid technology will actually make much difference, it gives hybrid owners the right to feel superior. After all, they care about the planet.
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