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Mazda will lease electric cars this fall, but only in Japan

Mazda launches Demio EV in JapanMazda is dipping its toe into the proverbial electric car pond. This fall, the Japanese company will follow carmakers like Honda and Audi in launching an electric vehicle (EV) test program. Mazda will lease electric versions of the Demio (aka Mazda 2) to customers in Japan on a limited basis.

The electric Mazda 2 is powered by an electric motor with 101 horsepower and 11 pound-feet of torque. Mazda says its will match the performance of the Demio/2’s 1.5-liter gasoline engine, which has 100 hp and 98 lb-ft.

The electric motor is powered by a 20 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. According to Mazda, that should give the electric 2 a range of 124 miles. The company also said that, despite the battery pack, the EV has the same passenger and cargo space as a regular 2. That is an impressive feat considering how small the car is.

The battery takes eight hours to fully charge, but customers can opt for a quick charging system that brings it to 80 percent capacity in 40 minutes.

If Mazda’s claims prove true, the company could have a competitive EV on its hands. A Nissan Leaf is larger, and has more power (107 hp and 207 lb-ft), but its 73-mile range is significantly less than the Mazda’s. It’s the same story with the Ford Focus Electric; the Ford is also a size larger, and more powerful (141 hp, 188 lb-ft), but it only has a 76-mile range.

Whether EV shoppers will want to trade size for range is academic, since the Mazda Demio EV will not be sold to the general public. Instead, 100 cars will be leased to customers in Western Japan beginning in October. Mazda Demio (Mazda 2) EV front three-quarter viewWith the electric 2s out on the road, Mazda will be able to get real-world data on EV usage and customer preferences. The cars will be test platforms for future EVs, not production models in their own right.

Several companies have taken this approach in order to learn more about EVs. BMW did it with the Mini E and 1 Series-based Active E. Audi and Volkswagen are testing electric A3s and Golfs, respectively. Honda sent its Fit EV to Google and Stanford University before any cars made it to customers.

Since EVs represent brand-new technologies, few companies are willing to invest in a production-ready car without having some idea of how that car will be used.

For now, Mazda is focusing on refining conventional internal combustion technology. The company does not sell any hybrid or electric vehicles, but its SkyActiv designs are making its lineup more efficient. SkyActiv applies new technologies like direct injection to engines, and represents an effort by Mazda to make components lighter.