CRESTED BUTTE, COLORADO, USA, high in the Rockies; blizzard conditions, and with one of the most severe winter storms in recent years blanketing the US Mid-West.
At ground level, a near total white-out. Perfectly sensible then to point a posse of Australian journalists at a dedicated ice driving course, and let ‘em loose.
In the thin air, you feel a tad gaga anyway, so, while it was cold enough to freeze the persimmons off an elk, we didn’t exactly need a prod to “go out there and have fun”.
That’s what the Mazda Ice Academy is all about: finding, and “feeling intuitively”, the limits of the car in conditions like these, and learning to work at the edge to keep things pointed where you want to go.
We had help. The operation of the Mazda’s iActiv on-demand AWD system as fitted to the CX-5 and CX-3, is, as we were to discover, considerably more capable than perhaps many of us had previously given it credit for.
We were also, with the exception of one CX-3, riding on Bridgestone Blizzak winter tyres. Not widely-known in Australia, the Blizzak features a cross-hatched pattern to ‘hold’ snow in its tread, and a multi-cell “hydrophilic surface compound” to break the surface tension of water.
(As our comparison with the conventionally-shod CX-3 showed, the Blizzaks perform demonstrably better for cornering and braking grip in these conditions.)
The Mazda Ice Academy
We whipped these cars around three purpose-built ice tracks. The first, a looping circuit with a slalom and long off-camber fast turn, to be tackled pedal down and with traction control off.
The second: traction control on, with a longer slalom and marked brake-test. And lastly, a tight ‘gymkhana-style’ drift circuit which we attacked in an MX-5; traction control off. The challenge was to ‘knit’ the corners of the circuit in a controlled drifting sideways run.
There was no iActiv AWD at work there in the rear-wheel-drive MX-5, but its sublime balance and razor responsiveness made it an absolute blast - like snowboarding with an engine - to spear around the tight snowbound circuit.
Part of the challenge on the first circuit was to repeat the exercise in two of the CX-5’s key AWD competitors, the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester, to compare their performance and capability – in matching conditions and against a target speed - against the Mazda’s performance.
The CX-5, without putting too fine a point on it, “did ‘em like a dinner”. (That report follows: “Shootout On Ice – Mazda CX-5 versus Honda CR-V versus Subaru Forester”.)
Ice, of course, amplifies everything.
When on it, a car reacts to the slightest of inputs, both at the accelerator and the wheel. The slightest misstep can spear the car sideways. And controlling it is to stay ahead of the car – that intuitive feel for what is happening in the nano-moments before it happens.
It is about control with the most delicate of responses, and, like an ice-skater, a sense one-ness with the car. And where a ‘lose’ almost always stays ‘lost’.
Me? I had rarely stretched the ‘on demand’ iActiv AWD system under the CX-5 and CX-3. Both cars I have taken off-road, but never far – worried about the ground clearance, the missing crawling ratios, and fearful of getting marooned far from home.
But this experience was a revelation. In these conditions, on compacted ice and thick snow, parts of it marginal to the extreme, the iActiv system provided a level of grip and steering control that seemed barely possible.
And, certainly, changed minds.
Where we may have previously questioned the cost benefit of all-wheel-drive as opposed to front-wheel-drive in small and medium light-duty SUVs like the CX-5 and CX-3, that question is now resolved. Slapped down in a winter blizzard in Colorado.
In fact, for families getting to the snow, or who find themselves negotiating slippery rain-drenched surfaces, there is no question that the heightened level of dynamic safety and security Mazda’s iActiv AWD system provides, can potentially save lives.
How The iActive AWD System Works
As Mazda Development Engineer, Dave Coleman, told us there, “(We) figured out how to make an AWD system that is mechanically simple, but use all of the softwares to make it work really well.”
The challenge, he said, for Mazda was to “come up with a system that's going to bring people in.”
The iActiv on demand AWD system sends primary drive to front wheels, with a clutch to engage rear wheels when needed.
“The benefit of on-demand AWD is that it doesn’t suffer from the higher driveline losses of full-time AWD,” he said.
While mechanically similar to other on-demand systems, Mazda’s iActiv AWD system is predictive, utilising multiple data points to instantaneously feed information to the AWD system.
It draws on data like brake fluid pressure, steering angle, incline, traction and slip, wiper activation, and even outside temperature – then calculates at 200 times per second (referenced against pre-determined parameters) to know exactly what the torque split should be, instantly and at any given moment.
“The iActiv torque-control coupling is electromagnetically activated for instant response at speed; this instant reaction allows torque output to be controlled precisely.
“To eliminate delay from mechanical backlash, the AWD system remains pre-loaded with a small amount of torque,” Coleman said.
“We know if it’s raining, the outside temperature, we know when it’s on an incline, we can also directly measure traction, see brake fluid pressure and steering angle, and take this data in to instantaneously direct drive where it’s needed,” he said.
Does it work? In the most marginal of conditions – on surfaces a driver might only rarely encounter in a lifetime of driving – this exercise proved that Mazda’s iActiv AWD adds both a layer of security and immense capability to these otherwise light-duty SUVs.
More to the point, it gives the Mazda CX-5 and CX-3 a credibility and capability that this correspondent had never before considered was such a key part of their armoury.
And if it works this well on ice, then, ipso facto, it will likely work equally well on mud and sand. The latter, we will test and report.
Disclosure: Tim O'Brien travelled to Colorado as a guest of Mazda Australia.
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