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Mazda takes aim at Subaru with AWD branding

Getting active: Mazda is hoping its i-Active all-wheel-drive system will be as recognised as systems by Subaru and Audi.

Boosting sales and profit is behind Mazda's 'predictive' i-Activ AWD system push


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4 Feb 2016


MAZDA is pushing its innovative new-generation all-wheel-drive system to boost consumer awareness and increase sales of its more profitable higher-series models.

Dubbed i-Activ to highlight new intelligent software that has the ability to predict and respond to traction losses faster and more efficiently, the goal is to brand the system and leverage its benefits in the same way that Audi does with quattro and Subaru with Symmetrical AWD.

Developed from scratch at the same time as Mazda’s SkyActiv suite of chassis, drivetrain, and body technologies, the i-Activ system has been available since the first SkyActiv vehicle, the CX-5 mid-size SUV, was unveiled in late-2011.

In a nutshell, i-Activ is on-demand and broadly similar to what the Japanese car-maker offered in the Mazda6 MPS, CX-7, and CX-9 of the mid-2000s.

The key advance is with predictive software that anticipates wheel slip via a host of driving-related system inputs before slippage happens, calculating data from the electronic stability control's yaw sensors, engine and transmission operations, ambient temperatures, steering actions, and even wiper activation.

Torque is then delivered to whichever wheels it senses are about to break traction via an electromagnetically actuated Active Torque Control Coupling, cutting response times, lag, and ultimately consumption. Mazda claims in some conditions i-Activ uses less fuel than the front-wheel-drive equivalents.

According to Mazda North America Operations development engineer Dave Coleman, the introduction of i-Activ as a marketing tool is to create a point of difference that can be leveraged to push the brand upmarket, with the ultimate goal of making more money to help fund future technological advances.

“We’re getting into the i-Activ branding now that it’s in all of our cars,” he told GoAuto at the Mazda Ice Academy event in Colorado, a showcase designed to demonstrate the AWD system’s capabilities in adverse snow or ice conditions, as well as its advantages against similar rivals from Subaru and Honda.

“As a small car company, we need to sell more of our more expensive models, to sell a larger proportion of higher-specification versions like the GT than what we do now, to help us to stay in business and independent.

“So there’s this general strategy in place to help us move Mazda upmarket a little bit more. And a very good car means then we can push ourselves to do more as well. And we can develop more sophisticated vehicles in the future as a result.” Mr Coleman said he believes that the simple but effective thinking behind i-Activ is at the apex of AWD development within the mainstream automotive field, demonstrating how Mazda as a relative minnow in the car industry can outsmart larger competitors without needing to resort to needlessly complicated and expensive technologies.

“You hear a lot of car executives saying you need to be massive to survive,” he said. “We’re actually smaller than a lot of our suppliers, so you have to be very careful how you sell yourself. We’ve figured out how to make an AWD system that is very simple, but by using clever software, we have taken something that we already have and made it better. That’s how we survive as a small car-maker.

“Ultimately there are more expensive systems that are better in a rally car situation, for example. But in the everyday world, this is a much better solution – because of the reduced drivetrain losses etc. You get all the benefits without paying extra for it.” With Mazda now the second-biggest car-maker in Down Under, Mazda Australia sales and marketing director Vinesh Bhindi said the time is right for consumers to associate the brand with AWD in the same way as they do with Subaru.

“We are striving to increase the brand awareness of the i-Activ technology,” he said. “We do reasonably well with AWD sales already. It’s more to educate customers the benefits AWD gives, as well as the fact there are different and better types of systems out there.” While Mr Vinesh said he is keen for his SUVs to be on every AWD buyer’s short-list, he is quick to quash any speculation that the i-Activ branding push is a prelude to any impending introduction of Mazda AWD passenger vehicles offered abroad.

“We have no plans at all around that. It’s not even a topic of discussion,” he confirmed.

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