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Mazda targets Subaru buyers with i-Activ

Get a grip: Mazda’s CX-3 needed all the i-Activ AWD grip it could get to haul through of the snow in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Snow and ice-driving demo highlights advantages of Mazda’s latest AWD system


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5 Feb 2016

ARMED with its newly re-branded i-Activ AWD system, Mazda has set out on a mission to entrench itself in car buyers’ minds as a go-to brand for all-wheel drive, in the same way as the likes of Subaru and Audi.

The company this week flew international journalists to the snow-bound Rocky Mountains in Colorado to drive a series of i-Activ-equipped vehicles to show off the system on vehicles such as the CX-3, CX5 and CX-9, supplying two similarly specified rival SUVs – a Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester – for comparison testing.

The Japanese company even threw in a drive of its new rear-wheel-drive MX-5 sportscar on a tight slalom course carved out of ice to test both grip and control.

However, Mazda received more than it asked for, with a severe “one-in-every-three-year” blizzard with next to no visibility, forcing the cancellation of an on-road driving test, and nearly the whole event.

Happily, a timely break in the weather just as the Australian and Canadian contingent arrived meant that most of the show could go on, beginning with the ‘MX-5s-on-Ice’ spectacular.

This was meant to underline how the US-spec, 2.0-litre ND-series roadster copes on winter tyres with the ESC switched off, while also highlighting how malleable the Mazda convertible is on surfaces with zero grip.

Near-perfect chassis balance and instantaneous responses from both the steering and engine meant that sideways driving was the order of the day.

Moving on to a pair of CX-3 AWDs wearing different tyres (regular and winter rubber) resulted in a predictable-enough victory for the latter, although the fact that the extent in which the more-softly compounded winter tyres stop the vehicle on ice/snow can be measured in at least three or four car lengths came as somewhat of a shock.

It is suggested that if a driver can see his or her breath in the cold, it’s time to switch to winter tyres. Australians generally avoid such things for snow chains in southern state alpine areas, but the sheer extent of their effectiveness can be the difference between a near-miss and an impact.

Finally, the CX-5 was pitched against the CR-V and Forester. According to Mazda North America Operations engineer David Coleman, the idea was to demonstrate how the so-called predictive software sets i-Activ apart from systems on rival AWDs.

To recap, it basically uses steering, engine, transmission, ESC, ambient temperature and even the wipers-on sensors to send torque to the wheel/s that the system thinks is/are about to start slipping, significantly improving traction by cutting lag times, thus increasing safety and efficiency.

Around a similar slalom course to the MX-5 route, the CX-3 powered around at speed with reassuring poise, while the others slithered somewhat, lacking the control and feedback of the host brand’s SUV.

The second test was just as simple: a steep uphill ice/snow gradient, with each vehicle parked halfway up with the front wheels turned to the right, as they might be if tackling a circuitous slope.

As Mazda says i-Activ’s software is specifically designed to identify an impending loss of grip in exactly this sort of situation, the CX-5 ambled up and over effortlessly, while the CR-V slid sideways and back a little before clumsily making the grade, while the Forester just dug its front wheels in as its AWD system struggled to realise that the rears were standing on snow.

However, a repeat attempt in the Subaru’s X-Mode – which alters engine, transmission and torque inputs according to terrain – saw the latter nearly match the Mazda’s capabilities.

Mr Coleman’s response is that having i-Activ means the driver never has to do anything differently, just drive.

Regardless, it is clear that in the ice/snow conditions of Colorado, i-Activ’s combination of surefootedness and winter tyres makes Mazda’s AWD system impressively effective in keeping the vehicle moving with confidence and control.

The lesson is that, although the company is a small with limited resources, the smart thinking can create affordable class-leading technology.

Mazda’s hope is that buyers seeking AWD will have Mazda and i-Activ front-of-mind in the same way as Subaru Symmetrical AWD and Audi quattro.

On the evidence of our Colorado excursion, we think it’s on to something special, from the lowliest CX-3 to the flagship CX-9.

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