Crested Butte, Colorado — After weathering a severe snowstorm, enduring delayed flights, and facing other impossible conditions, a bunch of Canadian auto journalists managed to arrive at the inaugural Mazda Ice Academy in the heart of the U.S. Rockies.
This winter driving event primarily aimed to validate the performance of Mazda’s all-wheel drive system in extreme winter conditions, but we also got the opportunity to have fun in the snow with none other than the MX-5 roadster. Yeah, baby!
i-ACTIV is the name you’re looking for
In case you’re wondering, the part-time all-wheel drive system on the Mazda CX-5 and Mazda CX-3 hasn’t changed since these two models were introduced. The company simply wanted to give it a cool name for marketing purposes.
During the press conference, Mazda engineers insisted on explaining the difference between i-ACTIV and competing AWD systems. The thing that makes it so unique is the ability to predict what’s coming. Instead of just reacting to a perceived wheelspin by sending torque to the rear wheels in a few milliseconds (most systems rely on the front wheels in normal driving conditions), Mazda uses 27 different sensors to determine the driver’s intentions and prepare the system to adapt to any situation.
These sensors are connected to a central control module and provide information about road conditions, outside temperature, vehicle angle, wiper use, engine revs, gear position, etc. In fact, they scan and send data 200 times per second, giving the computer a maximum of input to optimize torque distribution between the two axles. It’s all designed to work seamlessly without the driver noticing anything.
In short, Mazda wants to make the driving experience safer and more fluid in terms of system intervention.
Mazda CX-5 vs. Honda CR-V vs. Subaru Forester
In order to demonstrate the superiority of i-ACTIV AWD, organizers of the Mazda Ice Academy pitted the Mazda CX-5 against the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester (both with CVT). All three models were equipped with Blizzak winter tires thanks to a partnership with Bridgestone. There was a good layer of ice beneath the huge pile of snow left by Mother Nature in Crested Butte, CO.
The course included a slalom, a long, sweeping corner, and finally a straightaway. As we quickly found out, the CX-5 felt relatively more dynamic than its two Japanese rivals. The ESC light did flash a couple of times, but compared to the supposedly reassuring CR-V and Forester, the CX-5 proved so neutral and balanced it was almost like driving a sports car. The effectiveness of i-ACTIV allowed us to push harder in the sweeping corner.
Another telling exercise was getting out of a bad spot in an incline. After scaling an icy slope, we completely stopped the vehicles, slightly turned the front wheels, and then resumed our drive. Ironically, the Forester fared the worst, with a very noticeable torque transfer from front to rear. The only way to pull away was to turn ESC off and depress the throttle rapidly. The CR-V had an easier time, but its AWD system still showed signs of hesitation. As for the Mazda CX-5, it made real short work of the course with i-ACTIV sending more torque to the rear wheels.
Mazda CX-3, with or without winter tires
The Mazda Ice Academy was a customer-focused event and Mazda seized the opportunity to illustrate the benefits of winter tires by having journalists compare two AWD-equipped Mazda CX-3s — one with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires and the other with factory-installed Yokohama all-season tires. The winding course included a pair of braking areas.
Being from Quebec, where winter tires are mandatory during the cold season, I found this demonstration to be quite pointless. As expected, the Blizzak-blessed CX-3 performed much better.
Time for dessert: Mazda MX-5 in the snow!
While the Mazda Ice Academy mostly involved i-ACTIV, we also got to test drive a bunch of RWD cars — and definitely not the least. I’m talking about the new Mazda MX-5 Club, a special edition that will go on sale in Canada this spring. The package includes exclusive BBS wheels, Brembo brakes, a front splitter, a rear lip spoiler, a limited-slip differential, Bilstein shocks, a front shock tower brace, and other extras. The units we tested were fitted with Blizzaks, as well.
Obviously, the inclement weather conditions made things more difficult for organizers. Let’s just say the little roadster turned into a snow plow at times. Overall, however, the car’s excellent weight distribution and lively powertrain combined to produce some super-fun drifting manoeuvres around the autocross course. Was I shocked? Absolutely not.
With ESC turned off, the Mazda MX-5 tended to oversteer. Fortunately, the sharp steering and competent limited-slip differential made up for it, further showcasing the potential of a RWD car in slippery conditions. I’d be tempted to conduct a more extensive road test back home to see whether the MX-5 is actually a good winter car or not.
In the end, the Mazda Ice Academy served as another reminder that driving is a fundamental part of Mazda’s DNA.