Mazda CX-5's AWD system puts on a good show in the snow video

DAVID LINKLATER/STUFF

See Mazda's AWD SUVs do their thing in the snow. Plus a little RWD surprise.

And so snow-driving season has all but come to an end in New Zealand. Yes, that is a thing.

There's a place called the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (SHPG) in Central Otago, high atop Mount Pisa around 1500m above sea level. It's a place where the global car and tyre industries come for crucial winter testing.

SHPG is only open for 12 weeks per year, but from June-August it's also the only place in the world where big-name companies can do this kind of work.

New CX-5 has both i-Activ AWD and G-Vectoring Control; CX-9 lacks the latter, but that changes this month.
David Linklater/Stuff

New CX-5 has both i-Activ AWD and G-Vectoring Control; CX-9 lacks the latter, but that changes this month.

But for the past decade or so, SHPG has also become the go-to place for car brands to bring their best customers and a few lucky journalists for skiddy fun in their latest models. It's an expensive undertaking, but an undeniably exotic experience for all. Little wonder that the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-AMG, Aston Martin and Lamborghini are regulars.

READ MORE:
* CX-5 wasn't broken so Mazda didn't have to fix it
* Try the Mazda3's GVC chassis: you won't feel a thing
* Mercedes-AMG machines hit the snow at
SHPG

 
Twenty-seven different sensors let rear wheels know when to power-up. They're never completely decoupled.
David Linklater/Stuff

Twenty-seven different sensors let rear wheels know when to power-up. They're never completely decoupled.

As you'll see by the roll of honour, customer/media drives at SHPG are high-end business. Not many mainstream makers go to such lengths to show off their wares.

But this year, Mazda (NZ) became the first Japanese brand to hold a guest-event at SHPG.

Why splash out in such high style? The corporate answer is that the company wanted to show us "what the cars can do". But there's surely a bit more to it than that.

The little snow-show says it all: all four wheels are active, instantly.
David Linklater/Stuff

The little snow-show says it all: all four wheels are active, instantly.

Mazda regards itself as a mainstream maker with a hi-tech twist. A purveyor of volume models with a very aspirational quality. By strutting its stuff at SHPG, Mazda is showing us it's in the club.

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Key to the slippery-show-of-strength is Mazda's i-Activ AWD technology, which was introduced in the first-generation CX-5 and continues in the latest version, along with the CX-3 and CX-9 SUVs.

If you're a bit confused by Mazda's new-gen nomenclature, you're not alone. But basically, SkyActiv is the company's term for the completely new suite of construction and powertrain technology introduced in 2012 with CX-5 and now underpinning every passenger/SUV model.

Snow-surface certainly agrees with cheeky MX-5 RF.
David Linklater/Stuff

Snow-surface certainly agrees with cheeky MX-5 RF.

ActivSense is the umbrella term for Mazda's active and passive safety technology. And so i-Activ AWD is a part of that.

What makes i-Activ AWD different? Ostensibly, not a lot. It's an on-demand system like so many others: the car is mostly FWD for normal driving, but torque is supplied to the rear wheels when required.

Mazda's argument is that it's all in the execution. The i-Activ system is not just reactive: 27 different sensors (everything from steering angle to whether the wipers are on, with 200 calculations per second) predict when loss of traction might be likely. Up to 50 per cent of available torque is electromagnetically sent rearwards, theoretically before occupants perceive wheel-slip.

In fact, the i-Activ models are not truly FWD even on a dry road in a straight line: there's always 1-2 per cent of torque going to the back wheels, which readies the system for action. Mazda claims that this tiny "pre-load" can also actually improve fuel efficiency in normal driving by minimising minuscule amounts of front tyre-slip.

Mazda says that the tuning of its traction and stability control systems give the driver maximum scope for control in the early stages of a slide - but then come in very hard when it looks like the human-control element is questionable.

All of the above is heightened in the snow, of course. Through a variety of exercises the CX-5 and CX-9 were commendably controllable and smooth; from behind the wheel it was very difficult to feel the transition from 99-per-cent-front to 50/50 drive, and the natural balance of the cars shone though.

These Mazda SUVs are not really off-roaders, of course: they are not designed for rock-hopping or serious mud-plugging. But for driving in any number of difficult traction conditions, this is some pretty smart technology.

Indeed, the better i-Activ AWD is working, the less you notice it. That's also true of the G-Vectoring Control (GVC) fitted to CX-5 and CX-3, a Mazda-specific technology that subtly reduces engine torque as you turn into a corner, smoothing out steering action and therefore reducing body roll.

GVC is imperceptible on the road (less than 0.005g-force), but more noticeable in such slippery conditions. It's becoming standard across the Mazda range; the CX-9s we drove up the mountain didn't have it, but it's on the latest models heading towards showrooms as you read this.

And what about that cheeky white MX-5 RF in the pictures? Well, it shouldn't really be there and it shouldn't rate a mention because it's not AWD and definitely not an SUV.

But it was the stuff of drifty dreams on the snow and served as a reminder that Mazda also still makes one of the best bespoke sports cars on the planet. Another reason why this Japanese brand deserves to be in lofty company.

 - Stuff

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