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Mazda CX-5, CX-8 and CX-9 2018 snow review

When showing off your product you may as well go big. That was surely an underlying principle when Mazda was deciding on a venue in which to showcase the lion's share of its CX range.

The Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG), about 60km north-east of Queenstown on New Zealand's south island, is a world-renowned counter-seasonal winter testing facility covering 500ha of land about 1500m above sea level.

The event was aimed at showcasing the range's 'SkyActiv Vehicle Dynamics' in action. The event was aimed at showcasing the range's 'SkyActiv Vehicle Dynamics' in action.

Used by carmakers, tyre manufacturers and engineers from around the globe for the testing of myriad vehicles (including mainstream cars, snow-blowers and more) in extreme conditions, the SHPG has snow flats, ice flats, snow and ice circles, handling tracks and ice tunnels – yes, it's a winter-testing wonderland.

Mazda put its mid-size SUV, the CX-5, as well as its larger CX-8 and CX-9 through their paces in a series of events aimed at showcasing the range's 'SkyActiv Vehicle Dynamics' in action.

The line-up

All of the line-up was factory-standard, except for being shod with winter tyres. All of the line-up was factory-standard, except for being shod with winter tyres.

The specific vehicles in attendance were: an AWD CX-5 Limited (same grade as Australia's CX-5 Akera) with a 2.5-litre petrol engine and six-speed automatic transmission; an AWD CX-8 Limited (same grade as Australia's CX-8 Asaki) with a 2.2-litre twin-turbo-diesel engine and six-speed automatic transmission; and an AWD CX-9 Limited (same grade as the CX-9 Azami in Australia) with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and six-speed automatic transmission.

The CX-5 is available as petrol or diesel; the CX-8 is available as diesel only; and the CX-9 is available as petrol only.

All of the line-up was factory-standard, except for being shod with winter tyres: Bridgestone 225/55R19 BS Blizzak DMV2 99T on the CX-5 and CX-8; and Bridgestone 255/50R20 BS Blizzak DMV2 109T on the CX-9.

Mazda's SkyActiv

SkyActiv Vehicle Dynamics is Mazda's umbrella term used to encompass engine, transmission, chassis and body, and includes such whizz-bang terminology as 'i-Activ' and 'G-Vectoring Control'.

But considering Mazda is responsible for some of the most popular SUVs on the market – including the ever-popular CX-5 – it probably has carte blanche to use whatever space-age-sounding words it wants to.

'i-Activ' is Mazda's on-demand AWD system introduced to the CX-5 in 2013 and then to other models in the line-up soon after.  Mazda describes the system as predictive, rather than reactive as other full-time AWD set-ups are.

Mazda describes the system as predictive, rather than reactive as other full-time AWD set-ups are. Mazda describes the system as predictive, rather than reactive as other full-time AWD set-ups are.

Basically, one of the chief aims of i-Activ is to anticipate front tyre slip and apply adequate rear wheel torque to prevent that even happening – this is achieved through a chain of micro-managed events in and around the vehicle as it drives.

Via 27 sensors around the car, i-Activ calculates incoming data – including steering angle, speed, outside temperature and more – at a rate of 200 times per second and then adjusts torque transfer accordingly.

G-Vectoring Control, stay with me here, is aimed at "unifying control over engine and chassis" Mazda told me, and its suite of technology aims to control lateral and longitudinal forces, as well as optimise tyre load and vehicle posture.

'i-Activ' was introduced to the CX-5 in 2013 and then to other models in the line-up soon after. 'i-Activ' was introduced to the CX-5 in 2013 and then to other models in the line-up soon after.

Now that may sound a bit like techno-babble marketing speak but really all that matters is this: a highly effective AWD system should be smooth; you shouldn't even realise it's working. And we didn't – even in wild winter conditions atop the frosty Pisa Range where the SHPG is located.

The Mazdas can handle extreme snow and ice with ease, so wet-weather roads, gravel tracks and sloppy mud – the stuff we normal drivers face in day-to-day life – surely pose no problem.

Driving the CX-5, CX-8 and CX-9 in snow

We tackled a mix of events and terrains in these CX models – including snow slaloms and slow laps on ice, and earlier in the week I'd driven hundreds of kilometres over bitumen, chopped-up dirt tracks, corrugated gravel tracks and light patches of snow in a CX-8.

But none of these vehicles were ever troubled or came close to losing their composure, even when we were encouraged to intentionally be a bit reckless when driving.

However, a few other interesting aspects were revealed through the course of general driving and snow-based set pieces.

The medium-sized five-seat CX-5 is lighter and livelier to drive than the other two. The medium-sized five-seat CX-5 is lighter and livelier to drive than the other two.

The medium-sized five-seat CX-5 is obviously lighter and livelier to drive than the other two, being the baby of this bunch, but while that can be a good thing on a high-grip surface, such as bitumen, it's not always such a good characteristic on low-traction stuff like snow.

The seven-seat CX-8 is like a hedged bet – a bit medium-sized and a bit large SUV. It's shorter, narrower but heavier than the CX-9.

Its diesel engine is nice and torquey in just the right doses at just the right times. It has the same length wheelbase (2930mm) as the CX-9, yet never feels quite as sure-footed or as settled as its big bro.

The lightness of the CX-5 is not always such a good characteristic on low-traction stuff like snow. The lightness of the CX-5 is not always such a good characteristic on low-traction stuff like snow.

But that's nitpicking by increments and it's generally still pretty good on every surface including the soft slushy snow that we were faced with later in the day. (If you want some snow-driving tips, read this)

The seven-seat CX-9 is one of the best driving large SUVs around, especially at this price. It handles supremely well, has that nice, precise steering – just right for inspiring confidence in a driver when on slippery surfaces – and offers a very comfortable all-round ride.

Obviously, a few hours of fun events and challenges does not provide an exhaustive examination of a vehicle's capabilities – not by anyone's measure. But it does offer some valuable insight into how vehicles perform in a variety of extreme situations and it doesn't get much more tricky for any AWD than five centimetres of fresh snow, soggy mud-ice puddles and treacherous patches of no-traction ice.

If it was Mazda's intention to showcase the capabilities of its CX range, then they picked a perfect place for it and they did a decent job of it.

What car would you take on a snowy adventure? Let us know in the comments below.

$24,500 - $55,950

Based on 36 car listings in the last 6 months

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

4/5

Adventure score

3.5/5

adventureguide rank

  • Light

    Dry weather gravel roads and formed trails with no obstacles, very shallow water crossings.

  • Medium

    Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.

  • Heavy

    Larger obstacles, steeper climbs and deeper water crossings; plus tracks marked as '4WD only'

Price Guide

$24,500 - $55,950

Based on 36 car listings in the last 6 months