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When Mazda decided to showcase its i-ACTIV all-wheel drive against a few rivals, organisers didn't mess around; they picked a beautiful, but harsh and bitterly cold venue: Crested Butte (pronounced "beaut"), Colorado in early February.
It was -5 degrees Celsius when a crew of international journalists assembled at the first "Mazda Ice Academy", more than 2800m above sea level.
Winter Storm Kayla had much of the state in her icy grip and the weather up until an hour before we reached the dedicated snow track had been atrocious: huge amounts of snow for the region, more than 600 cancelled flights out of Denver, the nearest major airport, and countless warnings from officials to postpone travel unless absolutely necessary.
According to Mazda: "In normal operation, vehicles direct approximately 98 per cent of their power to the front wheels, but torque transfer can reach as much as 50:50 front-to-rear if the vehicle determines more power is needed at the rear wheels."
In a full-time system, according to development engineer for Mazda North America Operations, Dave Coleman, "torque comes out of the transmission, goes into its centre diff, then to both axles. The diff allows the axles to go at slightly different speeds around a corner, if they have to. In on-demand AWD, the primary drive wheels, usually the front, are driven all the time; a clutch connects the secondary wheels and those can be engaged as needed.")
The Mazda i-ACTIV system aims to predict and stop wheelspin before it begins. And this happens through a series of micro-managed events in and around the vehicle as it drives. As Coleman said "the point of difference" with i-ACTIV over other AWD systems was "the logic of the software".
The AWD set-up calculates incoming data 200 times per second and from 27 sensors, including those reading outside temperature, steering angle, traction, and more. It then adjusts torque transfer to suit the circumstances. It works off the back of mostly pre-existing sensors. i-ACTIV was the result of "taking what you already have, and making it work better", Coleman said.
We did a front-wheel vs. all-wheel drive track in CX-3s, while also getting a demo of Bridgestone's new Blizzak winter tyres for the US; we threw in a brake test for good measure. The Blizzak-and-i-ACTIV combo won every time.
In CX-5s, we did slaloms, as well as an uphill climb, stop-and-proceed into a hard right-hand turn, designed to show up the i-ACTIV rivals but didn't really; everything got through without too much hassle. The CX-5 simply did it with more finesse.
For a bloke used to driving slow on sand, driving fast on snow and compacted ice was an incredible experience: three-parts exhilaration, one-part high stress.
Little – tiny – steering inputs were constantly needed, as well as judicious use of the right foot, to keep the vehicle moving at pace and in check around slippery-slide corners. You need a touch as feathery-light as a thief's. Driving here felt like drifting on ice skates. The cold white stuff could be very unpredictable and kept even our contingent's snow-loving Canucks on their frosty toes.
The closest and most consistent competition was between the CXs and Forester; CR-V was a distant third.
The i-ACTIV system proved itself in extremely challenging conditions to generally be a smoother, more effective and efficient system than the others. It always felt stable, surefooted and safe; a vehicle you'd entrust the lives of you and your family to if driving conditions took a turn for the worse. If i-ACTIV can handle with aplomb atrocious snow and ice conditions in Colorado during a bonafide winter storm, a driver can be confident in the system's capabilities on wet roads in Australia, or slippery mud, or loosely-gravelled bush tracks. They may not have dominated as thoroughly as the event organisers would have liked, but the Mazdas were still the best AWDs on display.
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