CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado — If “diesel stick-shift station wagon” is the favorite compound-modified noun for auto critics and the enthusiasts who read our stuff, then “winter driving test” must be our favorite seasonal noun phrase. It’s also the conceit of the Mazda Ice Academy, a daylong series of exercises designed to show how the brand’s i-Activ all-wheel drive, which is engineered to anticipate tire slip on snow and ice rather than react to it, is the best possible system for removing an average driver’s doubt he or she might not be able to handle patches of ice and banks of snow.
What the Miata autocross exercise proves is that the rear-wheel-drive sports car is very driftable and controllable on ice and snow. It also serves as a reminder that slow-in, fast-out isn’t the most drift-car stylish and fun, but is the quickest and most reliable way to drive such conditions if you want to avoid spinning out.
Mazda says it went out of its way to keep these exercises fair and urged us to drive its CUVs and competitors back to back and replicate the conditions and driving style as closely as possible. Competitors will nevertheless object because such comparisons typically favor the best attributes of a given model. All CUVs provided in this exercise came with on-demand AWD and were wearing identical-spec Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires.
My group followed this exercise with a snowy uphill launch. I came to a stop and turned the steering wheel one full rotation to the right at the crest, and was asked to accelerate away from the stop. No surprise — the Mazda CX-5 was the only compact CUV to inch up over the crest without the front-drive wheels sliding too much to the right and thus requiring opposite-lock correction. The Mazda moved forward without any slippage, and its AWD didn’t bind up through the tight turn.
That’s because the i-Activ system immediately triggered the on-demand AWD. Instead of waiting for front-tire slip, i-Activ monitors outside temperature, notices whether the wipers are on, measures positive g of the vehicle to determine whether it’s on a hill, and checks steering torque and angle, power steering current, and brake fluid pressure to predict the need for up to 50/50 torque split. The new AWD system is quieter and more efficient than the old system because of a smaller aluminum transfer case housing, a finned rear differential underside, and a power takeoff unit using low-viscosity oil. Mazda engineers are working toward a goal in which an AWD vehicle can be more efficient than a FWD vehicle by controlling slippage on all kinds of surfaces.
A public road course in which we compared the Mazda CX-3 and CX-5 with the Honda HR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru Forester drove home the conclusion that i-Activ is better at anticipating deep snow and icy patches of road. Your humble servant didn’t notice any issues with the designated route until driving the competitors and discovering that, yes, such conditions typically make an AWD vehicle slide and trigger traction and stability control.
Speaking of turning, the CX-3 course featured a 90-degree, off-camber right-hander that would have you sliding into the orange cone on the left if you didn’t slow enough — or use the handbrake. It’s not the sort of thing your average Mazda customer might do, but it is the sort of thing your average MX-5 Miata customer might try.
It’s the average Mazda or Mazda-competitor customer that Mazda is trying to reach. The preponderance of its customers live in “Smile States,” and the automaker would like to see some growth in the Northern states (see Subaru). If you live in a rural area or an area that doesn’t quickly get plowed, and/or you like your winter driving completely devoid of drama, a Mazda CX-3 or CX-5 with i-Activ AWD (and a set of winter tires) is worth a close look. If you like a bit of controlled slide with your daily commute, the extra set of wheels with winter tires (on a Miata) should be all you need.