Mazda is known as the company where driving matters and where every model has the soul of a sports car. So when the company imagined a next-level AWD system, its engineers knew they had to preserve the precise, intuitive, Jinba Ittai—”horse and rider as one”—feeling of a Mazda sports car, even on low-grip surfaces like snow.
“We had two goals when we developed the i-ACTIV AWD system,” says Mazda development engineer Dave Coleman. “Quite simply, the goals were to take the consistent and linear dynamics we’ve worked so hard to achieve and keep them intact over a wider variety of conditions—and do it with minimal impact on fuel economy.”
To showcase the next-generation AWD system they developed, Mazda created its first-ever Ice Academy, hosted in Crested Butte, Colorado. At the program, which regularly faced heavy snowfall and negative temperatures, Mazda took drivers through four separate modules, showcasing how its vehicles handle the extreme challenges of ice and snow.
For the first exercise, drivers at the Ice Academy drove on hilly, snow-packed public roads in the Mazda CX-3 with i-ACTIV AWD, and then in several competing vehicles including the Honda HR-V, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and the Toyota RAV4. To keep the focus on a direct comparison of AWD systems, all participating vehicles rode on identical Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires.
This simple test of winter driving dynamics helped the drivers become familiar with the conditions and provided a baseline for the more intensive work to come.
The second exercise demonstrated how winter tires help keep your vehicle under control when driving on snow and ice. Drivers took three different Mazda CX-3 crossovers through a simple starting, slalom, and braking course. The first CX-3 was a front-wheel-drive model, equipped with standard all-season tires. While the FWD model took longer to get going, it managed the course as expected: a little slippy, but nothing that the stability control couldn’t manage.
The second CX-3 included Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD system on the same all-season tires. While the i-ACTIV system helped the CX-3 to get going and manage the slalom course, stopping distance was unchanged from the FWD model.
The final run through the tire test course featured a CX-3 with i-ACTIV AWD and equipped with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires. Working together, the predictive i-ACTIV system and the snow-ready Blizzaks made a tremendous difference in acceleration, handling, and most of all in braking.
With the i-ACTIV AWD system anticipating wheel slip, the winter tires could do their job of gripping the snow, yielding a confident, controlled driving experience. Most importantly, the Blizzaks stopped the CX-3 in about half the distance of the identical vehicle equipped with all-season tires, proving that winter tires don’t necessarily indicate how well a vehicle can get moving in the snow but definitely impact how it stops.
Cornering and Hill Ascent
After drivers had gained some confidence in their winter driving abilities, the third exercise compared the Mazda CX-3 and CX-5 with i-ACTIV AWD against the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. The vehicles competed in a real-world test that illustrated the differences between Mazda’s predictive i-ACTIV AWD, Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD, and Honda’s Real Time AWD. Because the i-ACTIV system is seamless and transparent to the driver, a side-by-side comparison is needed. Once again, all vehicles were equipped with identical Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires.
First, drivers took each vehicle through an acceleration and cornering test at normal travel speeds to get a feel for the road dynamics of the various AWD systems.
However, the most dramatic test of this exercise was the hill ascent. Under identical conditions, each vehicle was taken up a steep hill and then stopped just before the summit. With the wheels turned to simulate turning out of a driveway or side road, each vehicle was required to start on the incline.
“With input from the sensors in the i-ACTIV system, a Mazda knows if it’s on an incline,” Coleman commented. “That’s important because you’re a lot more likely to spin the front tires on an incline, because you’re transferring weight off of them.”
The i-ACTIV predictive AWD system recognized the situation and immediately engaged all four wheels and drove over the summit easily. Because of the design of the competing AWD systems the rear wheels on those vehicles did not immediately engage, creating a struggle to climb the hill.