Mazda has what they call i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive and they say it’s better than what the other guys have in their cars. To prove it, they flew us to the snow-covered mountains of Colorado for a winter drive experience. Maybe you live someplace warm and sunny where you never have to worry about large amounts of snow and ice on the road. If you’re like me, then you live somewhere where that fluffy white stuff is an issue, and that means cars equipped with all-wheel-drive matter.
The point of the Mazda Ice Academy wasn’t to show off one particular new model, but to show off a single technology. We drove the compact CX-3 crossover, larger CX-5, and the MX-5 Miata. Yeah, that last one was purely for kicks and giggles. I drove it with the top down. It was around 10 degrees. It was worth the moderate frostbite.
Mazda gave us several different drive scenarios designed to demonstrate the many ways in which i-ACTIV AWD is the best option for driving in snow and ice. I drive in a lot of snow so I know what a car feels like when it’s barely hanging on and when it’s taking on winter like a champ. If their all-wheel-drive didn’t measure up, it was going to show.
Let’s start with what makes Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD different. Most systems wait for a wheel to slip and then direct more power to that wheel to regain traction. The driver can feel this happening both when the car initially begins to slip, and then again when the torque transfers to the slipping wheel and it roughly grabs the road and jerks the car forward. It’s disconcerting to feel this and makes for a stressful drive.
Mazda has the i-ACTIV system which aims to predict wheel slip before it happens. It does this by taking the information collected by the many other systems in your car and using it to figure out the current road conditions.
The moment you turn on your windshield wipers, which have nothing to do with traction, i-ACTIV knows the roads are wet. The outside temperature gauge that lets you know it’s cold and it also lets i-ACTIV know when temps are below freezing thus creating the potential for ice. There are 27 different sensors that collect and evaluate information 200 times per second in order to figure out where to send the torque before wheel slip is an issue.
What does this mean for the driver? It means that the transfer of torque between wheels is smoother. This reduces the chances you’ll even feel a wheel slip and then roughly regain traction. The end result is a more relaxed, enjoyable drive. We took our cars out on an ice track to see if they’d live up to the hype.
Did they feel any different than the competitive models we drove through the same courses? Yes. There was a noticeable difference with the Mazda vehicles feeling more controlled with less slip, especially in corners. I was also able to maintain higher speeds and stay in control rather than having to slow down so I didn’t feel as if I was going to slide into a snowbank.
One test that really showed off the i-ACTIV system had us pulling to the top of a snowy hill, coming to a dead stop, and then cranking the wheel hard to the right. This is a nightmare scenario for winter drivers and it often results in the car slipping sideways or, even worse, backward into another car.
The Mazda CX-5 had no problem with this test, but not so for the other guys. Competitive models were good and stuck, and a few times drivers had to reverse back down the hill and restart to make the crest and take the turn. That’s exactly what i-ACTIVE aims to avoid.
There are lots of different all-wheel-drive systems out there and they don’t all perform the same way on slippery roads. Mazda’s i-ACTIV proved itself a solid system, keeping the driver confidently in control in the worst of conditions. If all-wheel-drive is on your must-have list for your next car, then the Mazda i-ACTIV system is worth your consideration.