CX-5 puts on good show in the snow

The Hastings Mail - - WHAT’S ON - DAVID LINKLATER

And so snow-driv­ing sea­son has all but come to an end in New Zealand. Yes, that is a thing.

There’s a place called the South­ern Hemi­sphere Prov­ing Ground (SHPG) in Cen­tral Otago, high atop Mount Pisa around 1500m above sea level. It’s a place where the global car and tyre in­dus­tries come for cru­cial win­ter test­ing.

SHPG is only open for 12 weeks per year, but from June-Au­gust it’s also the only place in the world where big-name com­pa­nies can do this kind of work.

But for the past decade or so, SHPG has also be­come the go-to place for car brands to bring their best cus­tomers and a few lucky jour­nal­ists for skiddy fun in their lat­est models. It’s an ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing, but an un­de­ni­ably exotic ex­pe­ri­ence for all. Lit­tle won­der that the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-AMG, As­ton Martin and Lam­borgh­ini are reg­u­lars.

As you’ll see by the roll of hon­our, cus­tomer/me­dia drives at SHPG are high-end busi­ness. Not many main­stream mak­ers go to such lengths to show off their wares.

But this year, Mazda (NZ) be­came the first Ja­panese brand to hold a guest-event at SHPG.

Why splash out in such high style? The cor­po­rate an­swer is that the com­pany wanted to show us ‘‘what the cars can do’’. But there’s surely a bit more to it than that.

Mazda re­gards it­self as a main­stream maker with a hi-tech twist. A pur­veyor of vol­ume models with a very as­pi­ra­tional qual­ity. By strut­ting its stuff at SHPG, Mazda is show­ing us it’s in the club.

Key to the slip­pery-show-of­strength is Mazda’s i-Ac­tiv AWD tech­nol­ogy, which was in­tro­duced in the first-gen­er­a­tion CX-5 and con­tin­ues in the lat­est ver­sion, along with the CX-3 and CX-9 SUVs.

If you’re a bit con­fused by Mazda’s new-gen nomen­cla­ture, you’re not alone. But ba­si­cally, SkyAc­tiv is the com­pany’s term for the com­pletely new suite of con­struc­tion and pow­er­train tech­nol­ogy in­tro­duced in 2012 with CX-5 and now un­der­pin­ning every pas­sen­ger/SUV model.

Ac­tivSense is the um­brella term for Mazda’s ac­tive and pas­sive safety tech­nol­ogy. And so i-Ac­tiv AWD is a part of that.

What makes i-Ac­tiv AWD dif­fer­ent? Os­ten­si­bly, not a lot. It’s an on-de­mand sys­tem like so many oth­ers: the car is mostly FWD for nor­mal driv­ing, but torque is sup­plied to the rear wheels when re­quired.

Mazda’s ar­gu­ment is that it’s all in the ex­e­cu­tion. The i-Ac­tiv sys­tem is not just re­ac­tive: 27 dif­fer­ent sen­sors (ev­ery­thing from steer­ing an­gle to whether the wipers are on, with 200 cal­cu­la­tions per sec­ond) pre­dict when loss of trac­tion might be likely. Up to 50 per cent of avail­able torque is elec­tro­mag­net­i­cally sent rear­wards, the­o­ret­i­cally be­fore oc­cu­pants per­ceive wheel-slip.

In fact, the i-Ac­tiv models are not truly FWD even on a dry road in a straight line: there’s al­ways

1-2 per cent of torque go­ing to the back wheels, which read­ies the sys­tem for ac­tion. Mazda claims that this tiny ‘‘pre-load’’ can also ac­tu­ally im­prove fuel ef­fi­ciency in nor­mal driv­ing by min­imis­ing mi­nus­cule amounts of front tyres­lip.

Mazda says that the tun­ing of its trac­tion and sta­bil­ity con­trol sys­tems give the driver max­i­mum scope for con­trol in the early stages of a slide – but then come in very hard when it looks like the hu­man-con­trol el­e­ment is ques­tion­able.

All of the above is height­ened in the snow, of course. Through a va­ri­ety of ex­er­cises the CX-5 and CX-9 were com­mend­ably con­trol­lable and smooth; from be­hind the wheel it was very dif­fi­cult to feel the tran­si­tion from 99-per-cent-front to 50/50 drive, and the nat­u­ral bal­ance of the cars shone though.

Th­ese Mazda SUVs are not re­ally off-road­ers, of course: they are not de­signed for rock-hop­ping or se­ri­ous mud-plug­ging. But for driv­ing in any num­ber of dif­fi­cult trac­tion con­di­tions, this is some pretty smart tech­nol­ogy.

In­deed, the bet­ter i-Ac­tiv AWD is work­ing, the less you no­tice it. That’s also true of the G-Vec­tor­ing Con­trol (GVC) fit­ted to CX-5 and CX-3, a Mazda-spe­cific tech­nol­ogy that sub­tly re­duces en­gine torque as you turn into a cor­ner, smooth­ing out steer­ing ac­tion and there­fore re­duc­ing body roll.

GVC is im­per­cep­ti­ble on the road (less than 0.005g-force), but more no­tice­able in such slip­pery con­di­tions. It’s be­com­ing stan­dard across the Mazda range; the CX-9s we drove up the moun­tain didn’t have it, but it’s on the lat­est models head­ing to­wards show­rooms as you read this.

New CX-5 has both i-Ac­tiv AWD and G-Vec­tor­ing Con­trol; CX-9 lacks the lat­ter, but that changes this month.

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