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  • Lightweight AWD system is effective in the harshest of conditions; Mazda retains the hard to measure 'fun to drive' factor even with an SUV
  • Could have spent all day on track in the MX-5s even though that wasn't the main reason we were there; road drive cancelled because of too much snow and poor visibility

LIFESTYLE RATING
9 / 10



If you’re thinking an Australian summer is exactly the wrong place to be testing AWD systems and the benefits of winter tyres on snow, you’d be exactly right. Most of the time an Australian winter wouldn’t even suffice, but that’s a moot point.

CarAdvice was recently able to attend a much more suitable test session at the annual Mazda Ice Academy in stunning Crested Butte, Colorado. No inclement weather needed Down Under then.

One of the most popular ski resorts in the USA, there’s no shortage of snow and ice in and around Crested Butte. Snow started to fall as we walked out of the airport in nearby Gunnison and didn’t stop for just over 48 hours – in which time more than a metre of powder had accumulated. There was so much snow in fact, and such limited visibility that our test day was almost (somewhat ironically) cancelled.

We were scheduled to drive the new Mazda CX-9 and take a longer drive out of the test facility onto open roads to test some new Bridgestone winter tyres, but the inclement weather nailed both those actives on the head. Instead we had to be content with putting the CX-5 to the test against a Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester over a variety of circuit activities. Oh, and we got to hammer MX-5s around a slalom course, on ice, with the roof down…

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado

Mazda is openly confident its AWD system is best in class, and it must be confident to let us loose with vehicles from the competition alongside. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re testing vehicles on the same courses back-to-back.

The first thing we learned when we hit the track was how effective a proper winter tyre is. Pretty much unused in Australia, the heavy snow and icy surfaces illustrated just how effective these purpose-built tyres are in such conditions. Outside of serious off-roaders, you’ll rarely even see all-terrain tyres in Australia.

We ran a winter-tyre-shod CX-5 back-to-back across a long course, with an identical CX-5 running all-terrain tyres. Right from the get go, there was a huge difference in available traction. The all-terrains spun and the CX-5 slid from side to side looking for grip. With the winter tyres, you could simply mash the accelerator pedal into the firewall and aside from the tiniest almost imperceptible slip, the CX-5 just got moving.

Through the slalom section of the course, long sweeping bends and full ABS braking zone, the winter tyres strengthened their case even more. While there’s no doubt the lout in me loves a complete lack of lateral grip, and therefore the rampant tail-happy stupidity that the all-terrains offered up, there’s no doubt they aren’t even on the same planet in terms of safety. The CX-5 stopped a full two car-lengths further down the track with the all-terrain rubber and any attempt at a prolonged drift through the sweeper quickly got ugly.

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado

Given the amount of US cities that get covered in snow for large chunks of the year, the authorities are trying to encourage everyone in those areas to run specific winter tyres for safety reasons. In parts of Europe it’s already illegal not to use winter tyres during certain months of the year – it keeps the roads, and drivers, safer. I reckon if you lived in the alpine regions of Australia, you could certainly mount a case for them too. According to representatives from Bridgestone, most local tyre shops in the States offer storage facilities for your winter tyres in summer and vice versa. It’s a clever idea.

Following the tyre comparison testing, we got to sample initial drive off the mark by stopping the three vehicles on the same steep, icy hill and attempting to climb over it from standstill. The Honda struggled, as did the Subaru until we activated X-Mode, but the Mazda simply rolled up the slope with a minimum of fuss. This exercise is meant to emulate entering a steep street from a driveway or turning up a steep hill from a standing start. It’s also designed to illustrate AWD systems that aren’t as quick to apportion drive from one end of the vehicle to the other, or are incapable of doing it at all. The Mazda was certainly the snappiest here to get moving on such a slippery incline.

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado

Our favourite part of the day’s testing was the long, slalom-style course where we got to run the Mazda, Honda and Subaru back-to-back. Plenty of manufacturers have their own AWD systems, and most of them come at the solution from slightly different directions. Mazda’s i-Activ system revolves around the twin principles of efficiency and weight minimisation, such that the company claims it is the lightest AWD system available.

First up, it’s important to note that the Honda and Subaru were equally hamstrung by dopey CVTs that really don’t work well in slippery snow and ice. Both engines felt (and sounded) like they were working themselves to a standstill despite slow forward progress and there’s no doubt the Mazda’s conventional automatic gearbox is a clear and distinct bonus.

Initial drive off the line was similar, or at best a minimal win to the Mazda. It was once up and moving that the Mazda really pulled away. You can have way more fun behind the wheel, even with traction control turned on – the Mazda almost encourages you to hang the tail out a bit and slide around. Deactivate the system as we were encouraged to do, and the Mazda will hold full angled slides without getting away from you.

Both the Honda and Subaru returned less in the way of steering feedback too, so it was that much harder to coax them into a slide and keep them there. The Honda especially felt heavy and lethargic and needed to be muscled around the course. It never felt anywhere near as spritely or energetic as the Mazda. While the Subaru got the job done, the heavier steering felt less precise than the Mazda’s and the CVT combined to make hard work of a course the Mazda sliced through more effortlessly.

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado

We’re talking small gaps here, make no mistake. The combatants will all cover the same course without getting into any serious trouble, but the hard-to-measure fun factor was a huge win to the Mazda. Even if you’re not the kind of driver who likes a bit of messing around where the surface permits, you’ll appreciate the precision and balance offered. The company’s focus on vehicles that must remain fun to drive is hard to quantify in theory, but it’s borne out from behind the wheel.

We were most looking forward to driving the MX-5s on the drift/slalom course. The surface was so slick, you could have fun in second gear at relatively low speed and you always felt like you were travelling a lot faster than you were. Perhaps the most comforting element of drifting in this environment was if you made a mistake, the worst thing that could happen is you’d bog the car in thick snow – a much better alternative to armco. We weren’t too keen on the top being down when it was snowing, but the honchos from Mazda USA insisted.

A slow lap behind the instructors gave us an idea of where to go, visibility wasn’t great and the witches hats were rapidly disappearing beneath fresh snow. Then we got a chance to crack into it at speed. The gist? Pull away from the line, short-shift into second to try to minimise wheelspin as much as possible and then stop worrying about the gear shifter or clutch and start hanging the tail out.

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado

The trick was trying to link the course without ever being straight. I got two or three solid laps in out of about 20. Perhaps get the first part right, make a mess of the second, or the other way around. Or mess up the exit out of the long sweeper, roll into a couple of donuts, which look awesome from a distance but only served to fill the cabin up with a blanket of snow…

What we did notice almost immediately is how beautifully balanced and precise the MX-5 is. Its inherent chassis balance came to the fore even on such slippery surfaces and the steering feedback, point and shoot nature of the platform and low kerb weight ensure you can have proper fun behind the wheel. The sensation harks back to the original NA MX-5, a fun car to drive that always felt like it could handle more power – the measure of an exceptional chassis. If you own a new MX-5, club level motorsport is screaming your name.

The Mazda Ice Academy is a sensational way to experience road conditions the likes of which we rarely see in Australia. It’s also a solid insight into the technological ability of the Mazda i-Activ AWD system, which works as well in practice as it claims to in theory. Plenty of buyers are opting for 2WD SUVs these days, and that’s fine if you don’t intend to ever head too far out of the city.

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado

If you are a bit more adventurous though, a modern AWD system is the only option. CarAdvice has been able to sample just how impressive Mazda’s is over some seriously tough terrain.


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MAZDA CX-5 BREAKDOWN

2016 Mazda Ice Academy - Crested Butte, Colorado
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