Tested: Mazda's i-ACTIV AWD System

We spent some QT with Mazda’s i-ACTIV all-wheel drive system on snow and ice during the frigid Colorado winter.

Unknown to most, Mazda makes an extremely capable AWD system. Properly equipped with winter tires—in this instance Bridgestone Blizzaks—Mazdas that are correctly optioned out are on par with other automobiles in the segment, such as Subaru, Honda, and Toyota. For the first time, Mazda’s Ice Academy hosted a variety of journalists, dealers and other guests at Crested Butte, Colorado, in the dead of winter. Scout was there.

For this journalist—and possibly everyone attending—the biggest draw was the Miata MX-5 droptop on snow tires available for autocross sessions. While not a typical owner experience, there’s something exhilarating about piloting a rear-wheel-drive sports car with the top down in single-digit temps. However, the most surprising aspect of the entire experience was the i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system and exploring its capabilities.

As modern AWD systems go, Mazda’s is as advanced as they come. It’s engineered to provide the best traction in all situations while still maintaining human direction—unless computer interaction is necessary. The computer-controlled system implements 27 sensors and a host of external force parameters that it's measuring to decide which wheels to power. What that means is an on-demand system that is almost always running front-wheel drive unless the system notices slip, at which point it converts to the rear wheels and turns into a full 50:50 front-to-rear ratio. It’s this change that offers fully compliant AWD in a package that is almost as efficient as a front-wheel-drive platform.

Essentially, the Mazda i-ACTIV is anticipating what sort of traction you’ll need for your next maneuver. Temperature, wiper position, incline, slip, grip, steering, and more determine what the system will do next. It seems like it could overwhelm, but at 200 times a second of analysis, the system will forever be faster than any human counterpart. An interesting tidbit: All of this data comes from existing sensors carried over from FWD variants.

However, this doesn’t mean that the system takes away all the fun of driving. On the ice and snow course out in Crested Butte, we had a chance to try our hand at the slalom and a long 90-degree right-hand turn that showcased the Mazda CX-5’s AWD...and the system’s leniency. While the system did cut in after a certain amount of yaw and pitch, the counteracting forces didn’t hinder the ability to maintain still a drift (which I wanted). (Ed note: The stability control program can never be fully defeated on any of the SUVs.)

The other competitors in this particular test—a Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V—weren’t as neutral in the turns, often allowing the computers to take over once you were on a course of understeer, aka plowing straight away from the turn, fighting and clawing back to normal. The Forester was the most eager to accelerate in the straight line as its 50:50 front-to-rear split meant immediacy was abundant. The Honda felt sloppy, overcautious and a major bore to drive. Overall, the CX-5 felt the most willing to let the fluid movements of oversteer guide your way until talent ran out. This keeps within Mazda’s ethos of a “driver first” experience.

While the course(s) Mazda provided were set up to showcase their positive benefits versus competitor vehicles, the proof of a more dynamic system—one that is on-demand depending on conditions—was showcased in one test after another. On a subsequent hill-climb, the Mazdas once again proved their system capable of ascending a pitched berm where the others faltered. They may have been built in Mazda’s favor, but in reality, it just worked.

What’s most impressive is that Mazda makes a great all-wheel system that, since 2013, is getting better and more advanced despite being a relative unknown in the massive AWD market. The engineers have set a goal to get the AWD systems more fuel efficient over the whole model range—in any conditions—over a traditional FWD setup.

Equipped with proper winter tires and a highly advanced AWD system, the snow covered Mazdas felt secure and confident. Overlooked by this author, and many others, the i-ACTIV system is one that I would feel happy to recommend as a winter combatant.

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