i-ACTIV: Mazda’s Take on All-Wheel Drive

CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado — Some manufacturers pride themselves on offering the best all-wheel-drive system on the market. Others enjoy an enviable reputation for their four-wheel drive systems. Now Mazda is throwing its hat in the ring with a rather convincing demonstration of its drivetrain’s potential. To do so, Mazda hosted a series of presentations on an icy circuit in Crested Butte, Colorado. An old mining town at 2,715 metres in altitude, it’s now a skier’s paradise.

The day was full of surprises, which began with an intense snowstorm. The agenda included a test drive of the MX-5 on a specially designed course, but we’ll come back to that in another article. The main objective of the event was to show off the i ACTIV system’s advantages compared to the competition. To accomplish this, we put the CX-3 and CX-5 through their paces in the snow and on a hill designed for the occasion.

In action since 2013
In 2012, Mazda introduced its SKYACTIV technology, an innovative new manufacturing method. The bodies, chassis, suspensions, engines and transmissions of their vehicles were reviewed and improved, and the KODO design language completed the transformation. As a result, Mazda’s new cars and utility vehicles became more fuel efficient while remaining just as much fun to drive.

In addition to this philosophy, Mazda’s engineers developed i-ACTIV all-wheel drive, which appeared for the first time in 2013 in the CX-5. The CX-3 also features this technology, just like the new-generation CX-9 that will arrive in Canada later this year.

At the heart of the i-ACTIV system are two philosophies: Jinba Ittai (“horse and rider as one”) and Hoshiru Yorikobi (“joy derived from driving”). In normal mode on most vehicles, about 98% of power is sent to the front wheels. When needed, up to 50% of this power can be directed to the rear wheels. These distribution systems respond to situations as they arise. In Mazda vehicles, however, the i-ACTIV system anticipates these situations. With the help of 27 sensors, the onboard computer receives information at a rate of more than 200 times per second.

Information comes from the steering wheel, the accelerator, the braking system, the rotation speed of the four wheels and even from the position of the windshield wipers. And these are just a few examples. i-ACTIV is also said to be less abrupt and more linear than the systems made by the competition.

Mazda vs. Subaru and Honda
To clearly demonstrate the advantages of Mazda’s all-wheel drive, our hosts laid out two circuits on ice and snow, and they invited us to drive a Honda CR-V, a Subaru Forester and, of course, a Mazda CX-5. In the first portion, the Honda struggled to stay on course. All of the driving aides were constantly activated. Despite that, the tail end gave out just a little in a tight corner.

It was even worse with the Subaru Forester. The stability controls were extremely rough and we almost lost control of the vehicle on the same corner. The exercise proved much more pleasant with the CX-5, with the i-ACTIV system doing an exemplary job. It didn’t skid, not even at higher speeds. The system’s anticipation allowed us to push the Mazda CX-5 without any problems.

Once we’d finished on the icy circuit, the three vehicles went head-to-head-to-head on an uphill circuit avec with an abrupt turn at its summit. In the Honda, we had a hard time making the turn at the top. In the Subaru, the climb was problematic with the Forester clearly lacking traction. The CX-5’s handling was outstanding, and we completed the obstacle course multiple times without a hitch.

Note that all three cars were equipped with the same Bridgestone Blizzak tires. In the end, the CX-5 was much more predictable and reassuring. The other two competitors were slow to respond to skidding, especially the Subaru.

Even though these drills took place in extreme conditions, i-ACTIV all-wheel drive is just as efficient in other conditions, including like rain. Mazda has made an elegant entrance into a rather competitive world. The engineers have pulled off a massive achievement without sacrificing any of the fun that Mazda is known for.