Cars > Tech

Mazda knew I would screw up my driving on ice, so…

The Japanese automaker made me try i-Activ AWD in snow

One Mazda 3 is FWD; the other is AWD. Choose. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

In the more than two decades that I’ve been writing about the automotive industry, I’ve been made to drive vehicles on all types of terrain you can imagine in the carmakers’ attempt to show me just how good their all-wheel drive systems are.

Sometimes they hose down some tarmac to make the cement or the asphalt slippery. At other times, I’m asked to drive on gravel or even in the mud. But then, apparently, these surfaces are nothing to write home about—they’re just ordinary challenges even the lamest 4×4 vehicle can hurdle.

In fact, on a scale of 10 in terms of surface traction—with dry asphalt being 10 or 9—wet asphalt sits at 7 and gravel is a 6. You know what offers the least traction? Snow and ice, which are a dangerous 2 and 1 on the scale, respectively. The problem is that we don’t have snow in the Philippines, so any local car distributor wishing to flaunt its vehicles’ off-road prowess in the most demanding conditions is forced to just stage the demo on rocky roads (which are common in this country anyway).

But Japanese automaker Mazda recently wanted me to experience firsthand its i-Active AWD technology on the worst terrain possible. The solution? Fly me to Hokkaido, Japan, where the biting cold of winter had frozen the ground and formed icicles on window frames.

Not a single patch of dry asphalt here. Just ice. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

The photo above shows the actual site where Mazda made me compete with my colleagues in a simple gymkhana contest. The rule was pretty straightforward: The driver who finished the course within the shortest time won. Token prizes were announced, but everyone was after the bragging rights.

First try with the front-wheel-driven Mazda 3. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

To highlight the difference the i-Active AWD made, Mazda had us drive a front-wheel-driven 3 sedan first. If you think you’re a good driver, you should try racing an FWD car on ice. It’s very humbling—embarrassing, even. All your preconceived ideas about turning right or left, braking gently before the turn, gassing up when the front wheels are already squarely pointed ahead…they all suddenly mean nothing. In snow, the car actually reacts to your input in an almost opposite manner. The more you correct your steering, for instance, the more you slide.

The FWD 3 sedan is a handful to drive in snow. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

I was all over the place in the FWD sedan. Mazda practically made me feel like a newbie at the wheel. The ice didn’t give me a chance. After four tries, I still looked like a bumbling jeepney driver who was aquaplaning on old, treadless tires.

Mind you, driving on ice is so unpredictable—so precarious—that one colleague who had been the first media champion of the Toyota Vios Cup couldn’t post a fast time either. He was even beaten by another Pinoy journalist (not me, obviously) whom he would have otherwise obliterated on dry concrete.

Time to sample a 3 hatch with i-Activ AWD. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

Next, we each drove a 3 hatchback with i-Activ AWD. Mazda’s all-wheel drive system is supposedly more capable than conventional ones in that it has the ability to anticipate slippage or traction loss even before it happens. Mazda claims that its AWD system can recognize and analyze various conditions (including road quality, driver input and vehicle behavior) at an incredible rate of 200 times per second. That’s certainly much more efficient than what my limited (and aging) reflexes can do.

When the system does detect slippage, it immediately sends the required amount of torque to the wheel (or wheels) needing traction. This is basically similar to the process in other AWD systems, but Mazda says that its i-Activ AWD constantly preloads the rear wheels with a little bit of torque even in normal driving conditions so that when a slip occurs, the torque transfer is seamless.

Mazda’s i-Activ AWD reminded me of my mother. When I was a kid, she made me bring a handkerchief every day—almost against my will

So, did I drive better in the AWD hatchback? You bet. I didn’t win the contest, but I finally managed to hold it all together. My lines were tighter, my steering more precise, my turns cleaner. In short, it enabled me to act like I knew what I was doing (I didn’t).

Mazda’s i-Activ AWD reminded me of my mother, to be honest. When I was a kid, she made me bring a handkerchief every day—almost against my will. She did this because she knew—she was sure—I would make a mess of myself. Indeed, I almost always did, and I always marveled at my mother’s foresight. I am eternally grateful that she ‘preloaded’ me with essentials I didn’t know I needed until an emergency situation was already staring me in the face.

Without Mazda's AWD system, we would have never regained our self-esteem. PHOTO BY VERNON B. SARNE

We may never experience driving on treacherous ice in the Philippines, but it’s still good to have the kind of AWD system you know will be able to catch any driving mistake you make or handle any road imperfection you encounter. If you want to try Mazda’s brilliant i-Activ AWD technology, it’s available on the locally sold CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9. Hopefully, you won’t have to slip and slide in real-world driving to appreciate its value.

Vernon B. Sarne

Vernon is the founder and editor-in-chief of VISOR. He has been an automotive journalist since July 1995. He became one by serendipity, walking into the office of a small publishing company and applying for a position he had no idea was for a local car magazine. God has watched over him throughout his humble journey. He writes the ‘Spoiler’ column.