Mazda Snow Drive: Fun engineered in Godzone

30 September 2018
David Kavermann | Driven

If you thought vehicle testing at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds was all about hooning in one of New Zealand’s most picturesque locations, you’d be right. But there is some serious science behind the sometime controlled, sometimes out-of-control, and always smile-inducing, snow-driving experience.

Mazda has just finished its annual 12-week testing programme at the SHPG in the mountains above Queenstown, developing all manner of models and new technologies for 2019 and beyond. With the top-secret prototypes gone from prying eyes, Mazda NZ was free to showcase its current SkyActiv technology with Mazda CX-5, CX-8 and CX-9 SUVs mixed with a handful of MX-5 RFs … because what’s a snow drive without rear-wheel drive, right?

The name SkyActiv will be familiar to most car fans as the naming convention Mazda uses for its engine range since 2011. But what’s not as well known is that Mazda’s SkyActiv technologies are not limited to engines. SkyActiv chassis, transmission and body development all fall under the “SkyActiv-Vehicle Dynamics” umbrella — a key focus for the brand’s SHPG testing.

When it comes to vehicle development, Mazda’s guiding principle is “Jinba Ittai”, a Japanese compound describing the unity of a horse and its rider operating as one. Mazda NZ product and sales planning manager Tim Nalden said this principle worked towards one outcome for customers.

“We’re about building drivers’ cars,” he said.

“Cars which are fun-to-drive and capable in different situations with crisp handling, responsiveness and predictable controllability.

“New technologies, especially safety, are critical to Mazda, but at the end of the day there’s no reason why these systems shouldn’t enhance the driving experience, rather than hinder it,” Nalden said.

“Mazda’s technologies built on the principle of ‘Jinba Ittai’ respect the driver, as the car responds in line with driver’s intentions” — hence the horse-and rider analogy.

The SkyActiv system I would rely on most throughout the day was i-Activ AWD equipped on all our SUVs. The system has 27 sensors (monitoring driver inputs such as steering angle, vehicle speed and pedal position) that complete 200 calculations per second to keep everything in check. In Full-time AWD the system always drives the rear wheels, even when it’s not needed. On-demand AWD can also be selected: that will bring the rear into play when needed as the front or rear slips.

Another development Mazda was keen to show off on snow was G-Vectoring Control, used to transfer power to any wheel, optimising tyre load and vehicle posture. With AWD and GVC, Mazda’s SUV range corners flatter with minimal steering angle needed to change direction while navigating a tricky snow-covered slalom course.

On slippery surfaces these systems, calibrated with extensive testing at SHPG, are critical to vehicle stability and ultimately driver safety. But to make its cars more enjoyable to drive, Mazda has worked tricks into the Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control System.

Both are purposely engineered to intervene later than most systems, allowing a fair amount of “slide tolerance” and “engineered wheelspin”. Mazda says the system works so fast it’s difficult to demonstrate, but behind the wheel on a tricky surface, the results are clear.

Even in a normal family SUV like the CX-5, the systems allow the car to slide from side to side in the slalom course. So much so that a hint of opposite lock was necessary when I breached the limits and the AWD and GVC systems moved drive to the right wheels and regained control.

Mazda prides itself in its pioneering spirit, and was one of the first manufacturers to test at the SHPG more than 20 years ago.

It’s heartening to know that spirit still exists, with much of the fine-tuning happening in our backyard.

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