The Mazda Ice Academy’s main reason for existence was to show off the Hiroshima automaker’s newfangled all-wheel-drive system. That was good, as we’d marveled before at how they managed to give a mid-size crossover better handling than many actual cars. We wanted to learn the secret, but by the end of day two the academy had turned into a session of drifting Miatas on a snow-covered mountaintop. With the top down. In below-freezing temperatures. As it turns out, the two are more closely related than you think.
We almost didn’t make it to the first-ever Mazda Ice Academy in Crested Butte, Colorado. A record blizzard was in the process of dumping nipple-high quantities of snow on the Rockies, and all flights out of DEN to the closest airport in Gunnison (population: 5,854) had been canceled. We were rebooked on a flight to Montrose, 90 minutes away from the academy, but then that too was canceled. As a last-ditch effort, we hopped into an SUV, bid farewell to Blucifer, and headed towards the Continental Divide not knowing whether Monarch Pass would still be open when we needed to cross it in three hours.
None of this stopped the Mazda Ice Academy, which was proceeding as planned. Mazda sent us, along with a bunch of journalists, dealers and owners — including a band of Aussies who’d never seen snow — to educate us about turning scary fluff into docile puffs. And of course, there was that fancy AWD system to brandish. Fitted to the new CX-3 and CX-5 crossovers, it allowed the Mazdas to best a Honda CR-V and, surprisingly, even a Subaru Forester — both conveniently on hand for comparison — around powdery autocross courses.
Most explanations would probably begin with the technology and clever engineering behind the system, which Mazda calls predictive AWD. We’ll get to that in a moment, but we’re convinced that that’s in fact just part of the equation. What’s equally, if not more important, is Mazda’s overall philosophy, which connects the least boring crossovers in the industry with cars like the Miata, the superbly handling 6 sedan, and the continued development of the rotary engine.
The key is a theory of human-centric engineering. That sounds like a bunch of marketing mumbo jumbo, but the extensive study of how the human body subconsciously reacts to motion and movement informs much of how engineers bake in that intuitive “Mazda feel” into their cars.
If you’ve ever driven a Miata, whether it’s an NA or the new ND, you know the feeling. Even when you’re doing something as mundane as pulling out of your parking space, you can sense that the car doesn’t simply pitch (rotate along an axis running left to right through its doors), but rolls as well (along an axis running longitudinally nose to tail). Taken in combination, the movements seem to rotate the car diagonally, like a speedboat accelerating off while turning.
It’s less mechanical, more fluid, and according to Mazda engineers, much closer to how your body actually behaves. After all, when you walk, that great sensor of balance known as your butt doesn’t just move like a goose-stepping Lego figure. Your pelvis rotates diagonally as well, and the mimicking of that motion is just one of hundreds of engineering calculations that, when applied to a car, give it that feeling often described as “intuitive.”
“At the end of the day, we’re making cars out of the same metal as everybody else,” engineer Dave Coleman explains. “If you think about the experience of driving a car from the standpoint of a homo sapiens, you should not be able to do what you do in that car. Your performance envelope should be dictated by your legs.”
As a result, driving gives you both a feeling of excitement and fear. The thrill comes when you feel in command of the machine, when it’s behaving as an extension of your body. The fear comes when there’s uncertainty about wielding that extension. As Mazda sees it, the engineer’s job is to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Coleman describes the idea better than we ever could:
If you focus on the way a car is responding, especially in the first part of corner — going straight down the road is a steady state thing… in the middle of a corner is also very predictable, everything’s settled out — but when you first turn in on a corner and you’ve got to time exactly when you turn the wheel so that all the things that need to happen in a corner — all the bushings deflecting, the dampers moving, the tires starting to stretch — have to happen so smoothly and so precisely for you to stay exactly on the path you want to. When you first turn the steering wheel, there’s a moment of delay… We put a lot of focus into that very first part to make sure the steering feedback is tell you the right thing about what the car’s going to do.
So, translating that into the AWD system on a CX-3 or CX-5, it’s about making you not feel as if the machinery is fighting against you. On most AWD cars, the system is reactive, pinching the brakes or diverting power once wheelspin has been detected. That can often provide a jarring driving experience, something you don’t want when a jolt might send you careening off an icy mountain road.
What Mazda figured out was that an AWD system should be predictive. How does a car tell the future? By taking data a bunch of existing sensors just like your brain. For example, if the outside temperature is near freezing, then the car knows there could be ice. If the wipers are on, then it knows it’s probably raining. It uses g-meter data to see if you’re on a slope, and the gas pedal position and brake fluid pressure to know how hard you’re pushing. All of this data is funneled into the AWD system, which will engage the rear wheels before any slippage occurs.
The system is never off, either. There’s always 1 to 2 percent of power going to the rear wheels so when AWD does kick in, it doesn’t shock the driveline. The individual pieces of technology are nothing new, and exist on every new-ish AWD car. It’s just that no one thought to have them talk to each other until now. In practice on our autocross course, it gave the CX-5 an advantage of at least 5 mph over its competitors on a snow-covered sweeping curve. A skilled driver could have probably extracted more.
Other automakers would’ve been content to stop there, but Mazda has makes it their mission to inject some thrills into the act of driving wherever it can. As such, it hauled a fleet of 2016 Miatas onto the ice and turned us loose. The Miata, of course, is not all-wheel-drive. It is rear-wheel-drive, and thus extremely prone to drifting when placed on a slippery surface.
Did we feel bad hooning someone else’s brand new sports car and throwing roostertails of frozen water into open cockpits? Absolutely not, because it was highly encouraged. “Turn you your traction control off,” commanded our instructors. “We want to see the tail sliding around!” And slide we did. Who were we to argue?
You’ve probably heard of Mazda’s philosophies that borrow heavily from Japanese culture. Jinba Ittai is the idea of horse and rider as one. Kodo is the soul of motion in design. There’s another one. It’s called Hashiru Yorokobi, which is often translated as the joy of driving, but in actuality it’s joy from driving. That’s one of the governing principles within the company, the idea that just about anyone should be able to jump behind the wheel, even of a crossover, and experience that thrill we enthusiasts get.
By late afternoon, continuous rounds of Miata drifting had packed the surface into dense layer of ice. We were quickly learning that when ice racing, the fastest way around a turn isn’t necessarily the proper driving line; it’s whichever line has the most loose snow. With each pass those lines were moving further and further from the apex as snow was flung outward. But as our slides grew increasingly wider, so did the grins on our faces. Mission accomplished.