‍‍‍words by KON


Sliding around in snow may sound like fun to many of us, but for car companies, it’s a serious part of a vehicle’s testing regime. The recent winter, we pried through the gates of Mazda’s Kenbuchi Winter Proving Ground.

Those of you who’ve read enough car mags and portals would know that globetrotting is a major part of the JD of a motoring journalist. Nearly a decade in the business and I have journeyed to my fair share of countries and have also experienced a variety of climates including, yes, winter. From these experiences, I have come to one inescapable conclusion – snow is overrated.

Decades of mental programming by the movies have given many of us a romanticized impression of snow – beautiful Christmas decos, kids building snowmen, or skiing down the Alps – but the reality is less pleasant, especially when having to pile on the layers of clothing everytime you get outdoors and just as quickly strip them off as you step into heated surroundings indoors. Suffice to say, it’s a lot of work, and not something I have a great deal of time for.

I’ll be honest, when the memo came from Mazda inviting me for a visit to Hokkaido in winter, my wife was far more excited abo‍‍‍ut it than I was. As she enthused partly about the beautiful scenery and mostly about the stuff I could buy for her, I found myself dreading the inconvenience of having to get in and out of the jackets, gloves, and hats everytime I stepped in and out of a building or vehicle.

And it was cold. Throughout our five days in Japan’s northernmost island, the minus sign was a constant companion on the thermometers, ambient temperatures never rising past zero, day or night. These temperatures inevitably contributed to massive snowfall and, as luck would have it, Hokkaido is said to have some of the best snow in the world. Good for skiing, according to Wikipedia.

We were there for a completely different reason, of course, as Mazda was opening the doors of its unique Kenbuchi Winter Proving Grounds to a visiting ASEAN media contingent with representatives from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, Brunei, and The Philippines.

All car makers that compete globally inevitably subject their cars to winter testing, but what makes the Kenbuchi grounds unique is that the area is actually public roads that are closed off every winter due to heavy snowfall. Mazda began testing cars at Kenbuchi since 1987, but in 1990 started to formally lease the entire area from the town council, cordoning it off for the company’s internal use.

It is one of five Mazda proving grounds across Japan, but Kenbuchi’s arrangement is unique and reflects a deep connection between the company and people of the town. In fact, every year, Mazda invites local residents of Kenbuchi for a get-together in its facility as means of thanking the people for their hospitality.

A great deal can be learned from driving a car through snowfall. Most importantly, perhaps, is that these cars are sold in many markets that experience heavy snow, and Mazda needs to ensure that these cars continue to perform flawlessly even in conditions cold enough to freeze the owner’s balls off. In Kenbuchi, areas worked on include active safety systems, all-wheel drive, performance of parts at low temperature, and potential damage due to melted snow. It even functions as training ground for training of expert drivers.

Injecting some excitement into affairs, our itinerary included a programme for snow driving, and having read about Bobby’s adventures in Finland last year with Audi, I was naturally excited to experience some zoom-zoom on ice. But as much as a maverick Mazda is amongst Japanese car makers, the Japanese are, by nature, a more reserved lot than the Europeans, and our driving programme was inevitably less exhaustive than we would have experienced in an equivalent activity with any of the German car makers.

We were, in fact, mere spectators for our first exercise of the day, riding shotgun as Mazda’s test drivers drove front- and all-wheel-driven versions of the CX-5, both of which were diesel-powered, up the same sloping road to illustrate the advantages of having traction spread across all fours as opposed to just the front two when on slippery ground.

Indeed, even from the vantage point of the passenger seat, the differences between the two vehicles were quite substantial. The one with front-wheel drive was noticeably struggling to keep things together, with only the electronic stability control system helping the car maintain any semblance of directional stability. The all-wheel drive vehicle, in contrast, felt more secure and assured in its progress.

We adjourned for a quick,… no, quick is not the correct word. We adjourned for a slow but brief spin around the proving ground’s perimeter road in the new CX-8 – a seven-seater SUV destined for Malaysian shores to fill the large price gap between the CX-5 and CX-9.

Another exercise, also in which we were driven rather than being given the keys to drive, unfortunately, demonstrated the effectiveness of Mazda’s stability control in snow – a double lane change at high speed. With ESC on, the car wiggled a bit, but kept going where the driver pointed; with ESC off, well, let’s just say that an expert driver with 18 years of experience driving on snow was only 50 percent confident in his chances of effectively catching the car’s slide.

Perhaps the most interesting activity of the day was the gymkhana-on-sno‍‍‍w exercise. Layout-wise, it was as simple and as straightforward as a gymkhana could be, but with barely any grip underneath, it was all too easy getting the Mazda3s slipping and sliding in all directions.

We were given a total of eight attempts on the simple gymkhana track in two different versions of the Mazda3 – a diesel-powered front-driver and a petrol-fuelled all-paw variant. Starting off in the oil-burner, a profound lesson immediately dawned upon me – a diesel engine’s high torque and front-wheel drive don’t make a good mix on snow.

Shortly after wheelspinning on take off, the first corner immediately illustrated the importance of recalibrating one’s driving radar on snow. It’s not impossible to steer your car, but your steering and brakes don’t respond with the same immediacy as they do on try tarmac. Any excess in throttle input beyond what’s absolutely necessary only adds to the already severe chronic understeer for you to deal with.

Switching over to the vehicle with all-wheel drive made a world of difference. It’s not exactly a fair comparison, because the AWD car’s petrol engine does not have a bootful of torque to suddenly shove down its driveline, but whatever it is, the result is a car in which the driver can be a bit more aggressive on the throttle and not lose control.

Unlike driving in the dry, you apply your steering input ahead of time, ride on the understeer, and power at just the right mome‍‍‍nt straightening the car beautifully for you to pull cleanly past the apex. Just as I was getting the hang of it, my turn behind the wheel was up, and I was reluctantly pulling the GoPros down from the windscreens and vacating the car for the next driver.

And that, as they say, was that. It was our final activity of the day and everybody trudged back to the reception area for debriefing before being sent our merry way back to the hotel. The experience was certainly an eye-opener, if not fully satisfying in terms of minutes available behind the wheel. One thing’s for sure, this writer’s appetite for driving on snow has now been thoroughly whetted.

I still don’t care much snow if I’m to be honest, but I’d certainly be more than happy to try driving on it again.

It is commonly-accepted wisdom in car circles that the trade-off one accepts with all-wheel drive versus two-wheel drive in any vehicle is that you gain more secure handling on slippery surfaces in return for accepting a substantial detriment to your fuel economy in most conditions.

The usual argument against all-wheel drive is one that revolves around cost – higher cost of purchase, more parts to maintain, and heavier fuel bills; all for a system that most of us tend not to need using most of the time. But here’s the thing, Mazda, as we all know, is not a company that adheres to common wisdom. After all, it takes a special kind of crazy for any company to have persisted this long with the rotary engine.

Mazda engineers don’t readily accept compromises and regularly challenge themselves to boldly push the boundaries of engineering where no car makers dare go. Fittingly, the company’s solution for all-wheel traction keeps with the overall theme of SkyActiv Technology in being elegantly simple in its design yet meticulously finetuned in its application.
Road-biased AWD systems typically operate on-demand, meaning they are front-wheel drive by default with traction sent to the rear only when slippage is detected. This, to Mazda, is like attempting to stabilize one self only after you’ve lost your footing. Too late.

In order to maintain the fuel economy benefits of on-demand AWD whilst offering response comparable to higher performance systems, Mazda’s solution is to introduce a predictive algorithm to the AWD control unit, tying in input from the car’s existing network of sensors to anticipate the need for additional traction at the rear as needed.

The system takes into account variables such as steering angle, steering torque, brake and throttle inputs, individual wheel speed, even external temperature and wiper operation. All these variables enable the car to accurately perceive its surroundings and more accurately gauge the correct front-rear torque distribution to offer maximum stability in any driving condition.

To further shorten the system’s response time whilst maintaining good fuel economy, the i-Activ AWD constantly applies a small amount of torque, about 1 percent, at all times. This therefore eliminates the time needed to ‘engage’ the driveshaft to send power astern, enabling it to instantaneously redistribute torque to the axle that needs it most.

Once again, by rethinking things at a fundamental level, Mazda is able to offer a ‘best of both worlds’ system that is at the same time astonishingly elegant. The i-Activ AWD system eliminates much power wastage by being able to predictively and precisely meter its distribution of torque by ensuring that the rear axle always receives just enough to give an added sense of security, but never too much that it wastes fuel unnecessarily.

Tech Talk | Mazda i-Activ AWD

Perhaps a case of the side dish being more relevant than the main course, our itinerary‍‍‍ included a short drive around the perimeter of the proving ground in the Mazda CX-8, a seven-seater SUV destined for our market sometime in the coming months.

Mechanically a stretched CX-5, the CX-8 slots just below the CX-9 and will come with a choice of two powertrains and an interior that can be configured to seat six or seven occupants.

In Japan, where the CX-9 is not offered, the CX-8 is the flagship of the Mazda range and is exclusively powered by Mazda’s 2.2-litre SkyActiv diesel engine, which we were given the chance to drive. Alternatively, we were told that the Malaysian market will also have the option of choosing the 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated petrol presently seen in the CX-5 and Mazda6.

Initial impressions from our quick test drive are pretty positive. The superlative interior build quality that we’ve seen in more recent Mazda vehicles are present and accounted for, reinforcing a more premium marketing positioning of this vehicle.

Our market is likely to get seven seats, but the six-seater configuration of our test car is one that convincingly espouses luxury with its two individual seats in the middle row sandwiching a fixed centre console with a beefy armrest, dedicated climate controls, a substantial storage compartment, and beautifully finished in true Mazda fashion.

We can’t give you more insightful feedback on the driving experience beyond saying that the 2.2-litre diesel of our test car felt butter smooth, but you’d already know that if you’ve read our
review of the CX-5 diesel published sometime back.

Coming Soon | Mazda CX-‍‍‍8

Plans to bring the CX-8 into Malaysian shores are firm, and the car is set to be locally-assembled. Logically, based on current prices of the CX-5 and CX-9, we are looking a price range in the RM200k – RM250k bracket.

A handsome yet decently-sized seven-seater with a well-appointed interior, the CX-8 is an attractive upgrade for anyone looking to move on from the mid-sized five-seater SUVs but find the likes of the GLC and X3 either too expensive or too small for their needs.