Mazda3 GVC: Twisted tale of tech and talent

A lot of crazy stuff is associated with a sensible new steering tweak that has just introduced with the updated Mazda3.


Outside of his day job developing new Mazdas Dave Coleman can often be found at a circuit in his native California, racing a blast from Hiroshima’s past, a first gen MX-5.

So far, so normal. From here on it stuff gets weird. Some might say seriously strange weird. But in a good way.

Coleman and five cohorts - his wife, Sarah, two other auto industry pals and their partners - compete in a budget endurance-racing category, the 24 Hour of Le Mons, in which the mandated $500 budget allowed them to front with a gen one MX-5. Actually two; the front of one, the rear of another.

Le Mons encourages inventiveness: Eyesore Racing had plenty. The wrecks that created the car cost just $18 all up, so the rest went into go-fast. Foremost to turbocharge the thing.

Hold on? Wasn’t this something Hiroshima insisted was an impossiblity due to the lack of under-bonnet space and heat build-up issues?

Exactly right. But Coleman’s crowd overcame this by undertaking a fix that would be never be acceptable on a production car. They’ve located the turbo outside of the car; right in the driver’s eye-line, in fact. It is connected to the engine via an oddball system of pipes – mainly galvanized plumbing fittings (so much cheaper than car parts).

The turbo comes from a Dodge Stratus, not the US model but a Mexican market equivalent (on the advice of another team member, who should know his stuff, being a top guy with leading turbocharger brand Garrett) and peps the 86kW output to 104. What to do with the bonnet? Waste not, etc … it became, for a while, the roof. Other ‘fixes’ included ripping out extra piece of extraneous trim, cutting out the door sides and redesigning the fuel tank to increase capacity (it’s still not enough).

This happened years ago. Eyesore’s car, the Ghettocharged Miata, was a winning formula at first, winning on pace alone. Now others are quicker, or have better endurance, so until Coleman can suss how to fit a bigger fuel tank, reliability (an MX-5 plus point) has become more of a crucial factor in events that go for hours, though only one, the flagship outing, appears to do a complete circuit of the clock.

So far, this might all seem a little whacky. The truly, deliciously, twisted part, though, has become a cult thing. Eyesore dress up. Bizarrely.

When they hit the Le Mons scene, everyone was already decorating their cars. Eyesore went further. It decided to theme its car for individual events. Not only that, the team would dress for the part, too. A quick web search will show there are no limits, nor any particular consideration to PC sensitivities.

They’ve done the Elvis thing, of course, but also much more – gangsters, pimps and hoes, French maids (yes, guys included) and DC heroes. PC goes out the window. The hoo-haa about the Hollywood movie about assassinating North Korea’s leader inspired a bad taste homage. They also pimp out the car to suit the theme; for Alice in Wonderland, it carried a picnic set. The best was the Star Trek effort: the whole top of the car raced with a replica of the USS Enterprise, which had – I kid you not – been shaped on Mazda’s brainbox CAD computer to ensure optimum aero effect.

This unexpectedly nutsy entry strategy broke the ice with other teams, who’d had trepidation about what effect an equipe with, as Car and Driver magazine put it, “about 1.4 advanced science degrees per team member”, would have on their series. That these lab-coated conservatives turned out to be a bunch of mad scientists has been a stroke of genius. Now everyone waits to see what they’ll dare do next.

On meeting Dave and Sarah there’s little clue they’re with the baddest bunch of egghead performance pervs on the California club racing scene. Indeed, though Dave did make mention of the turbo rework in casual conversation, the full extent of this tale only became apparent through a subsequent Google search.

Still, a hint of this couple’s motorsport madness came through when, at dinner that night, one of our Mazda NZ hosts made casual mention of their wedding having been held on the famous Corkscrew section of the brand-backed Laguna Seca circuit. Also, that their wedding rings are matching titanium nuts. So they’re clearly a high octane pair.

You’re probably thinking, now, that all this after-hours activity is kept quite separate from Dave’s day job, but I’m not sure that is true, given that his most recent jobs for the company he joined after a stint as a journalist for a car mag have both been track and performance-related.

He was, for instance, the leading engineer on refining the North American market dynamic and performance tune for the latest generation MX-5. That demanded a LOT of track time. Tough job, but he knuckled down and took one for the team.

After that came the programme he has come to New Zealand to spruik and discuss with motoring writers the other day.

Mazda owners are going to get to know a lot about G-Vectoring Control. Introduced with the facelifted Mazda3 that has just come on sale in New Zealand, this intriguing driver assistance update will from the end of this month be with another volume-seller, the Mazda6, with more recipients in the wings.

Hiroshima has described GVC as the first feature in a series of technologies under development with the common aim of providing “drivers with greater feel and a more enjoyable experience.”

Sounds snazzy, but what does it actually do? Basically, this ingenious technology that emulates weight-transfer techniques to make road-going cars handle better and passengers feel more comfortable.

Actually, make that ‘motorsport-derived’ weight transfer techniques. GVC came about simply because one Mazda engineer in Japan got to thinking about how rally drivers used left-foot braking to slow and position a car for fast, precision cornering on low and no-grip surfaces. This led to a paper, which led to a programme, which in turn pulled in Dave, an immediately enthusiastic involver because, before diving into circuit racing, he’d dabbled with rallying at regional level, winning a local title.

GVC isn’t designed to make everyday Mazda family cars into madcap racers, but understanding its effect does require a controlled environment. Hence why MotoringNetwork was at Mike Pero Motorsport Park, aka Ruapuna near Christchurch, two days ago, driving a pair of Mazda3 cars: An outgoing model without GVC and an equivalent with it, around a coned course at identical speed.

The exercise was to demonstrate how much tidier and more settled the GVC car was. It was a positive outcome that made such difference anyone who tries it will wonder exactly what’s going on.

Mazda’s system is a bit akin to yaw control, which some past performance Mitsubishis have had, and also has some similarity to torque vectoring, another emergent technology, insomuch as a basic action is to transfer torque – the engine’s ‘muscle’ if you will - to the wheels. A torque vectoring system also does this, but using a differential with the ability to vary the feed to each wheel.

Mazda’s is different. The setup that engineers in California and Japan spent more than eight years developing is less mechanical than it is electronic; the car uses its onboard computers to vary engine torque, through instantaneous change to ignition timing and fuel metering, in relation to the driver’s steering input to tailor the vertical load on each wheel.

Every time the driver turns the steering wheel, GVC shifts a tiny amount of weight to the outside front tyre, which improves grip and steering response. The result is less sawing at the steering wheel to find the right path through a turn, or less effort to keep the car pointed straight on the open road.

This, Mazda claims, results in “smooth and efficient vehicle motion”, improved traction and a reduction in the need for minor steering corrections.

Does it actually make you a better driver or does it simply leave you feeling that way? The former, asserts Coleman.

“Because you are making a smoother input into following the line (of steering) you intended following better. The fact that it (the car) is throwing your passengers around less proves that you are actually being a better driver.”

Yes, there is a sensory component. “The reason you’re a better driver is that the feedback from the car is what you want, it’s what you are looking for, so it’s working directly on what we call the feedback loop between the car and driver.

“That’s really critically what makes a car good to drive – whether it’s doing what you expect it to do and you can communicate with it subconsciously.”

Coleman admits our test run didn’t really show off GVC at its optimum – a low grip surface gives a more coherent feel, so wetting down the track would have been beneficial.

Better still would have been running on snow and ice: A video from Mazda showed massive differences in cornering aspect in those conditions, the non-GVC test car running wider and sliding and understeering whereas the equipped car pretty much tracked true.

Not that GVC only enacts in the odd slippery bend. It’s always on duty, to the degree there’s confidence GVC Mazdas will feel more like ‘driver’s cars’ on every outing, providing impression of having the same feel, on demanding roads especially, as those top-end German performance sedans that tend to set the standard. Sadly, we never left the race track to discover this.

Even so, and despite there being a certain degree of sappiness in Mazda citing this as being one more part of its pursuit of Jinba Ittai – a Japanese phrase that roughly translates to “horse and rider as one” and “oneness between car and driver,” - GVC doesn’t seem to categorise as an over-hyped tweak. It is a significant enhancer.

You’re not wrong in thinking that it is complex. The core feature is Mazda’s SkyActiv engine management system which includes the GVC algorithms as part of what Mazda calls SkyActiv Vehicle Dynamics.

The sequence of events seems straightforward: When you turn the wheel the electronics retards the ignition timing ever so slightly, engine torque (power) falls slightly, the car slows ever so slightly, and a small amount of weight transfers to the outside front wheel.

However, speed is the key. Reaction speed, that is. All of the above takes place in less than 50 milliseconds (one-twentieth of a second) so it’s effectively instantaneous.

That’s why it only avails now. The latest SkyActiv drivetrains are the first that have the engine management ‘smarts’ that are quick-witted enough. That’s why the early development car was actually an electric vehicle; with those torque reaction is instantaneous.

So why run in tandem with the engine and not off the brakes? Well, Coleman says, Mazda initially thought it could achieve the outcome that GVC provides through the braking, but found using this method to slow the outer front wheel took too long and was imprecise. Slowing the car by reducing fuel and torque was much more effective.

The change in speed is so slight, 0.01G to 0.05G, Mazda says, that “deceleration is not consciously detectable by the driver” yet in the exercises I undertook, which included an emergency lane change slalom, the difference in behaviour between the GVC car and the old model (required because it’s an automated in-built system, with no on/off switch for the driver) running exactly at 35kmh (on cruise control) was obvious.

With the non-assisted car, all in our group were prone to turn in too much or too little, over-correct, correct for the over-correction and so on. With GVC, the turning action was far more linear.

Coleman’s description of the research process, much undertaken with Hitachi, was illuminating. Much focused on how drivers and passengers react to the forces of motion, not least equilibrioception –how people maintain their sense of balance with the brain correcting for normal head bobbing – and the minimum jerk theory (basically, human motion includes jerky motion that we try to smooth out as much as possible).

GVC also allows subtle tweaks to the suspension and steering. It’s now on every model, unlike another new feature, radar and camera-driven crash avoidance systems that, in most circumstances (save, as we found, when the camera is affected by sun-strike) allows the car to self-stop when seemingly set to power into another vehicle or a pedestrian.

That’s good tech, too. But it’s also quite universal. Whereas GVC belongs entirely to Mazda so, if other brands want it – and they should – then they’ll have to come knocking, probably with a big wad of cash in hand.