Mazda’s chiller thrillers

The Japanese brand that is serious about fun has just hosted its second annual ice and snow driving day at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground.

THE glean of water atop the ice pad was a giveaway: The freezer door had been left ajar and the thaw had begun.

Signs of melting around the main admin area Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG) at Mount Pisa the other morning were not what we wanted to see.

If conditions were warm even before the sun had risen, surely they would only worsen as the day went on?

Extreme cold is the hot zone for a location 1500m above sea level between Queenstown and Wanaka that, as every car nut by now surely knows, is a winter test centre for the global automotive industry, with a network of private facilities spread over 40 hectares.

There was still plenty of white stuff around, yet while snow scrunched under the tyres of our CX-5 and it was well cold enough to justify wearing two merino layers and a big woolly coat, I could not help but notice how much rock was showing through in places that, on previous visits, have only ever been well buried by a big white blanket.

Conversation with ground staff confirmed they’d been let down by the weather gods. A big front that should have brought fresh overnight snow had gone AWOL, with little chance of a late turnup during the day. So, with the external temp gauge suggesting a balmy air temp of 2C at 6.45m, what chance for the main aim of our visit: Hours of snow and ice skids?

Well, good news. Though it was a bit too warm to use the vast ice pans down around the lodge where we held a briefing and returned to for lunch, conditions at the highest of the venue’s proving grounds, though barely a hundred metres further up the hill, were still pretty primo.

Conditions for driving, that is. For filming and photography, not so good. That’s because the whole area was enveloped in thick cloud. A fantastic insulation, but at times visibility was so restricted that we see but metres ahead. A good excuse for shunting a snowbank, I suppose.

So it was that the show could go on for Mazda New Zealand, here for its second year of serious fun. Sorry, serious and fun.

The educative side was showcasing the i-Activ AWD technology and G-Vectoring Control that implements into its sports utilities, represented on this occasion by three key models: The CX-5 and the big boy CX-9 and CX-8 (which respectively tick off the seven-seater demand in petrol and diesel formats).

Like so many other systems, Mazda’s AWD is on-demand, so mostly front-drive for normal operation with torque progressively supplying to the rear wheels when required. However, i-Active differs in always being a little bit rear-drive even when it needn’t be and also through being especially reactive – 27 different sensors making 200 calculations per second about when loss of traction might be likely means it can deliver up to 50 percent of available torque rearwards even before occupants perceive wheel-slip.

Mazda says that the tuning of its traction and stability control systems give the driver maximum scope for control in the early stages of a slide. They also sought to demonstrate, with gymkhana-style exercises on ice and snow, how the cars can still keep their footing and balance – but with far more of a fun edge – when the traction control is disabled, a scenario that allowed more body movement but also brought to the fore the traction and also the helping hand provided by GVC, a Mazda-specific technology introduced on road cars but now also across these CX models. This subtly reduces engine torque as you turn into a corner, smoothing out steering action and therefore reducing body roll.

A series of slalom-style exercises provided a great demonstration about how high-tech can help.

However, it was the fun side of the occasion that left equally indelible impression.

For this, they brought in a vehicle that isn’t an SUV, doesn’t have AWD and is, with the traction off, a drifty dream.

Driving an MX-5 RF edition, opened to the elements, in a white-out is as crazy as it sounds – and the best fun you ever imagine, not least when your instructor points you toward a coned course whose successful negotiation demands big slides, achieved by turning the traction off and thereafter working the throttle and steering.

Tough job, but someone’s gotta do it …