There’s no point in keeping secrets – automotive journalism really is the best job in the world. Case in point: the 2016 Mazda Ice Academy. Believe this if you can – the Test Miles crew went to Gunnison, Colorado in the heart of ski country to race around on a groomed course of ice and snow in some of Mazda’s latest sports cars and crossovers. At this point, I need to define a term: Hoon. According to the Urban Dictionary, to Hoon is “To travel at speed in a confined area, or do burnouts on a public road in traffic or to show off in a dagerous manner, mostly with a vehicle or engine powered item. That pretty much sums up what we were doing.
Comparative On-Road Testing
But don’t think it was all play and no education. Mazda divided up our day on the snow into four snow driving activities. First, we drove around on public roads – over hill and dale, as it were – in a variety of current crossover SUVs. We had a chance to drive the latest compact crossovers from Mazda, Subaru, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and more. All of the vehicles in this test performed well, making short work of the conventional real-world slippery surfaces. But, since winter sports is not a venue where Mazda has historically competed, their diminutive CX-3 crossover was a standout for its sports car-inspired handling and interior. Honda’s HR-V was another personal favorite in this activity.
Bridgestone Blizzak Tire Testing
The second activity featured Bridgestone’s Blizzak winter tires. In this segment, we drove a FWD Mazda CX-3 on standard all-season tires, then a CX-3 with Mazda’s new iACTIV AWD system riding on the same all-season tires, and finally an iACTIV AWD CX-3 on the Blizzak winter tires. The course involved getting started on a gentle slope, then navigating some corners, and finally a braking test from about 30 MPH. The difference between the three vehicles was nothing short of astonishing on several levels. The FWD CX-3 performed better than expected – thanks to Mazda’s excellent traction control system. But it was slow off the mark and delicate to handle. The AWD CX-3 on all-season tires was better at getting started and in the corners, but fared no better in the braking test. This is an important factor for any AWD or 4WD vehicle – when it comes to stopping, extra drive wheels offer no advantage.
What really made the difference in this test was the Bridgestone Blizzak tire. The CX-3 equipped with Blizzaks stopped in about 1/3 the distance of the other vehicles. That’s because Blizzaks are made with the latest winter tire technology, using small slices in the tread known as sipes to grab more of the road surface, plus extra-soft rubber to conform and grab any available traction, and some secret sauce in the form of particles in the rubber (probably silicon, but Bridgestone won’t give up the secret) that help to grab on any surface. The net result is that the Blizzaks transform the winter driving experience from treacherous to trustworthy.
Comparing AWD Systems
For the next test, we compared the performance of Honda, Subaru, and Mazda’s AWD systems in their small crossovers. All these vehicles were equipped with Blizzak tires. We started with a giant slalom to compare the vehicles at speed on packed snow. Mazda had briefed us on their latest high-tech AWD system, which engages in milliseconds to provide 2WD fuel economy when possible, and fully engaged AWD whenever needed.
In the giant slalom, the Subaru had a slight tendency to oversteer, which I enjoyed, and the Honda had a slight tendency to understeer, which I didn’t enjoy. The Mazda was balanced and cut into corners with confidence. Score 1 for Mazda.
Then we took each vehicle up a fairly steep hill and stopped on the slope. We turned the wheels and then attempted to crest the hill while cornering. The point of this exercise was to illustrate how Mazda’s AWD system kicks in where others do not, because different automakers tend to program their systems to go into 2WD mode when the wheels are turned. They do that to save fuel economy, because it takes more power (and thus more fuel) to drive all four wheels around a sharp corner.
As expected, the Mazda AWD system made short work of the challenge and scrambled right over the hill. The Subaru system took a little longer to engage, but I made it over the hill several times in the Forester test vehicle. The Honda CR-V had a tougher time, but eventually made it over the hill, too. My only quibble with the test is that it wasn’t strictly fair. Under very precise conditions, we demonstrated a weakness in some other cars, but to be fair those conditions are pretty obscure. The Subaru and even the Honda would be considered capable by any driver actually trying to get over a snowy hill or up a steep driveway. The Mazda CX-3 definitely had the best system, but every brand’s AWD system was good.
Hooning in a Miata – Just Because We Can
The highlight of the day (apart from some really excellent hot chocolate in a yurt) was definitely our time in Mazda’s latest MX-5 Miata. One thing that journalists love about Mazda is that the people who work there are hardcore sports car enthusiasts, just like us. So it was no surprise that they took a half-dozen of the company’s halo sports cars and threw a set of Blizzaks under each one and turned us loose on a big field of packed snow. Honestly, it was like the best Christmas ever.
We slid the Miatas around the course, swinging wildly from side to side and flinging up giant rooster tails of snow. I have to say we were living the dream – top down, ears aching from the cold, and just generally having the time of our sweet lives.
At the end of the day, we were treated to hot laps around the entire field by a team of accomplished rally drivers including Ramana Lagemann, Lauchlin O’Sullivan, and Matthew Johnson, among others. Most readers won’t know those names, but trust me, these guys know their business and the laps were more than hot enough to make up for the falling temperatures.
What Did We Learn?
Apart from confirming what we already knew – that screwing around on snow in someone else’s car is fun – we learned a few important things at the Mazda Ice Academy.
First, we learned that AWD matters, and a good AWD system is a necessity in the 70% of the United States and 100% of Canada that experiences significant winter weather. Mazda’s new iACTIV AWD system is smooth, efficient, and gets the job done as well as any crossover system on the market today. If they put that system into the Mazda3 and Mazda6 passenger cars, my joy will be complete.
Second, we learned that proper winter tires really matter, and that studded snow tires are so very last century. What you want to save your local roads from ruts and to keep your car under perfect control is a set of Blizzaks. I’ve driven a lot of miles on studded winter tires, and this event made a Blizzak Believer out of me.
Winter driving is treated as a major undertaking – and to be honest, it can be dangerous. But you can minimize the risks of winter driving with a couple smart choices. You guessed it: get yourself a Mazda CX-3 or CX-5 with iACTIV AWD and a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks and you’ll be the King of Winter.