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All-Wheel Drive: Mazda's New i-ACTIV System

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author photo by Allie Watkins March 2016

Welcome to the Mazda Ice Academy, where you intentionally spin out, fishtail and look for steep, icy hills. Located in Crested Butte, Colorado, where 5 feet of snow were dumped just a week prior, this winter wonderland was the perfect location to try Mazda's new all-wheel-drive (AWD) technology, i-ACTIV.

How Does It Work?

This new system takes standard information, such as the temperature outside of the car, incline and traction, to communicate to the AWD system when it's likely to be needed. Here's what that means for the driver: Say the outside temperature is below freezing, the road is a little slippery with ice, and you're on a hill; a vehicle like the Mazda CX-9 with i-ACTIV already knows to kick in all-wheel drive before the tires lose any traction.

After hearing about how i-ACTIV works, it seems like a no-brainer. Why has it taken us this long to use the technology that's already in a car to help other parts of it perform more efficiently? Most systems will only engage all-wheel drive once the vehicle has started to slip, not before. Other systems run power to all four wheels all the time and only redirect power once slippage is detected.

One of the benefits of Mazda's i-ACTIV technology is that it works so well that you shouldn't even notice it's there. And that's where the Mazda Ice Academy comes in: The point is to compare i-ACTIV technology side by side with other popular AWD models.

Testing, Testing: One, Two, Three

The first test was a slalom course, where I drove a 2016 Mazda CX-5, 2016 Subaru Forester and 2016 Honda CR-V around a series of sharp turns and one sweeping turn at 23-29 miles per hour. The purpose of this exercise was to feel how the different vehicles slid around corners -- or didn't slide. I started with the CR-V and was a little timid at first (I'm from the Southeast, where snow is a rare and mysterious luxury) before starting to push the speed on my last round. As my speed increased, I could feel the back end of the Honda CR-V starting to slide. The Forester was a little more stable, but it seemed to reduce speed in order to maintain more control -- then it came time for the Mazda CX-5 and its i-ACTIV system. Even on the first lap, it's apparent what a solid AWD system feels like: It feels like nothing! The car felt stable, and I felt in control.

It was the same story when we tested each of the three SUVs on a corner up an icy hill. The Mazda was the best, simply because the car is collecting a lot more information other than which wheels are slipping. The fact that the Mazda knows the car is on a hill makes all the difference in the world.

Having direct competitors to the CX-5 in the lineup to test head-to-head with their new all-wheel-drive technology was a bold move and clearly showed the benefits of this new Mazda i-ACTIV system.

What it means to you: If you live in a climate with heavy rain or snow and only have Audi, Jeep and Subaru on your shopping list, consider taking a Mazda with the i-ACTIV package for a test drive.

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All-Wheel Drive: Mazda's New i-ACTIV System - Autotrader