Traction control can only help so much.
That, I think, was the most important lesson that I had learned after spending a few hours at the Kenbuchi proving ground; a facility with a variety of courses that Mazda uses to test their cars... in snow and on ice. And now they've opened up the facility to a group of automotive journalists from around the tropical ASEAN region.
Here, on roads that look more like a Scandinavian rally stage, is where they work to show that Mazda -any Mazda- is more than the sum of its aids.
We had spent an entire day just to get to Hokkaido to be part of a meeting of automotive journalists from ASEAN, and conduct a very different kind of briefing, followed by a test drive in the snow. The curious part about that is that none of the countries of the journalists in attendance -Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Myanmar, Singapore, or the Philippines- actually experience winter. But we'll get to that later.
This Kenbuchi Proving Ground is meant for testing Mazda’s upcoming models in the most extreme of conditions: a brutal winter and everything that comes with it like driving on iced roads. the low visibility of blizzards, and everything else in between. A lot -if not all- of the Japanese automakers actually have their own proving grounds on Hokkaido as well primarily because prototypes are not allowed to be tested on public roads. In places like Europe, automakers can drive test mules (old or current shells but with new engines and tech), camouflaged prototypes, and pre-production units on public roads; that's something we know well because our spy photographers are based in Europe.
Given the exclusive nature of the winter proving grounds of Japanese automakers, it's not easy to get spy photography here. The security of Mazda's Kenbuchi Proving Ground depends not on big and muscled security crews like an exclusive superclub; instead they have a lone grandfatherly man at the security gate. No, Kenbuchi's security is afforded by its location in the middle of a forest, deterring even the most dedicated spy photographers. The fact that there are bears somewhere in the midst of those trees only adds to the specter of its security.
The facility has a variety of courses that allow Mazda to verify certain features of their models before they go to showrooms worldwide. There are skidpads, a fast 2 kilometer course, steep uphills and downhills, mountain paths, country roads, paths with melted snow, so on and so forth. Basically anything related to winter driving and condictions can be tested here.
It matters not if the cars are going to tropical places without winter conditions; by testing cars on surfaces with barely any traction or grip, they can fine tune their cars to be even better. They actually categorized the levels of traction on different surfaces. If Mazda knows their cars can perform in extremely low traction conditions of ice (10%) or snow (20%), they know that it can perform on asphalt with running water on it (30-40%), on asphalt with sand on it (40-50%), on gravel or dirt courses (40-60%), on wet asphalt (40-70%), and definitely on dry asphalt (70-90%).
And that's why we're here.
Touring The Tracks
After a customary presentation and safety briefing, we hopped aboard a Mazda Premacy. This model is actually a bit of an alien to our market; it was known as the Mazda5. It's an MPV but is more like a really small minivan with its sliding doors, but it was never sold in the Philippines.
We were to be taken on something much more than a dime tour of the facility, and when we buckled in and went on our way, it was clear that this will be a special experience. The test driver -whose name I couldn't remember- told us the story of how the facility that Mazda owns is technically just the building and the immediate area around it, and that the mountain course that we're on are actually part of the public roads for most of the year; they rent it from the local government (which is very supportive) during the winter time.
As we drove deeper into the forest, it became clear that their job -while fun- is daunting. The road is extremely slippery, which is why the Premacy we're aboard is actually four-wheel drive. In fact, a lot of the cars (save for a CX-5) they have for today's drive are all four-wheel drive, including the diminutive Mazda Demio, otherwise known as the Mazda2. What's even scarier are the walls; it seems like we're in a full-size Tamiya Mini 4WD track, and our cars do not have rollers on the sides.
Mazda's driver even told us that a German hot hatchback, a Volkswagen Golf GTI, just had a disagreement with the ice wall recently. They had actually just purchased it new that same day, so he tells us, given that they do a lot of benchmarking here against competitor models. Now the interesting bit is what they could have been possibly been comparing it to. We can only venture a guess that it was the next generation Mazda3, and that its in that building with all its shutters and windows closed off.
The driver (still can't remember his name, unfortunately) tells us that they also use Kenbuchi to educate their own and rate them by their skills. Mazda has different ratings for their test drivers to be able to drive different kinds of models, courses, and speeds. The higher the rating, the more exclusive the cars that they can test; prototypes, he said. He tells us that their license ratings are somewhat similar to Gran Turismo, with ratings called C, B, A, Special A, and X.
I ask him what his rating was, and he said X. I ask him to push the speed, and soon we were doing 100 km/h in the snow. And then he decides to kick the tail out ever so slightly, making this MPV perform a little four-wheel drift on this tight circuit. To put that in perspective, the width of the roads here are typically 3.5 to 4 meters; about the same width of the bulldozer or snow plow that they use. Most cars are just under 2 meters wide.
I look at his face and he's smiling. We're driving with an OG.
Driving Gen 6.5
Back at the main building, it was our turn to take a crack at the course.
Now I wish we we're going to go fast, but safety first. Mazda's test drivers stay here for months on end; we just have an hour or two.
We have three cars that we'll try out on the course, all of which belong to what Mazda refers to as Generation 6.5, the first being the CX-8.
Clearly, the CX-8 is positioned just below the CX-9 on Mazda's crossover SUV totem pole. In a manner of speaking, the CX-8 is the successor to the now-discontinued CX-7, but technically it's a long-wheelbase CX-5, and that opens the possibility for it having a third row with two more seats.
I have to say, the CX-8 exceeded my expectations. Yes, it's longer, but it doesn't feel like it when you take it for a drive. The CX-8 just feels natural and more premium too; the appointments somehow feel much better than the CX-5's. Surprisingly, the version we're driving is a diesel, and it's configured as a 6-seater (2-2-2).
But what we had our eyes on were the two CX-3s in the line up. One of them is similar to the one that we have in our market (except that this one is diesel), while the other one is somewhat different. Mazda calls it a CX-3 IPM, which is their language for a mid-life refresh model, or a facelift.
The engineers from Mazda actually said that this updated CX-3 isn’t final yet, so we weren't allowed to take photos of it; some of the design tweaks were still camouflaged in tape. The real changes, however, can be felt when we drove it. Mazda put in better (softer) foam for the seats, and tweaked the suspension system for comfort. Actually, it’s much more comfortable than before, and even comes with a center console box/armrest.
Still, we can’t show you the upgraded CX-3, but all indicators point to a much improved vehicle overall.
These models are part of the Generation 6.5 line. To put their numbering in perspective, the Mazda3 that was launched in 2005 was part of the 5th generation with the MZR engines, the 6th generation began with the Mazda CX-5 in 2012 and introduced their new engineering philosophy under the SkyActiv brand, while the next one that will start to debut in 2019 will be part of the 7th.
6.5, as the name clearly states, is an improvement over the 6th generation, and will feature some 7th generation technologies. Things like the new all-wheel drive system (i-Activ AWD), advanced safety and somewhat autonomous features (i-ActivSense), and -of course- their new range of upgraded SkyActiv engines with better fuel efficiency and driving characteristics. And these new Gen 6.5 models will roll out later this year for our market.
A New Breed of All Wheel Drive
What Mazda wanted to show us was their new all-wheel drive system because they wanted to redefine the perception. Many out there think that AWD systems are complicated, heavy, and have a huge bearing on bringing down a car's fuel efficiency. And so Mazda pursued a breakthrough, and they analyzed how a person walks on icy regions (i.e. Hokkaido) to do it.
People from Hokkaido, or others who are used to snow and ice, perform three things when they walk. The first is recognition, meaning they see the surface they're on, they can feel the temperature, and they predict how much grip they can have when they walk. The next is judgment; they ascertain how slippery it will actually be. And third, is the operation; the person them adjusts the way they walk by taking smaller steps and planting their feet each and every time.
That's Mazda's approach; they didn't want to build a new AWD system that could take you cross country because, quite frankly, too few people actually do. Instead what they aimed at was providing a more secure driving experience on all kinds of roads, regardless of weather conditions.
Mind you, Mazda's new AWD system is primarily front wheel drive, meaning the car is driving as efficiently as possible. But when it's needed, the system will send torque to the rear wheels automatically.
It sounds like any other automated four- or all-wheel drive on the market, but theres a major difference: Mazda taught their version how to predict a slide. It does this by using 27 different sensors and signals like the individual speeds of the wheels, the ambient temperature, steering angle, so on and so forth. It even knows whether the wipers are being used. This data allows the system to recognize the situation and engage the rear wheels to provide more stability and traction; they say it's works so quickly that the car will be engaging AWD because it will “feel” the slip before the driver does.
We got a sample of how this system operates with two CX-5's, one was front-wheel drive while the other featured the new AWD system. Driven by Mr. Yagi (not Miyagi, mind you), we tried how each would perform in a variety of challenging situations like uphill starts and cornering. Obviously, the AWD outperformed the FWD, but what was different (even when compared to other AWD systems from other brands) was how effortless it is. The pick-up from the throttle was really quick, all things considered, and allows for tighter, more stable cornering all around.
Up until this point, we have been driving rather conservatively; ice and snow are unforgiving factors to consider, and the 5 to 6 foot high walls are really preventing Mazda from letting us have a bit more fun. Fortunately, we've saved the best for last: a gymkhana on ice.
The skid pad beside the main building is the venue, and its a much wider expanse of space for us to play on, and we have two cars to do it with: a standard Mazda3 saloon like we have in the Philippines, as well as a hatchback with all-wheel drive. What's also interesting to note is that we havent been driving on studded (spiked) tires; instead we've been on Bridgestone Blizzaks, and they seem to be holding up quite well.
Let me tell you now that this gymkhana course is a lot of fun. Take it too hard, and you'll just slide off. Take it slow, and you'll be driving fine. Normally I'd go with the latter, but instead I chose to be a bit more liberal with the throttle, and make good use of the parking brake. There's no experience quite like countersteering in the snow, and even better is that I had plenty of room to try a Scandinavian flick; I didn't get it the first time, but on the third try, there it was... right up until I spun.
But the really enjoyable car was the all-wheel drive Mazda3 (Atenza in Japan). There was just a lot more traction from having all four wheels being driven, and in a car as well sorted for handling and driving thrills as the Mazda3, it's just good ol' fashioned driving fun. My times may not have been the quickest, but I certainly had the most fun.
We've said it many times: nothing drives quite like a Mazda.
Sure, we can talk about DSC, TCS, ESP, and so many other electronic driver aids until we run out of words in the thesaurus, but those things don't make a car good, or even great. It's about the spirit.
Mazda, as a company, is driven by a different kind of spirit. They know they won't sell in great numbers like Toyota, and that's OK. They're a little stubborn that way; letting themselves be run by engineers that are passionate not about pushing driving autonomy forward (even though they have the tech) but about enhancing driving in the classic sense.
They like to provide people with vehicles that are more than just a means of getting from A to B. They engineer them to have a oneness between the driver and the car. They design them to look like they're moving even when sitting still in traffic. They test them on places like Kenbuchi to perform better and more efficiently than what was previously thought possible.
That's why Mazda is special, and that's why driving enthusiasts like us love them for it.