“Drive our cars in the snow,” Mazda said. “It’ll be fun,” they said. “I’ll be there,” I said. Fortunately, my mother taught me to be polite.

When any car manufacturer invites you to drive at some Proving Grounds, the general response is, “you had me at Proving Grounds”.

Mazda New Zealand had never been to the Proving Grounds before, and are apparently the first Japanese manufacturer to do this. It was going to be good.

The break of dawn on the way up the hill

Monday

So on a not-so-cold August day, I arrived in Queenstown, looking forward to having fun in the snow with some new Mazdas (CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9s), to test out their SKYACTIV system under real-world conditions. Tomorrow we would drive to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds to see if Mazdas have what it takes to do it in the snow.

An initial one-hour briefing the night before really pumped up any SKYACTIV-equipped Mazda for the snow. Although our cars would be fitted with snow tyres, Mazda were ambitious I thought in just what they had planned for us; A cross-country snow drive, a snow slalom AND a Barrel Race.

These are brave things to attempt in a road-going SUV – even with snow tyres on. Still, Mazda threw down the challenge, it would be rude to say no. Another thing my mother taught me.

We sat through a presentation on the SKYACTIV range of cars’ ability to cope with what we were going to do – Mazda’s system is apparently unique, and uses 27 sensors to determine just what the car is doing, with 200 calculations a second to give the car the best possible traction for the conditions, with a ‘negligible’ impact on fuel economy. As an example of this, we were shown an efficiency chart between a non-SKYACTIV CX-7 and a CX-5 fitted with SKYACTIV. There is an 82% efficiency difference between to the two cars. That’s saying something.

Still, the proof will be in the driving tomorrow. Desperately hoping for snow, but it’s not looking good…

Tuesday

BMW had been to the Proving Grounds two weeks before and had been turned away – this included John from Drive life, who had to make do with off-roading instead. But we were given the all clear. Apparently it got to freezing at 2AM and that was enough to make the courses we would use ok to drive on. And hoon on, if it came to that (I was desperately hoping it would).

So it was getting up at 5:30AM (!) for the drive to the Proving Grounds, opposite Cardrona Ski Fields. We took a selection of CX-5 and CX-9s to the location, 2 to a car. I drove initially, and was reminded on the twisty stuff just how well the CX-9 can go around corners – let alone the CX-5 with its G-Vector Control system to enable far better and flatter cornering. When we got to the venue, I was stunned to see that all the Mazdas we had driven – including our CX-9 – were fitted with chunky snow tyres. Not only could I not hear the tyres on the road or feel much difference in the steering, the car handled beautifully on the way there. Incredible and I would not have believed this without actually seeing the tyres.

‘Our’ CX-9

A hearty breakfast at the venue, with a drivers’ briefing. This was all over quite quickly – the sun was out and threatening our day, so it was time to get into cars and start doing stuff.

First up was a cross-country drive, with me in the passenger’s seat. The CX-5 diesel we had handled the snow road with no issues, even the slushy bits where momentum was definitely your friend. Following another CX-5, you could really see the suspension working to get itself through the deeper slush.

Initial drive out of the gates; much anticipation

We drove some more, and then stopped for an ABS braking test – in the snow. One at a time, each driver accelerated the car up to 50km/h, and then slammed on the brakes. I think everyone was surprised just how quickly the cars stopped. No doubt the snow tyres helped here, but panic braking at 50km/h on snow is never easy, and yet we were at a stop in less than 30 metres.

Parked up at the end of the ABS test. No rear-end crashes here!

Some more driving, this time cruising on some downhill bends. Totally no drama at all, and you may as well have been driving on the road.

Next up was some slalom driving, through cones on nicely groomed snow. Four runs each, and then swap cars between the CX-5 and the CX-9s, and driver swaps. By the end of this two things were clear: The CX-5 handles this better with its G-Vectoring Control and a smaller, lighter body; secondly, we had now destroyed this part of the course. Heavy AWDs doing slalom soon chews up the track.

 

CX-9 hammers the slalom
Everyone should do this

We then got to a large flat area in the Proving Grounds, where Mazda staff had set up some cones for Barrel Racing. Ok we weren’t racing around barrels, but the tension to win was there just the same. Facing opposite directions, each driver took off at the same time, down 100 metres to more cones, a quick U-Turn and then back to park as quickly as possible in more cones – first to park, won. I lost my first run and my second run – overshot the cones, so was disqualified. Interestingly, the next 4 drivers in the red CX-9 I had used all came second.

Trying to stop before the cones, not easy

My next run, I switched to a CX-5 diesel and made sure I was facing the other direction this time, as the way I had driven before was being cut up too much. This time I pulled off a win, and quit while I was ahead. Go out in glory, as they say.

During the morning tea break, Mazda promised us something ‘fun to drive’ soon. I saw 6 snowmobiles outside, and was certain this was it – I was finally going to get to drive a snowmobile. But no – the surprise was a Mazda MX-5 RF running snow tyres; I’ve got to admit, this was something I was really looking forward to.

RWD+snow = So Much Fun

We went to another flat area, and had turns at running the MX-5 through a slalom. I don’t think words can describe just how much fun this was. It was difficult to get the car through the cones quickly without the backend coming out too much, but it was fun all the same. Driving by the throttle was key, although the temptation was there to just hammer it. Some did after their slalom run; apparently turning the car around for the next person involved numerous donuts.

Although it wasn’t timed, a few people knocked down cones, but I managed to not embarrass myself or Drive Life by pulling off some reasonably smooth driving without the death of a single cone.

After everyone had had a few goes at the slalom, Mike from Mazda decided he would show just how much fun the MX-5 could be if it hammered. I jumped in the passenger’s seat, and prepared to video his run (the video didn’t work!). He totally thrashed the poor MX-5 RF, but it took it in its stride. I could hear the valves bouncing as he sat it over the redline in second gear, sending the car (and snow) all over the place. At one point it was raining snow inside the MX-5, but who cares – he was grinning and so was I. I think he could have done that all day long.

An unwritten law: the top must be open for this event

A quick photo shoot and then it was too hot for us to do much more. The ‘road’ was chewed up by so many AWDs doing hard turns, as well as the MX-5 slalom run, and the sun wasn’t helping things. Time to call it a day.

It wasn’t quite star of the show, but the MX-5 RF showed some snow skills

Does it work?

So a group of motoring journalists sat through a 60-minute presentation on Day One on just how good Mazda’s systems are at helping the driver drive, no matter what the conditions. SKYACTIV was thrown about as the answer to do that. Does it work? Based on my day’s drive, for sure. Although there was no way of knowing what was happening under the bonnet or in the suspension or transmission, the abilities shown by these road-going SUVs in the snow were pretty astounding. There was technology supporting the driver, but only to assist the driver if they got into trouble.

Thanks Mazda New Zealand – a great day, and a fantastic showcase on just how good your CX range of AWD SUVs are – in any conditions.

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How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm also an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.

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