Mazda invited us to join them for a demonstration of their SkyActiv vehicle dynamics at the world famous snow farm in Queenstown. It would have been rude to ignore such an invite.
The Drive up the mountain
Our day started at 6am outside the lobby of the hotel. In front of us the team from Mazda had a fleet of CX-5’s, CX-8’s and CX-9’s ready for us to drive up to the Snow Farm (the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds). The early hour was great for us, as there was almost no traffic on the road. Once we left the main highway we were able to test the cars we had selected. I have not had the chance to drive the new CX-8, so I made sure to get one for this drive.
It was hard to tell some of the CX models apart, the CX-8 and CX9- being similar in size, with only small visual differences separating them. On the road up the mountain the CX-8 handled very well and there was a notable lack of body roll as we progressed up the twisty road. At some points I would have liked a bit more power, as the engine seemed to sit in between two gears, jumping between the two as I pushed for more power. I was not sure what spec this model was, I can only assume it was the base model, as there was no sports mode available. Overall I was impressed with how the CX-8 handled itself. The team at DriveLife are looking forward to the in-depth review coming up in a few weeks.
Once we reached the top, we headed to the new events centre for a quick breakfast and briefing of the day’s events. We covered some of the modules we were going to experience while having a look back over some of Mazda’s history.
Mazda history showed us that the spirit of motorsport is still core to the brand. This can be seen by the two core philosophies they work to; “Hashiru Yorokobi” which translates to “The exhilaration and liberation from being moved” and “Jinba Ittai” which translates to “Applying the Hashiru Yorokobi Philosophy to our driving dynamic”. Every aspect of a vehicle’s development speaks to these two philosophies, not only making vehicles practical and safe, they also need to make the vehicles interesting and exciting to drive. New technology like Mazda’s G-Vectoring control was developed with these principles in mind, making the vehicle safer, while giving the driver more confidence behind the wheel.
Module 01 – Drifting (Kidney Track)
Our first session was with the Mazda MX-5 RF on a kidney shaped drift track. This test was to show the fun side of Mazda as indicated during the briefing as Hashiru Yorokobi. The idea here was to learn how to control the car while changing direction on a low-grip surface like snow.
Sadly the Mazda MX-5 RF is not ideal for people over six and a half feet tall, especially a manual version. My legs were just too long, and were pushed into the dash, which did not allow for any movement of the pedals. So I had to sit this one out and look on at how the other handled this module’s test. I am not sure they learned much, but they all looked like they really enjoyed the drifting – or trying to drift – aspect of this module.
Module 02 – Slalom in CX models
From the drifting track we headed over the ridge to one of the flat track sections where we would put the CX range of SUV’s to the test along a straight line of cones. This test showcases the dynamic handling from the Skyactiv chassis and G-Vectoring of the CX range.
No problem fitting into any of these models, and I jumped into the big CX-9 to start my first run. This test is not about speed, it’s all about feel. If you go too slow the car will just stick to the ground and you will drive in and out of the cones in a very boring fashion. But if you go too fast you will overshoot the cones, lose grip and be unable to control the change of direction on the snow. You need to feel the speed in sync with the ability to change direction while in a controlled drift.
The front wheels control the general direction, but the overall momentum of the slaloom is aided by the shifting weight from the rear of the vehicle. It all sounds very technical, but once you get it, it feels great and is a lot of fun. It’s an impressive sight to see a line of Mazda CX SUV’s lose traction, drifting left to right down a snow covered track.
The CX-9 was largest and heaviest of the range. The CX-8 was a bit lighter and more nimble, but both did not feel as sporty or dynamic as the smaller CX-5, which felt more at home on this slaloom snow track.
Module 03 – Ice driving in CX and BT50
The ice track was just that, a large rectangle of pure ice without any snow on it. The task ahead of us seemed simple; there was one cone, we had to drive out to it, drive around it once, and come back. Sounds easy right, yup, but it was anything but easy.
The CX models with all-wheel drive gave you confidence where it shouldn’t. When we got into the Mazda BT50, we felt as if it was put on for the crew’s own entertainment rather than a training experience. This was hard, more so when it’s set to 2-wheel drive. Your heart said give it power and your head screamed you’re an idiot. Nearly all of us spun out and were not able to get around the cone. I think only one person completed it, after watching where the others failed.
Module 04 – Drifting (Circle Track)
After lunch it was back to the MX-5 RF for more fun behind the wheel and the second drifting track of the day. This track was setup as a circle of cones and the aim of this was to try to continuously drift around it. There was a bit of a wildcard thrown in; it would not be one MX-5 RF at a time, two would be going at the same time on opposite sides of the circular track.
Again this was not for me, but I did jump in as a passenger. The first few goes were made up of broken drifts. This test was all about feeling for the right level of power and angle while traveling around. It was not long until the other members of the group got the hang of it and were able to do several laps of the cone track in a continuous drift.
Module 05 – Hotlaps
The last module of the day was a passenger experience in the MX-5 RF around one of the tight snow tracks with racing driver Mike Eady behind the wheel. Mike did not hold back, and was right on the limit all the way around the track. The breaking sun through the clouds didn’t help things, as it made some of the track disappear and blend into the snow banks from time to time.
The MX-5 RF handled amazingly well, carving up the corners, changing direction on what seemed like a pinhead. This module was a bit more for the thrill of it then anything else. But you can’t help but be impressed with how well the MX-5 RF is built and handles at the hands of a professional in these conditions.
What I thought
In the lead up to the event, many were surprised to hear I was going to the Snow Farm with Mazda. Their first impression was that they just cover family cars, nearly all forgot that Mazda still offers one of the most famous 2-seater sports cars in the market today. Mazda’s bread and butter is the family market, however their fun side has never faded away, And this was seen not only in the MX-5 RF, but the CX models too.
I was personally very impressed with how their line up handled the Snow Farms test tracks.