Mazda presents a pretty compelling case for buying an AWD car

It's not just about performance
by Jason Tulio | Mar 9, 2018

If we had to guess, we’d say that about 80% of the cars you see on the road today are front-wheel drive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. FWD is generally more fuel-efficient and less expensive than other drivetrain layouts. In fact, power delivery to the front wheels will satisfy most motorists’ needs and then some.

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But what about all-wheel drive? In our experience, many non-gearhead car owners see it is an unnecessary expense. “Aanohin ko ‘yan? they say with a scoff. Then the list of reasons follow; it’s just an added expense, it’ll eat up your fuel, you don’t even need it, masisira lang ‘yan, and on and on.

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They kind of have a point when you think about it. What good is power at four wheels if you’re just going to drive from your house to the office on city roads every day? Save it for your time-attack track runs and rally driving fantasies, right? If you tell this to the folks at Mazda, however, they'll respectfully disagree with you. 

When Mazda Philippines invited us to Hokkaido, Japan, for its ASEAN media forum, the Japanese carmaker took us out to the Kenbuchi Proving Grounds. When the snowfall is at its peak (as in you’d expect to find an igloo nestled among the powder), Mazda’s team of engineers and drivers use the course to test out its latest vehicles and safety technology.

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As you can imagine, driving on snow and ice isn’t easy. An inch too far either way and you could find yourself spiraling out of control. All-wheel drive, where torque is spread across all four wheels to lessen slippage, is almost mandatory in this kind of weather.

At Kenbuchi, Mazda gave us a chance to test out its i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system. Their engineers explained that the systems' three operational pillars (recognition, judgement, and operation) are based on how the human gait changes depending on terrain. On snow, for example, we adjust our walk to have shorter but more pronounced strides, with our weight leaning forward slightly for balance.

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By the same token, Mazda’s AWD finds the required amount of torque based on the road surface, the driver’s input, and the vehicle’s behavior. And it does this by making around 200 minute ‘judgements’ per second based on input from 27 different signals. Mazda compares this to judging icy terrain via mere sight versus planting your foot to secure a firm grip--in this case, the i-Activ AWD works as your 'feet' on the road. 

An added feature of i-Activ AWD is a world-first slip prediction detection system. In the event of a slight slip, the system distributes torque instantly to prevent it from happening--all before the driver's human reaction is able to recognize the thread. 

At Kenbuchi, we experienced it first-hand by driving and riding along in front- and all-wheel drive units. We felt the difference with things like uphill starts, rapid launches, and surface changes from dry to wet.

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The most telling exercise was a short Gymkhana course. We started off in front-wheel drive Mazda 3s. Our dry-road instincts told us to bury the throttle on take-off, but this just resulted in wheel spin with zero traction. In the turns, we spun out of control multiple times even at speeds as slow as 30kph—provided we didn’t end up turning too wide and missing the mark completely.

Once we switched to all-wheel drive, the improvement was immediate. We had more traction, less slippage, and a lot less understeer. Granted, the ice was slippery and we’re newbies to driving in winter, so we still lost control a few times. But the consequences weren’t nearly as dire as they were with front-wheel drive.

You’re probably thinking: "Uh oh, that’s great and all, but what’s that got to with driving in the Philippines?" Ice and snow aside, we share some of the same challenges as the ones found in Kenbuchi. Steep uphill starts? Check. Terrain that changes surface or traction quickly? Yup. Slippery roads? It rains roughly 140 days of the year here. The need for precise handling during sudden direction changes? See: Swerving to avoid buses on EDSA.

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In addition, AWD is great for high-speed stability when highways are slippery, and for treacherous mountain roads. Another benefit is that it is also a great safety feature that benefits all, including drivers who are still inexperienced.

Mazda argues that the main reason you'd buy an AWD in the first place is for its secure road grip, which makes it safer. In the case of i-Activ AWD, the carmaker says it will continue to work in a situation that goes beyond your expectations.

So you see, all-wheel drive isn’t just about driving performance. And while we still can’t say that it's for everyone, it certainly merits consideration, knowing what Filipino motorists deal with on a daily basis. 

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PHOTO: Jason Tulio
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