The Mazda SKI-ACTIV Experience

I vividly remember the first time I actually put skis on and hit (quite literally) the snow. I was in my late teens and full of bravado; I headed to the top of the chairlift, strapped on two planks of wood and shot down the slope – straight into a tree. The sensation was both thrilling and, in truth, a little painful. But it didn’t stop me getting back up and doing it all again.

Fast forward a couple (or so) decades and I was back on the white stuff for another first. This time, however, I had been invited by Mazda NZ to enjoy the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds in Queenstown, for their (and in fact any Japanese car brand’s) first-ever event on these Wanaka slopes. It was an experience that was far more fun than my original introduction to snowfields and thankfully was far less painful.

Being out in the very crisp fresh air and on top of a South Island mountain range with Mazda seemed rather fitting as, from an automotive brand aspect, they are rapidly moving towards their goal of being better global tenants. Their ‘well-to-wheel’ improvement and ‘Sustainable Zoom-Zoom’ has them focused on a 50 percent drop of carbons by 2030; they are also planting a vast number of trees, focusing on emissions and efficiency and yet – since in their own words they ‘celebrate driving’ – Mazda is still increasing engine torque and power outputs!

They are not lacking in the fun department either, and this ‘on ice’ event was a true case in point. There was, of course, going to be the serious (ahem) side, with Mazda taking the opportunity to show off its impressive SKYACTIV technology and GVC, but then we were going to follow this up with an out and out hoon on the snow in the MX-5 RF, for no other reason than ‘because we can’ – bless their hearts.

First, the technical stuff. From a skier’s point of view, to stop your skis from slipping on snow takes a lot of muscles, ski angles, skill and practice. In physics terms, it’s an equation: basically, the angle between the applied force and the ski ‘ψ’ must be greater than or equal to 90 – ‘φ’ (the tilt between ski and snow). If only I’d known this equation when I was younger – maybe I’d have missed the tree!

Anyway, it would appear that Mazda has done all the thinking for us with its SKYACTIV vehicle dynamics technology (G-Vectoring control and i-ACTIV AWD). With seamless interaction between the chassis, the body, the engine, and transmission, the vehicle is able to respond predictably (and intuitively) regardless of the conditions.

GVC (G-Vectoring Control) has unified access to steering and chassis. If it senses that things have gone awry, it will assist with steering, engine torque, vehicle (wheel) load, tyre grip and overall response – the net result is a more unified drive that is safer and smoother for you and your passengers – even (as we found out) when thrashing about on the snow.

Predictive tech (tech not text) i-ACTIV AWD. Unlike our often unhelpful smartphone’s aid, Mazda’s on-demand AWD knows what is about to happen before you do – applying enough rear wheel torque to stop slipping from happening. It may seem like magic, but it’s technology working overtime. Taking inputs from all over the vehicle, windscreen wipers, outside temperature, accelerator, brake, steering position – 27 channels of data processed at 200 times per second… in short, the system calculates the future. I wonder if it will tell me next week’s Lotto numbers?

Essentially, although the SKYACTIV technology is continually on and working hard behind the scenes, yet it stays with Mazda’s philosophy of putting the driver first and only makes its presence known if (or, in my case, when) the driver runs out of talent. Fully aware that both Mazda and the Tracktime team had our backs, it was time to put all the theory into action.

With time and the rising sun against us, we headed for the perfectly groomed upper tracks as early as possible, where an off the rack (aside from snow tyres) CX-5 was there waiting for us. After a quick explanation of how the snow tyres worked (with their cold weather compound rubber and sipe biting edges), it was straight into an uphill, hard lock, pull-away demonstration. In all honesty, it was a bit of an anticlimax, all we witnessed was the Soul Red CX-5 effortlessly take off in the snow – but I guess that was the point. All systems working perfectly, giving traction to all four wheels and next to zero slip – take that, physics!

Then it was time for us to get behind the wheel. First up, some ‘barrel racing’ duel time. A sprint down to a 180-degree turn point, then back to stop inside an imaginary garage – sounds easy enough, but in reality, it was taxing with Mazda’s electronics engaged (judging the braking point) and ‘wall breaking’ when not. It was great to experience the difference.

This exercise was followed by an on-snow slalom, where we were encouraged to perform a four‑wheel drift. Mazda’s active AWD worked overtime to keep us pointed in the right direction and yet gave us plenty of leeway to have an exciting and involving drive. At no point did the car escape me and the confidence that ensued gave me the impetus to push even harder – smiles came on thick and fast.

With the top layer beginning to thaw, we quickly moved on to hoon time – unleash the MX-5 RF for some top-down fun. As stated earlier, there was very little need to do this part, but a very big want. We each got a couple of turns at racing down a slalom, wheel lock to wheel lock, power drifting around a cone (some even donutted) and repeat the fun on the return – excellent. The RF may be good on the road, but it’s even better when you take away most of its traction.

With the perfectly groomed surface churned up and starting to slush, we returned to the main lodge for lunch – the experience was over but the smiles still remained.

There are many ways to interpret ‘Hashiru Yorokobi’, but the two versions that Mazda likes are: ‘the exhilaration felt from being moved’ and ‘there’s joy to be had when you transcend your body’s limitations’. I like the latter, as my body has many limitations. Add this to Mazda’s Jinba Ittai, throw in some snow for good measure and you get a fun-filled experience that I hope they offer again and again. Mazda may come loaded with SKYACTIV technology, but after the SHPG experience, I will now continue to refer to it as SKI-ACTIV.