Winter Driving Clinic Features 2016 Mazda CX-3

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Meet the 2016 Mazda CX-3

2016 Mazda CX-3
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

For some, the definition of an SUV includes “all-wheel drive.” But fewer than 50% of SUVs and crossovers sold in the US are equipped with AWD. In fact, many crossover vehicles emerge from the factory as front-wheel-drive-only vehicles. Mazda brought a group of journalists to the Colorado Rocky Mountains to demonstrate why they decided to make all-wheel drive an available feature on the 2016 Mazda CX-3 – the smallest crossover vehicle in their lineup. 

02
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"Winter is Coming"

2016 Mazda CX-3 Front
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

“Winter is coming,” as Ned Stark famously stated. But isn’t it always? For a majority of Americans that means buying a new snow shovel, or finally taking the plunge to buy a snow blower, laying in supplies like wood for the fireplace and liquor for the cabinet and wine for the cellar – if that’s part of your regimen. For others, it means thinking about moving someplace like Los Angeles or Miami. But those kinds of thoughts aren’t usually intensified until that surprise storm in the middle of March that comes out of nowhere and dumps a few feet of snow.​

In the meantime, once winter does make its chilly presence known, it mostly means that making your way on the roads becomes a challenge that, all joking aside, can have catastrophic consequences. So the question of what car to drive in those situations with diminished traction and visibility takes on an added dimension of seriousness. 

03
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Tale of the Tape

2016 Mazda CX-3 in snow
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

The CX-3 somehow manages to appear larger than its measurements would indicate. Mazda calls it a subcompact crossover SUV. The smallest of the Mazda bear’s different porridges–the CX-9, and CX-5 – it defies you to think of it as diminutive. Maybe it’s the shape of the curves and how they work together to appear as a single cohesive large curve. By comparison, the Nissan Juke, a similar car in size and class, looks like they created it by taking a shrink ray to a larger vehicle in a “Honey I Shrunk the SUV” movie, and the Honda HR-V just looks little.

Crested Butte, Colorado was where Mazda chose to put the CX-3 and a few of its competitors through their paces in full-on winter conditions. Temperatures hovered below zero. The landscape was dominated by a complete blanket of snow–though blanket is perhaps the wrong word, as that connotes warmth. And maybe it was the cold that subliminally drove my decision to choose a red test vehicle.

The CX-3 comes in either Front Wheel Drive (FWD) or All Wheel Drive (AWD). It’s 168.3 inches long, 69.6 inches wide, and 60.7 inches high. Bumping up the wheels to 18” from 16” adds .02 inches in height. A 2-liter engine puts out 146 hp, controlled by a 6-speed automatic transmission. EPA-estimate fuel clocks in at 29 mpg city/35 mpg highway for the FWD, dropping slightly to 27/32 for the AWD. 

04
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We Like Big Knobs, and We Cannot Lie

2016 Mazda CX-3 dash
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

Sitting in the driver’s seat, the CX-3 doesn’t seem like a subcompact. True, there isn’t a lot of legroom behind us – but that’s true of most cars. The seats are contoured and supportive, striking a nice balance between bare bones and feather bed. Knobs are large and easy to use – the main readout is dead center. If you love paddle shifters, you’ll have to go for the Grand Touring package – but they’re available if you want them. You only have to go up to the Touring package to get the feature we consider essential – a moonroof. Pricing starts $40 below $20,000. Someone in marketing is convinced that saying $19,960 as the starting MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) will help them sell more cars than saying $20,000. Maybe they do have some data to back that up.

05
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Car or Computer?

2016 Mazda CX-3 i-ACTIV
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

The main thing Mazda was interested in showing off was what they call their i-ACTIV “predictive on-demand all-wheel drive,” which they say differentiates them from their competitors in handling capabilities, and therefore safety, in winter driving with compromised conditions.

Cars these days – like everything else, but especially cars – are loaded with sensors that gather reams of data every millisecond. All that data is fed to a computer. The computer interprets that data and makes decisions. In the case of Mazda’s system, all the data gathered from the four corners – literally and figuratively – of the car allow the software to predict and adapt the amount of power to be applied to each of the four wheels at the time best suited to help the driver maintain – or in the case of loss of traction – regain control of the car. It’s quite a trick, involving both some fancy engineering combining all those sensors, software and an electromagnetically controlled clutch. In fact, Mazda was granted a patent for an electromagnetic clutch back in the stone ages of 1999, US 5911291 A.

06
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Of Philosophy and Engineering

2016 Mazda CX-3 second row
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

Mazda makes a big deal about their engineering approach, which sounds similar to other philosophies in fields like education and medicine – they say they focus on the driver and design the machine adapt to the human. It’s a driver-centered approach, the way some educational and medical philosophies take on their tasks – student-centered, patient-centered. As we're not a computer or even cyborg – yet – our conclusions are 100% subjective. Even though we've gathered zillions of data points in my not small number of years (okay, we're old) the software that combines them all – the human brain – is notoriously unreliable.

And yet, we’re out on the snow, driving on a closed course, through a variety of conditions, though mostly hard-packed snow. Conditions that require attention be paid and a certain touch applied. Those who have ever driven on snow or ice know – which is most Americans, though millions have perhaps never experienced the feeling of a many thousand-pound metal vehicle – with you inside – sliding on its own, no direction known (sorry Bob Dylan) like a rolling disaster waiting to happen. But that’s where the car’s systems come in to play. We’re all taught what to do when these things happen – when there is zero traction. Foot off the brake, turn in to the slide. And most of all – be gentle. Easy does it. In a pre-computer car, this works some of the time. Depending on all the variables at play. In a modern car like the CX-3, all the systems, the software, the data points from 27 different sensors being rapidly processed and interpreted, the amount of power sent to each wheel is controlled by the i-ACTIV predictive on demand all-wheel-drive system. And it really seems to help. The moments of “uh-oh this could be really bad” pass more quickly as I’m easily able to bring the car under control. ​

07
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Skid, Sled and Stop

2016 Mazda CX-3
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

They let us accelerate madly, brake madly, and turn like banshees. It’s really the sort of thing that anyone living in a place where it snows should do a few times when they’re learning to drive. We remember taking a 1970 Mustang convertible – so light in the rear, even with cinder blocks in the trunk for the winter – to a parking lot and doing donuts in the snow. Fun yes – rowdy teenage fun – but also instructive and helpful to dial in a bit of what to do in case of loss of traction. We also have the chance to drive competitors’ vehicles, and see how they react. Then there are the tires, which is a whole other story. Identical CX-3s are equipped with all-weather Bridgestone tires and another with their Blizzack winter tire. Dumb name – but great tire. Huge improvement in handling and stopping in these all-snow conditions.

Back to the cars. It did feel like competitor vehicles took a bit more work to maneuver safely through the skidding, sliding, and stopping. The machine at work – or failing to work – was more apparent than in the CX-3.  We felt safe, comfortable, and in control which also helps when that first slip is felt. Maybe the i-ACTIV did predict it and responded by distributing power effectively to each wheel according to its needs.

And while they were at it, Mazda brought along some new MX-5 Miatas and offered us the chance to take them on a slalom course. Whoo boy. Top down, below zero temperatures, zipping around the snow and ice trying to make it through a bunch of cones without spinning out in a 360. Kind of hilarious, and difficult to do. We managed after three tries to make it through the course without including a 360 in the middle of it all. 

08
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Winter Accommodations

Colorado Outhouses
Photo (c) Tod Mesirow

So winter is here. And that’s okay. The i-ACTIV predictive on demand all-wheel-drive system on the 2016 Mazda CX-3 is just the right kind of porridge for improved handling under adverse conditions. And just so you know that it wasn’t all fun and roses, the facilities were these lovely rustic outhouses.

Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals, and fuel.