Mazda drives on the

wild side

Mazda CX-5, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, wheels
Mazda CX-3, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, splash
Mazda CX-5, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, axle twist
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes, 2016, slide
Mazda CX-3, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, mud
Mazda CX-3, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, side
Mazda CX-3, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, splash, rear
Mazda CX-3, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, off road
Mazda CX-5, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, slope
Mazda CX-5, AWD, Les Comes, 2016, hill
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes 4
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes 5
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes 3
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes 2
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes 1
Mazda CX-5, Guy Wilks drive at Les Comes 6
Guy Wilks

MONITORING what a car's windscreen wipers are doing may be a strange component of an all-wheel-drive system but it is a trick Mazda is putting to good effect.

So is a device which keeps an eye on the weather and another that detects changes in your driving style.

Bring them all together - as well as some more recognisable 4x4 features such as traction control and clever differentials - and they add up to what Mazda calls i-Activ AWD.

It is a set up the Japanese car maker is using in its CX-3 and CX-5 crossover SUVs and it makes them surprisingly competent when the going gets tough.

To prove the point we have just let both models loose at one of the world's most demanding off-road and adventure centres at Les Comes near Barcelona in Spain.

And to hammer home the versatility of Mazda's high grip technology British rally cross driver Guy Wilks showed what a CX-5 can do when unleashed on a gravel and sand track.

Even man-made obstacles such as axle twisting mounds, steep traverses and uneven bridges made from tree trunks - designed to test full-blown 4x4s such as Jeeps and Land Rovers to the limit - failed to defeat what Mazda has on its modern SUV pairing.

Crossovers have become something of a phenomenon in Britain with sales booming as more and motorists opt for cars which come with SUV-style looks and space but lack the gas-guzzling costs normally associated with 4x4s.

As such, virtually all are front wheel drive and while most can be specified with AWD traction, they are in the minority.

In the Mazda camp the i-Activ system fitted to the CX-3 and CX-5 carries a premium of around £2,000 and it's available on both diesel and petrol models with the AWD CX-3 costing from £22,350 and the CX-5 £26,565.

All come well equipped with sat nav included but the clever stuff has been the marriage of Mazda's SKYACTIV fuel-efficient powertrains and the all-wheel-drive configuration.

What sets the i-Activ system apart is that it is predictive. It second-guesses what's coming up and prepares the car accordingly.

By monitoring 27 different vehicle functions - and that ranges from the wipers operating to the slightest bit of wheel slip - at a rate of more than 200 times a second it can work out what is about to happen and change the drive pattern for optimum effectiveness.

We found both the CX-3 and CX-5 to be extraordinarily sure-footed over the rocky and rutted Les Comes terrain while in the hands of Mr Wilks the CX-5 performed in true rally fashion, achieving motorway speeds off-road with the car's electronics reining it in safely at the limits.

Equally impressive was the grip from the CX-5 over the obstacle course where it delivered plenty of traction even with one wheel off the ground.

This was testing at the extreme for the two CX vehicles which in no way are designed as heavy duty off-roaders with the likes of underbody protection, low ratio gearing and independent suspension.

With the i-Activ set up in full flow, power transfer from axle to axle is smooth and almost unnoticeable. There are no moans or groans as it goes about its operation.

In normal road conditions 97 per cent of the drive is to the front wheels. When circumstances change it can split up to 50 per cent of the power to the back.

On the open road both perform with good composure. Given their higher stance there is little roll through bends and the CX-3, as the smaller of the two, is nicely agile.

From a performance perspective the larger engine in the CX-5 gives it a significant edge with 0 to 60 taking 8.8 seconds while the 1.5-litre 105ps diesel in the CX-3 takes some two seconds longer.

Both models are very capable and the CX-5 - with its greater ground clearance - is something of a soft-road supremo yet neither are that thirsty even when working hard.

Mazda says the AWD set up shaves around 10 per cent off fuel consumption.

Officially the 1.5-litre CX-3 AWD we drove is rated at 60.1mpg with emissions of 123g/km while the bigger engined 175ps 2.2-litre CX-5 diesel comes in at 54.3 to the gallon with a CO2 figure of 136g/km.

Even with the demanding session at Les Comes we managed to see an average of 43mpg on the trip computer of the CX-3 with the CX-5 coming in at 46mpg - very impressive given what the vehicles were put through.

In regular conditions the results would be even better and for the two Mazdas to demonstrate such performance in the wild was a real eye-opener.

It debunked any myth that crossovers are just about fashion and for those who may ever encounter such conditions that £2,000 will be money well spent.

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