Mazda, one of only a handful of independently owned and operated car brands left in the world, invited Torque for an Asean media tour, which included a winter drive at one of its two proving grounds in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
Kenbuchi Proving Ground, located in the quaint town of Kenbuchi, is unique in that Mazda doesn’t own the premises but leases it from the town’s government for 30 to 50 days in a year.
What this means is, apart from the fact that Mazda staff who run the facilities have become close to the townsfolk, the roads which traverse the proving ground that occupies a land area of 4.7 million square kilometres are public roads for the rest of the year. Therefore, driving on these roads is like driving anywhere in the town itself.
As explained by a Mazda staffer: “Driving in Kenbuchi Proving Ground gives a real-world feel which is different from driving on other proving grounds that are privately owned.”
There are 12 major courses scattered throughout the venue. Some of their names, such as Mountain Path Up, High-speed Uphill, Steep-grade and Country Road, gave me an idea of what to expect during the day-long event. Also, the snowfall was pretty heavy the day before, resulting in a thicker blanket of snow on the roads.
The morning started with a drive of Mazda’s latest products. There was a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel CX-8 and two 1.5-litre CX-3s, one of which was the recently facelifted model, allowing a comparison with the older model.
The course used, a 2km-long loop, is well-used by motorists during the non-winter months and features a mixture of swoopy bends, steep uphill and downhill sections, and a long straight.
I had two laps in each car as a driver and another two laps as a rear passenger. The most interesting aspect of the drive/co-drive was how different the current and updated CX-3s were in their ride comfort. The newer crossover felt more supple and pliant, yet it handled as capably as the current version. The way the 2018 CX-3 absorbed the unseen (i.e. hidden by the snow) bumps and dips, and not transfer the sound and vibrations to the cabin, was laudable.
The next item on the driving agenda was a gymkhana competition at the skid area, which was a rectangular field of snow. Two units of the 1.5-litre turbo-diesel Mazda 3 Sport were used, one with front-wheel-drive (FWD) and the other with Mazda’s i-Active all-wheel-drive (AWD).
Everyone had practice laps in both cars followed by timed laps, and the best timing was clocked with the AWD vehicle. The FWD “challenger” acquitted itself admirably despite the extremely loose surface, but it just didn’t have any answer to its AWD sibling’s greater grip and better traction, not only when accelerating from a standstill but also while cornering.
Another demonstration of the i-Active AWD’s prowess was during the “hot laps” up and down a 1.5km stretch of road. We didn’t drive the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel CX-5s (one with FWD and the other with AWD), but sat up front as the passenger. It was obvious that the test driver had an easier time manoeuvring the SUV with AWD – the car steered more predictably and could take corners at higher speeds.
Snow driving is something far from what any motorist will experience in tropical Singapore, but correcting a slide and keeping a car under control on a surface that’s more slippery than extremely wet asphalt are great skills to have – wherever you are and whatever the prevailing conditions.
It’s also comforting to know that Mazda spends a lot of effort (and money) in developing their cars at a facility as comprehensive as the Kenbuchi Proving Ground. I would love to visit again, but next time, please let me do more driving/dancing in the snow!