What is Mazda i-ACTIV and Why It’s Better Than It Should Be

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Mazda i-ACTIV
Mazda i-ACTIV | Photo: Louis-Philippe Dubé

In the world of all-wheel drive systems, there are two major categories: full-time and active. Mazda’s i-ACTIV is the latter.

Normally, full-time AWD is the right way to go to take on tough road conditions. Active or more accurately reactive AWD systems like the Mazda i-ACTIV system tend to not do so well when the weather really gets out of hand. For the last few weeks in Montreal, the weather has gotten out of hand.

A mix of rain, freezing rain, tons of snow and huge temperature fluctuations has created at lasagna of ice and snow layers on our roads and parking lots. Our biggest snow storm of the year this week has left us with massive snowbanks that cover cars up to the side windows.

The basic equation to get out of situations like this is that all-wheel drive will always be better than front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive, but full-time all-wheel drive will always be better than active all-wheel drive. That said, the Mazda CX-9 with i-ACTIV that we’ve been reviewing for a few weeks now managed just fine and left us wondering about Mazda’s all-wheel drive system. So let’s take a closer look.

2019 Mazda CX-9 vs 2019 Subaru Ascent Quick Comparison

How Mazda i-ACTIV Works

The i-ACTIV system, like most active AWD systems, starts as your basic front-wheel drive setup. The engine’s power is sent to the front wheels when the road is clear and no slippage is detected. Sensors monitor the wheels and can send power the rear axle when needed to recover grip.

Mazda’s i-ACTIV also monitors driver inputs, windshield wiper usage, how much torque is needed to move the vehicle forward and a variety of other variables to allocate torque between the axles appropriately.

The advantage of this type of system over a full-time all-wheel drive setup is better fuel economy. When AWD is not needed, the vehicle behaves like a FWD model and fuel consumption goes down. Even in winter, we don’t need all-wheel drive all the time. Most of the time, road conditions are decent and we like our fuel consumption to reflect that.

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On the flip side, active all-wheel drive systems can be slow to react and detect a loss of grip. Behind the wheel, you’ll feel your vehicle slipping for a short instant which can be annoying. We buy an AWD vehicle for the confidence it provides on a snowy or icy road. We don’t want to feel our car or SUV slipping.

That’s what we liked about our Mazda CX-9 and its i-ACTIV system. Not once did we feel it hesitate and not once did we have any issues getting passed some of the weather-related challenges we had to face this week.

Mazda i-ACTIV
2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature | Photo: Louis-Philippe Dube

These include a 3-foot snow wall left in front of our driveway by the snow plow, a relatively steep and ice-covered entrance into a parking lot, and a parking spot on the side of a street in downtown Montreal which was covered in about a foot of snow. We got in, out, and over these obstacles without ever feeling like i-ACTIV was overthinking.

We wouldn’t go as far as telling you the Mazda CX-9 system is more effective than the Subaru Ascent’s symmetric full-time AWD, but we’d put the Mazda’s system ahead of the Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder.

Mazda CX-9 Images Gallery

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