► New all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-3 tested
► Over five hundred miles in arctic conditions
► Is AWD worth the £1985 premium?
“As a brand, we like driving,” said the Mazda man to a small group of us huddled together in a conference room in Honningsvag, Norway. Brilliant, I thought. So do I.
But he then went on to explain just how challenging the following day would be. We’d been invited to test Mazda’s new all-wheel-drive system in one of the harshest environments imaginable.
However, it’s installed in the CX-3 – a tiny little Nissan Juke rival – and frankly we’re not entirely sure of the point. No-one off-roads in these cars. A tiny fraction sold have anything other than the front wheels driven. Is it really worth considering? Well, we were about to find out.
Starting at the Nordkapp – the most northerly point in Europe you can get to by car – we’d be taking the compact Mazda SUV on an epic one-day drive over more than 500 miles through three countries and across some of the most remote, challenging terrain this continent has to offer. Our destination was the harbour city of Lulea, perched on the upper edge of the Baltic Sea some 500 miles directly south.
It’s an elk and safety issue
We were warned of many perils, include elk: they can make a real mess of any car, no matter how sharply styled. It was almost certain we’d encounter them. We were told the story of '60s Swedish rally ace Eric Carlsson, who hit one at 70mph. Its legs buckled, it tipped onto the bonnet, exploded and filled the car with its contents. “None of us were hurt,” remembers Carlsson, “but we had a whole car full of crap.” Best to avoid those then, I reckon. The Mazda’s interior is smart. It doesn’t need a redesign.
Rubber was another concern. In reality no amount of driven wheels can compensate for the constant firm-packed snow and countless miles of black ice on our route. The fashionable 18-inchers you’d usually find on a CX-3 were ditched in place of some studded 16-inch snow tyres. You see, if we got properly stuck, we were on our own, and elk would be the least of our worries. There be bears out there, too...
Off to a cold start...
The cars were waiting outside at a frosty 5:45am for the short 30-minute jaunt to the Nordkapp. The sun had been up for a while already, yet the temperature gauge read -4degC. I was excited and raring to go. We did the first leg in convoy because to reach Europe’s upper edge at this time of year you have to travel behind a snow plough – an awesome contraption comprising a chassis-cab lorry with a large concrete block on the back, huge tyres and a directional ram on the front to batter recent drifts out of the way.
I think its pilot had heard we were keen drivers, because once assembled he didn’t hang around. The convoy struggled to keep up at times as we snaked our way up through stunning white hills towards perhaps the most obvious photo opportunity of the trip: the Nordkapp.
The wind was savage, slicing right through skin and flesh – a truly harsh environment signalling the beginning to our adventure through the wilderness. My hands were white after taking a handful of phone pictures. What had I got myself in for?
After a quick breakfast it was time to part company with the rest of the group and head out on our own. We were all doing similar routes to the destination, but because of the sheer space involved in this challenge, we quickly lost the pack and continued the journey in isolation.
To begin with we needed to familiarise ourselves with the CX-3. I’d driven a few versions previously and spent the last Christmas break in a diesel all-wheel-drive automatic one. Ours packed a more engaging 148bhp 2.0 naturally aspirated petrol engine, though, complete with a razor-sharp throttle response and rev-happy nature.
It also came coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox. The firm is proud of the fact the shift action in this is based on the MX-5’s – one of the most rewarding of any car currently on sale, with a short throw and assured action – so this was the perfect CX-3 for me. Would all-wheel drive corrupt the experience, though?
More tech for more traction
The CX-3's AWD system uses 27 sensor signals to look not only at the car, but at what the driver is doing, too. For example, it’ll take steering angle and wheel speeds into account, but also whether the windscreen wipers are operating and the outside temperature, signifying the possibility of a slippery surface. It can then ‘predict’ the torque split required for the conditions.
As luck would have it, as we left the Nordkapp the weather was glorious. It was chilly, but with perfect visibility and a blazing sun sitting just over the horizon. Great conditions to acclimatise with the car.
The roads were almost deserted, and also wide, clear and well maintained. There were a few tunnels, including a 6km one diving deep under the sea, and the going was good. We made decent progress, heading through one small town after another, the gaps between filled with forest. Every so often we’d skirt a cliff with huge natural icicles hanging from the rock.
We sailed through the border with Finland and onwards, deeper and deeper into the wilderness, and then the snow arrived. It started happily enough – a light dusting that would hardly settle in the UK – but quickly worsened until we struggled to see the brake lights of cars just a few hundred metres in front. We were in a full-on snowstorm.
The plucky Mazda really stepped up to the plate. The tyres were fantastic, as you'd expect, but what helped further was the engine. Thanks to its crisp responses and easily managed low-end torque, the CX-3 remained tractable at lower speeds. I was glad I wasn’t in a diesel that delivered masses of pulling power just off idle.
Entertaining, or simply efficient?
As we crossed the border into Sweden we knew we were about halfway through our journey. I was feeling confident with the CX-3 now, and the all-wheel-drive system was coming into its own. There wasn't the typical understeer that you might expect; the front end simply didn’t want to wash wide, despite my ham-fisted efforts to the contrary.
Of course, that means all four wheels slid at the same time, and after a while I was pretending I was on my own little special stage: traction control off, drifting merrily and having the time of my life. It was far more entertaining than I’d prepared myself for, and the CX-3's relaxed and enjoyable nature in these conditions was a testament to its AWD system. On these tyres the car would definitely have been fine with front-wheel drive alone, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun.
And then the fuel light flicked on. You know you’re in the wilderness when you’re sharing a Shell garage with a snowmobile. Our tyres didn’t help our fuel consumption, but neither did my driving.
Shortly after we officially left the Arctic Circle, still heading south through Sweden en route to Lulea, and the light began to fade. We’d been running with the standard LED headlights on the entire time, but now we really needed them. Squinting out of the front, they might look diminutive, but they’re actually rather impressive with a wide spread of light.
After a couple more hours of driving as nighttime took hold, we finally pulled off the snow-covered highways and onto proper roads. These morphed into streets, the area becoming more and more urban until finally we were in the strikingly attractive city of Lulea.
It was time for a beer, a reindeer steak and some reflection on an unforgettable day.
The CX-3 proved entertaining, reliable, sturdy and easy to get on with. Do you need the all-wheel-drive version? Not really. The studded tyres (which are illegal in the UK, though normal winter ones would have worked too) kept us safe and pointing in the right direction. I’m absolutely sure we’d have made it in a front-wheel drive car, too.
I had more fun in the all-wheel-drive CX-3, however, and when traction was low and the wheels began slipping it inspired more confidence. That’s a genuine benefit, even if most of it is psychological. Is it worth the extra £1985 over a regular 2.0 Sport Nav CX-3, though? Not in my mind, impressive though it is.
Read more Mazda CX-3 reviews here