This is what -12 degrees looks like. Photograph by Mikko David

On a Mazda in Hokkaido winter, driving on ice

If you've always wanted to know what it feels like to be in a Tamiya Mini 4WD, this is how.
Vince Pornelos | Dec 16 2018

I never thought I'd get to drive on snow. We live in a country, after all, that has two seasons, neither of which is winter. So when I got the call from Mazda that we'd get to go to Hokkaido and see what that's like, the word “No” just fell out from my dictionary. How can I refuse the opportunity to see how tricky ice driving was like—and of all places, in northern Japan?

There was a bit of regret the moment we landed at New Chitose, the main airport that serves Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, and that would be wishing that I hadn't put my thickest jacket in my check-in bag. The moment that automatic door at the airport slid open, I got my first taste of -10 degrees Celsius. It's not pleasant, prompting a quick scamper to get those layers out from my bag.

Snow everywhere

We had landed in the middle of the night in Sapporo, a city just teeming with life. I couldn't wait to sample the local ramen; absolutely perfect for the weather. A mug of their eponymous beer would have been fantastic. Or, for a night cap, perhaps a glass of Nikka would be a great way to end a day out.

But Sapporo wasn't our primary stop; in fact, we boarded a bus right away, and headed further north to Asahikawa. It's even colder there but thankfully my layers of coats were working their magic.

Driving this is tricky

In the morning, I looked out the window and saw a veritable winter wonderland. Everything was covered in snow, wind included.

While most tourists venture to Asahikawa for their zoo (complete with penguins, polar bears, and the like), we were here to go to a place called the Kenbuchi Proving Ground. Mazda has an arrangement with the local government to use this snowed-in property as a place where they can do winter testing for their vehicles.

The zookeepers at Asahikawa love to take out the penguins for a walk.

It's not something we really notice in our tropical climate back home, but automakers with a global presence have to make sure that their cars can perform in all kinds of weather conditions, particularly for safety. A lot of manufacturers do tens of thousands of kilometers of testing in arid deserts, in tropical heat and humidity, in urban jungles, in the mountains, racing circuits like the Nurburgring, so on and so forth. Winter testing is a critical part of that, especially for a Hiroshima-based automaker that prides itself with exciting-to-drive cars like Mazda.

And outside the main building of the proving ground are a fleet of Mazdas waiting for us to drive. A lot of them are familiar like the Mazda3 (known as the Axela here), Mazda2 (known as the Demio here), and the CX-5 and CX-3. There were also models not distributed in the Philippines like the Mazda Premacy (a multi-purpose vehicle) and the CX-8; a larger crossover than the CX-5. Unsurprisingly, all the models at the facility were equipped with studless winter tires and four-wheel drive; even the little Mazda2 was an all-wheel drive.

Mazda does their winter testing in Hokkaido.

They take us for a sighting lap to get a lay of the land, or in this case, ice. The road is extremely slippery which is why four wheel drive is standard among these cars. Perhaps what's daunting about the place is the height of the packed snow walls: they're about 5 feet tall. If you've always wanted to know what it feels like to be in a Tamiya Mini 4WD, this is how.

It was tempting to go fast on my first stint behind the wheel, but really, we have to slow down and take our time. These Mazdas are great driving machines that can undoubtedly go fast on the snow, but many of us are first timers (most of the journalists were from South East Asia too), and so safety is important.

Mazda's new CX-8 on the handling course

The first one I tried out was the CX-8, a crossover that sits between the CX-5 and the larger CX-9, if the numbers weren't telling enough. The CX-8 exceeded my expectations, especially in the snow. I half expected a vehicle of its size and weight to slide about a bit more, but it just felt natural. Confident, even. Not bad at all for a crossover that can seat 6 people.

While the CX-8 was good, the CX-5 was definitely more relevant for our market because, unfortunately, we don't have the CX-8 in the Philippines. The CX-5 is one of Mazda's best sellers simply because it offers good space, great styling, and fantastic driving performance for what is essentially an SUV.

The Mazda CX-5 takes on the snow course.

The key factor about this CX-5 (and the other vehicles in this group) is the inclusion of a new kind of 4WD system from Mazda, one that allows the on-board systems to react (and almost predict) how to keep the driver in control. It does it by taking readings from a variety of sensors, and subsequently tells the car whether to activate four wheel drive.

Perhaps the best thing about the all-wheel drive system is that Mazda taught it how to predict and prevent a slide. The result is a more confident drive in the slippery snow, something we experienced as we switched from one Mazda to another.

The slippery conditions are perfect for testing a Mazda3's limits.

Recognizing that we had to experience the extreme challenge of ice and snow driving, Mazda let us loose on a little gymkhana course where we can go fast and have a bit of fun with 4-wheel- and front-wheel drive versions of the Mazda3. More than anything, we got to really experience what understeer is like, and that's always fun in a controlled and safe environment. We even got to ride in a Mazda driven by a pro test driver to experience what a full spinout would be like.

Click on the image below for slideshow

Those walls of snow are about 5 to 6 feet high on either side. 

It’s so cold that icicles form up on car. 

Once in a while, a fox comes out of hiding from the forest. 

Snow may look nice, but it plays hell with cars. 

Sapporo by night. 

The old Sapporo Beer brewery. 

The stills at the Nikka distillery. 

Nikka whisky is always an excellent cap for a day of driving. 

Aging to perfection. 

Fresh mugs of Sapporo beer. 

Japanese meal sets vary from every region in the country. 

A good bowl of ramen in Asahikawa. 

It's always great to have some well tuned cars to play with on a track, and the snow made it even more unique and enjoyable. Some would think that all this testing on snow is an exercise in irrelevance for the Philippines or other no-winter countries, but if Mazda can engineer and tune their vehicles—be it a saloon or a big crossover—to dance with precision on snow, imagine how good it can be on rained-in or low-grip roads.

While you mull that last point, I'll head back on over to Sapporo for a bit of that hot, tasty ramen, and maybe with a side of their local beer.


Photographs by Vince Pornelos and Mikko David