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The upscale compact crossover proves its worth during a historic snow and ice storm.

COURTESY MAZDA - The 2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD is an attractive compact crossover that can be ordered with sophisticated all-wheel-drive system.I finally got to test a new all-wheel-drive vehicle when I really needed it, and I'm here to tell you the 2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD was up to the task.

I've tested a lot of AWD vehicles over the years, but, because the weather in Portland is so moderate, the biggest challenge is usually a shower or two. I've also driven numerous AWD vehicles on rugged courses prepared for the annual Mudfest competitions that the Northwest Automotive Press Association held before the pandemic. But those are brief runs that just hint at what the vehicles would be like to live with on a daily basis.

But I recently got a new CX-5 at the tail end of the largest snow and ice storm in the region in more than 40 years. Although the worst had passed, all but the most heavily paved streets were still covered with a treacherous mix of thick slush with icy ruts and ridges. Almost all on-street parking spaces were partly blocked by walls of frozen muck. And when all that finally melted, many roads were partly covered with gravel that had been laid down by city crews for traction.

COURTESY MAZDA - The 2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD is styles to look sharp from all angles.

I've tested Mazda's compact crossover before and been impressed by its sleek styling and near-luxury interior. The company debuted a turbocharged 2.5-liter engine in the top-of-the-line Signature model in 2019 provides a welcome 63 more horsepower than the base engine. But I'd never driven it in such conditions before.

The CX-5 took it all in stride, easily driving around, over or through all of the challenges without losing its grip. I was impressed, and then realized I didn't actually know anything about Mazda's AWD system. Some manufacturers market there's more aggressively. Subaru is well known for its Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and Mercedes plasters a big 4Matic logo on all of its AWD vehicles. But I didn't even known what Mazda called their.

So I asked Jeff Zurschmeide, the Pamplin Media Group's other automotive writer, figuring he'd know. My faith in him was rewarded. Within minutes he sent me an article he'd written about the system based on an interview with Mazda vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman, who worked on it.

COURTESY MAZDA - The interior of the 2021 Mazda CX-5 Siganture AWD is refreshingly clean and modern.

As Zurschmeide explained in the article, "Implementing all-wheel-drive is a technical challenge for any automaker, but it's a special challenge for Mazda. Because Mazda makes the human driver the focus of every vehicle, it's not enough to just drive all the wheels. Mazda's all-wheel-drive system must enhance Jinba Ittai — the feeling of oneness between driver and vehicle."

According to Coleman, Mazda calls its system I-ACTIV all-wheel-drive, and it has been in the CX-5 and larger CX-9 crossover for while. The company has just finished modifying it for the AWD version of the revised Mazda three compact sedan and hatchback.

"It's a sophisticated system that uses all the sensors in the car. We use the data we already have to understand what the road surface is like. Then we can figure out exactly how much traction there is. For example, we can look at the windshield wipers. If they're on, the car knows it's raining. We can look at steering effort. If steering takes less effort, it means the road is slippery," Coleman said.

COURTESY MAZDA - The front bucket seats in the 2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD are comfortable enough for long road trips.

"Using that data we can figure out how much torque the car should apply, and where to apply it."

A big challenge for Mazda was it work with the new G Vectoring Control system that was developed to improve the handling of the CX-5, CX-9 and Mazda3. As Coleman explained, "G Vectoring Control monitors the driver's steering inputs. When the wheel turns, GVC shifts weight around very slightly to improve grip and make the car behave more naturally. If you're accelerating and you try to steer, the car doesn't respond quite as well as if you're off the throttle. That happens because the car's weight shifts forward onto the front tires when you're off the throttle. G Vectoring Control reduces the engine's power output a little bit as you turn the wheel. That shifts weight onto the front tires to make Mazda vehicles respond consistently all the time."

If that sounds complicated, it is. But trust me, it all works together seamlessly. It dry weather, the Mazda CX-5 is the best handling affordable compact crossover on the market, bar none. And its I-ACTIV all-wheel-drive system can handle bad weather, too.

A previous Pamplin Media Group review of the Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD can be found here.

COURTESY MAZDA - The infotainment system in the 2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD is operated by an easy to understand and use rotary knob on the center console.

2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD

Base price: $ $37,405

Price as tested: $38,360

Type: Compact crossover SUV

Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (250 hp, 310 lbs-ft)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

EPA estimated mileage: 22/27

Overall length: 179.1 inches

Curb weight: 3,825 pounds

Final assembly: Hiroshima, Japan

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