Feline inspiration aside, Mazda’s niche among automakers — trading on the success of the Miata and the legacy of its rotary-engined sporting machines — is that of a reasonably priced driver’s car. Models like the 2 and 3, as well as the cult-hit-with-dads Mazda5 mini-minvan, bear out the brand’s claim to the zoom-zoom mantle. So what of the CX-5? How to jazz up a segment rife with lugubrious lumps of languor? By focusing on the operator’s experience. And in the controls department, the CX-5 is nothing short of revelatory. It offers the only manual transmission in the segment and the shifter is as good as cable-operated manuals get. The clutch is hyper-light, yet retains a decent measure of feel, a boon in traffic. The new six-speed automatic box is also excellent, utilizing a traditional torque converter to get the car moving and then locking up a clutch over 5 mph to reduce frictional loss and engage more precise shifts. Finally, the excellent electric power steering is proof that feel doesn’t have to be a casualty of increased efficiency. Toyota, BMW, and even Porsche could take some notes here.
According to Mazda, from now on, each new vehicle will be at least 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor, and while the company has no plans to kill the CX-7, they do allow that the CX-5 weighs between 288 and 575 pounds less than its older sibling, depending on equipment. That’s a serious, laudable commitment to weight reduction — a practice that offers benefits in both fuel economy and overall performance.
The weight-shaving strategy paid dividends on the winding byways of the Angeles National Forest, where the CX-5 tackled corners like a smaller, more sporting vehicle. The one real weak point was the high-winding engine. Even with the emphasis on lightness, the lack of torque was a detriment. While keeping a small engine on the boil is fun in a sports car, having to spin up the engine in anything remotely truck-like seems counterintuitive and out of character. In something smaller and lighter, the 2-liter engine would be an absolute jewel. It’s not coarse or thrashy — its powerband is simply mismatched to the vehicle. However, a diesel engine may be on the horizon, which should give the CX-5 the extra motivation it desperately needs without compromising efficiency.
While placement of the essential controls are spot-on and visibility is above par, the CX-5 trails some of its competitors in interior refinement. While both the new CR-V and the Mazda feature one-touch fold-down rear seats, Honda goes the extra mile and incorporates automatic-folding headrests. On the other hand, the Mazda does have a very handy 40/20/40 split folding arrangement: the seat center flips down, allowing for a family’s skis while retaining four-passenger capability.
While we’re on the subject of refinement: as a backroad roustabout, the CX-5 may be without peer in its class, but cruising on broken and cracked highways, the ride is rough to the point that even sports-car enthusiasts notice. Even Porsche’s Cayman R track-day special feels more supple over freeway rough stuff than Mazda’s tall wagon. Apples and oranges to be sure, but the reality of CUVs in the real world is that they’ll be logging many more miles on the Interstate than on scenic byways.
In the small-CUV segment, the CX-5 will undoubtedly appeal to a certain type of driver. It’s not likely to win the brand many converts, despite its best-in-class cargo space and fuel economy. On the other hand, the technology and thought the company has put into building a small crossover for motoring enthusiasts augurs well for the next generation of Mazda’s passenger cars. If the CX-5 isn’t a hit, the next Madza3 may well be.
|| Compact Crossover
|| Five passengers
|| 2.0-liter inline-four
|| Six-speed manual/Six-speed automatic
|| 155 hp
|| 150 ft-lbs
|| 8.0 (est.)
|| 26/32 (AT) 26/33 (MT)
| Base price (incl. destination charges)
|| 24,000 (est.)
| The takeaway
Mazda’s new direction should make for wonderful cars, but doesn’t quite translate in the CUV realm.