By Andrew Ganz
Tuesday, Feb 12th, 2013 @ 11:45 am
 
If you're of the automotive enthusiast persuasion, there's really only one reasonably-priced five-seat crossover bound to get your juices flowing: The Mazda CX-5.

And Mazda's surprisingly delightful little runabout just got better for an early 2014 model year that speaks to our wants (more power) and our needs (mostly unchanged fuel economy).

Introduced just last year as a 2013, the CX-5 has proven to be such a hit for Mazda that the zoom-zoom brand keeps boosting production to keep up with demand. Not a bad problem to have. But as much as we've enjoyed tooling around in the CX-5, we've always thought that it was lacking a bit in the power department.

No more.

Crossing over
Borrowing from the automaker's all-new 2014 Mazda6 sedan, the CX-5 gains an optional new 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine developed under the automaker's Skyactiv high-efficiency mantra. Base CX-5 Sport models will continue to offer the existing 2.0-liter, but the uplevel Touring and Grand Touring trims gain the 2.5 as standard. On all, front and all-wheel-drive variatns are available.

That means that buyers who opt for a better-equipped CX-5 will gain an extra 29 horsepower (for a total of 184 ponies) and 35 lb-ft. of torque (for 185 lb-ft.). All 2.5-liter CX-5s use a six-speed automatic transmission (the bargain basement base 2.0-liter front-driver comes with a six-speed manual gearbox).

Despite the power boost, fuel economy suffers only slightly - a 1 mpg drop in the city for the front-wheel-drive model and a 1 mpg drop all around for the all-wheel-drive variant. If you're counting, that means that the 2.5-liter CX-5 is rated at 25/32 mpg (front-wheel-drive) and 24/30 mpg (all-wheel-drive).

Those are solid figures, especially given the CX-5's relatively sprightly performance.

Tipping the scales at a mere 3,500 lbs. with all-wheel-drive, the CX-5 is a segment welterweight. Though it won't burn rubber, the 2.5-liter CX-5 is certainly one of the segment's peppier offerings. Around town, the CX-5 offers plenty of low-speed grunt thanks to a relatively low (3,250 rpm), mostly flat peak torque curve.

At higher speeds, the six-speed usually needs to downshift a gear or two to scoot around traffic or merge onto a highway, but the quick-shifting gearbox proved happy to comply during our testing in the Hill Country west of Austin, Texas. This six-speed unit is sort of a hybrid between a dual clutch automatic and a conventional setup, and while those two might seem like oil and water, the end result is uncannily smooth, fast shifts.

The new engine's arrival doesn't alter the CX-5's fun-to-drive nature. A thickly-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel should be drivers' first clue that this is not your average, dull crossover. When the road turns curvy, the CX-5's taut chassis and terrific steering make mincemeat out of segment rivals like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Tossed through a twisty road, the CX-5 remains composed and confident in a way other crossovers can only dream about. Feedback through the low-slack tiller is sports sedan-like, while the chassis appears to beg to be pushed. Grip with all-wheel-drive is terrific, but even the front-driver we used for photography proved stable when pushed hard.

With this kind of tuning, driving fun is clearly the name of the game.

Inside and out
The only major change to the CX-5 is in its engine room, although Mazda did make a few tweaks for 2014. Opt for the Technology Package on Touring and Grand Touring trims and you'll net Mazda's Smart City Brake Support, which uses a sensor to detect an impending low speed collision. If the driver reacts too slowly, the system brakes the CX-5 to minimize or even eliminate a wreck. The package also includes a TomTom-based navigation system, HID headlamps, a proximity key and a few other goodies.

Otherwise, the CX-5 boasts an attractive style outside and a comfortable interior. The first Mazda vehicle to feature the automaker's new design language, the CX-5 is plucky and bulbous inside and out, with more curvy but restrained style than the crossover segment usually sees.

Our Grand Touring test and photo vehicle was loaded up to $30,415, which meant its attractive interior boasted the Technology Package. We didn't test out Smart City Brake Support, but we did try the navigation system. With its smallish screen tucked into a large aperture, the system feels more like a temporary solution. We hear that a more comprehensive infotainment system is just around the corner.

Comfort-wise, the CX-5 offers firm and supportive seats and a terrific driving position. Unfortunately, the swoopy style gives it a hefty rear blind spot, although a blind spot monitor is standard on all Touring and Grand Touring models.

Leftlane's bottom line
A gust of fresh air into a staid segment when it arrived for 2013, the Mazda CX-5 has only gotten better for the new year with the addition of a larger, but nearly as fuel efficient engine.

Though it won't give turbocharged rivals a run for their money, the CX-5 offers the kind of "just right" balance that really speaks to us. Moreover, the additional power adds just $400 over the price of last year's CX-5, resulting in the well-equipped, mid-range Touring all-wheel-drive model at just $25,865 - several thousand less than many rivals.

2014 Mazda CX-5 base price range, $21,195 to $28,870.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz. Follow Andrew on Twitter.