Mazda might not be putting all
of its eggs in one basket with its new CX-5 compact crossover, but it sure is coming close. To say that the Japanese automaker has a lot riding on this shapely five-door is something of an understatement.
Mazda's financial situation isn't particularly bright, hampered as it is by a reliance on Japan and its strong currency for most of its production.
But our time in the cheapest of CX-5s hardly had us thinking about exchange rates and production costs. Instead, we were focused on Mazda's claim of both class-leading fuel efficiency and the zoom-zoom brand's traditional focus on performance. Were these lofty standards met? Read on.
What is it?
While we've seen the Skyactiv badge before on the 2012 Mazda3, which shares its 2.0-liter four-cylinder and choice of six-speed automatic and manual transmissions with the CX-5, the crossover you see here is the first product to be wholly developed under Mazda's new mantra.
Just what is Skyactiv? The CX-5 employs careful engineering to reduce weight while upping rigidity, which, theoretically, reaps benefits in fuel economy, performance, handling and safety. Look for many of the lessons learned on the CX-5 to show up in future Mazda cars and crossovers.
The CX-5 replaces both the dated Ford Escape
-based Mazda Tribute and, eventually, the homegrown, slightly larger Mazda CX-7. While we liked
the CX-7 well enough, it was a bit too cramped to be a midsizer and a bit too pricey to be a high-value compact. The smaller CX-5 establishes itself as a definite compact crossover.
Several trim levels are available, as is optional all-wheel-drive, but the entry-level, front-wheeler Sport we've tested is the only one available with a standard stick-shift. That helps explain its low as-tested price and relatively modest specification level. More luxuries are available in the Touring and Grand Touring packages, but even the priciest CX-5 tops out at a not-unreasonable $30,415.
What's it up against?
Nearly everyone has a compact crossover by now, but they're not all created equal.
We think the CX-5 compares well with the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V
, Hyundai Tucson
and Kia Sportage
. Notably, the cheapest all-wheel-drive/automatic CX-5 undercuts all but the Sportage.
How does it look?
In base Sport garb, the CX-5 is simple and a bit unadorned, although it does at least ride on alloy wheels unlike the hubcaps or steel wheels standard on most rivals.
Voluptuously rubenesque from some angles, the CX-5's style belies its "light and simple" Skyactiv mantra. Frankly, that's all right with us, since this tall wagon is rather nicely proportioned.
Up front, the CX-5 is the first production Mazda to utilize the automaker's new face penned under the direction of designer Ikuo Maeda, who replaced controversial Dutchman Laurens van den Acker about three years ago. We like the shield-shaped grille and also the swept-back headlamps, although the Sport's missing fog lamps look a little downmarket.
From the side, the CX-5 eschews traditional SUV shapes for a more organic series of curves, including a gentle flourish across the lower portion of the doors. Those doors, by the way, open deeply, preventing drives and passengers from smudging their pants on dirty rocker panels. Out back, the CX-5's style is tastefully if a little blandly finished with high-mounted tail lamps and a small rear window. A pair of chrome exhaust pipes poke through a faux diffuser, hinting at the CX-5's performance bent.
Our Sport tester rode on busy 17-inch alloy wheels that are a nice bonus for the price but look a little modest in the CX-5's big wheel wells.
And on the inside?
Our tester's all-black interior proved more inviting after a few miles than its appearance might initially indicate. Driver and passenger are affronted by a tall and mostly symmetrical dashboard that puts all controls up high. Topping the center stack is a rather basic AM/FM/CD radio that lacked Bluetooth, satellite and even FM radio data functionality, although a USB input with iPod compatibility is standard. Stepping up to the mid-level Touring model nets Bluetooth, HD radio, a 5.8-inch LCD display and a rearview camera, however.
A relatively wide center console features two items rarely seen in crossovers: A hand brake lever and a manual gearbox; a CR-V, with its multi-configurable center console, this crossover is not. A big center armrest reveals a single shelf and the aforementioned auxiliary audio inputs.
Rear seat passengers are treated to slightly below average space compared to the particularly efficiently packaged CR-V. Behind the split-folding second row (three-way folding with an integrated armrest on higher-end models) lurks a nicely finished cargo area with a retractable cover that thoughtfully attaches to the cargo door.
Even in our low-spec model, materials and assembly quality were a cut above the class norm. Most dashboard and front door panel surfaces were soft touch, while those made from harder plastic were uniquely finished. We especially liked the grippy three-spoke steering wheel with its convenient switches.
Sport trim includes a basic proximity key, which can be kept in a driver's pocket or purse inside the car thanks to a starter button. But unlocking the CX-5 requires finding the key fob and pressing a button. Higher-end CX-5s feature a door handle-mounted button to simplify the process.
But does it go?
Sharing the Mazda3's 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder could have been a recipe for disaster in a crossover, but careful weight savings meant that our tester tipped the scales at under 3,300 lbs. That's on the light side for a compact sedan, let alone a 178-inch-long crossover, and it's about 300 lbs. less than most admittedly more powerful rivals aside from the similarly lithe CR-V.
As a result, the CX-5 makes the most of its available power, never feeling remotely short on grunt except during occasional highway passing maneuvers. The 2.0-liter's 150 lb-ft. of torque peaks at 4,000 rpm, but we rarely found ourselves needing to rev the uncannily smooth dual overhead camshaft engine. Making matters even more enjoyable was the smooth snick-snick six-speed manual, which offered just the right amount of clutch and lever resistance to feel sporty without becoming a nuisance in normal driving.
So too the CX-5's firm and pleasingly direct steering. The CR-V might be a little quicker off the line, but it can't hold a candle to the CX-5's level of control. Although overall feel was a bit light, the CX-5 exhibited the kind of dead-on accuracy through our test loop normally reserved for more dedicated sports sedans. Credit the willing chassis and well-tuned fully independent suspension for reducing drama while adding confidence. In short, the CX-5 begs
to be pushed.
But that's not to say that the CX-5 isn't a pleasant everyday driver. Its ride is composed and well-damped, in part no doubt because of its fairly tall tires, and it is exceptionally quiet at highway speeds. The only urban demerit we found was lousy rear visibility thanks to the wide D-pillars.
Fuel economy is another asset: Mazda and the EPA peg the crossover at 26/35 mpg, with 29 mpg combined. We tickled the upper reaches of 34 mpg on a highway jaunt and averaged an impressive 30 mpg overall during a week of mixed driving.
Unfortunately, opting for the automatic and all-wheel-drive that will adorn most CX-5s pushes those figures to a slightly less impressive, but still strong for the class, 25/31 mpg
Why you would buy it:
You're shopping for a high-value crossover that's fun to drive, fuel efficient, and nicely outfitted. Look no further.
Why you wouldn't:
You're on your fourth CR-V and you see no reason to stray.
Leftlane's bottom line
Mazda's CX-5 won't likely unseat the brilliantly-packaged but ultimately un-stimulating Honda CR-V as the segment's sales leader, but those who do find the Skyactiv Mantra will be having more fun.
A Miata with seating for five, the Mazda CX-5
tickles the senses with every turn of its steering wheel. There's more than enough practical substance here for this fuel-thrifty, well-designed compact crossover to net our recommendation.
2012 Mazda CX-5 Sport
base price, $20,695. As tested, $21,490.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.