The typical American car buyer is a fickle beast, constantly evolving and chasing the latest fashion. You might think that as the second biggest purchase that most people make after their home, selecting a vehicle would be a more rational decision, but in reality it is often far more emotional. That’s probably why the crossover utility vehicle has become one of the hottest segments in the market with the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape each selling more than 300,000 units in 2014 and numerous other models in the segment topping 200,000. For Mazda, the compact CX-5 is the brand’s second best seller, just behind the Mazda3 and selling nearly twice as fast as the midsize Mazda6 sedan. I recently got to spend a week with the 2016 CX-5 Grand Touring AWD to see if it lives up to the brand’s fun-to-drive philosophy and came away impressed.
Ever since the CX-5 debuted in 2012 as a replacement for the slightly larger CX-7, it has been receiving largely rave reviews and regularly emerging at the head of the class in comparison tests. Despite being five-inches shorter and one-inch narrower than its predecessor, Mazda engineers have done a bang-up job on the packaging the CX-5. The extra inch of roof height in the CX-5 translates directly to a headroom advantage and the newer CUV has nearly three-inches of extra legroom in the second row. The extra space for the passengers doesn’t come at the expense of cargo room either with almost seven cubic feet of additional storage in the back.
Like all of Mazda’s latest generation of vehicles, the CX-5 also has a focus on reducing the mass that the powertrain has to haul around. At 3,589 pounds for the loaded all-wheel-drive Grand Touring model, the CX-5 is 100 pounds lighter than a comparable Ford Escape and 250-pounds leaner than the CX-7. That comparatively svelte mass enhances both performance and fuel efficiency but I’ll come back to that.
On the outside, the CX-5 exhibits the same Kodo design language found on its siblings, the 3 and 6. The more vertical fascia of this style has the effect of giving the crossover a chunkier appearance than its slope-nosed predecessor and actually makes it seem slightly more truck like. The matte black lower fascia, wheel-arch edges and sill extensions plus the dark tinted glass and black-painted wheels of the Grand Touring model contrast well with the soul red metallic paint to give the CX-5 a no-nonsense appearance.
In the cabin, the CX-5 again follows the lead of Mazda’s latest cars with a well thought out configuration and excellent material choices. The Grand Touring gets standard leather seating surfaces in either parchment or black with my tester having the former. Compared the Escape, the CX-5 control layout is much simpler and more logical. A standard seven-inch screen at the top of the center stack displays navigation and audio information while rotary knobs below this control the dual-zone climate control.
Another control knob behind the shift lever can be twisted, pressed or pushed like a joystick to move around the screen. The more I drive vehicles with touchscreens, the more I’m becoming convinced that these remote control devices that were pioneered by BMW’s iDrive are actually a superior user interface in the car. Wiping a touchscreen phone on my sleeve to remove the fingerprint smears is one thing, unfortunately a smeared screen in the car can quickly become unreadable in bright sunlight. Reaching an arm out to tap the targets on a car screen is also problematic as a fully extended arm and finger tends to wave around a lot more than when you are holding a phone or tablet close to your body. Placing a hand on the control knob next to the seat is a much more precise and accurate way of selecting functions. Interestingly Mazda has chosen to provide a small rotary knob to the right of the main control knob to adjust audio volume rather than using the standard location below the screen. Fortunately, redundant audio controls are also located on the left spoke of the steering wheel.
Like the 3 and 6, the CX-5 is propelled by Mazda’s latest 2.5-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder. This normally aspirated takes advantage of direct injection to work with a 13.0:1 compression ratio and develop 184-horsepower and 185 lb.-ft. of torque. While the engine doesn’t generate as much low end torque as Ford’s turbocharged EcoBoost engines, the performance is more than adequate when paired with Mazda’s six-speed automatic transmission. The CX-5 isn’t going to outrun an Escape with the larger 2.0-liter EcoBoost, but the 1.6-liter should be a very competitive drag race. Like the cars and in keeping with it’s “Zoom-Zoom” motto, Mazda continues to offer a manual gearbox in the base CX-5 Sport, but only with the smaller 2.0-liter engine.
The CX-5 has surprisingly good driving dynamics for a high-riding crossover with precise and nimble responses from the 225/55R-19 Toyo all-season tires. The steering has excellent feel and feedback although when pushed to the limit, the CX-5 safely understeers although not in an obnoxious way. The downside of the low-profile tires is that the ride quality is not as supple as some other vehicles I’ve driven recently although it was not uncomfortable by any stretch.
My test vehicle had the optional i-Activesense driver assist package which includes radar-based adaptive cruise control (ACC) with automatic emergency braking as well as lane departure warning. The ACC works much like most other systems, automatically maintaining a safe distance to the vehicle ahead although Mazda only includes a long-range radar sensor that works down to 20 mph. Below that speed, it automatically disengages and the driver has to manually apply the brakes to come to a complete stop. The system also doesn’t function as smoothly as some other vehicles when slowing. If the vehicle ahead slows down, the brakes are applied more aggressively than other systems, making it less comfortable, but on the other hand it does get the driver’s attention if their mind has wandered a bit.
The lane departure warning is also a bit unusual. Most systems provide a visual warning in the instrument cluster combined with either a chime or vibration of the steering wheel. Mazda uses the visual alert, but the audible warning is low-pitched rumble that sounds more like the feedback you get when a microphone is too close to a speaker. I think it’s meant to replicate the sound of running over rumble strips, but it’s just annoying and I ended up turning it off.
The AWD CX-5 gets EPA fuel economy label estimates of 24 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 26 mpg city and I saw a bit over 26 mpg in my week of driving. The base 2.0-liter, manual transmission CX-5 starts at a surprisingly affordable $21,795 while my fairly loaded AWD Grand Touring topped out at $34,140. Mazda moved out just shy of 100,000 CX-5s in 2014 and is on track to easily beat that quantity this year. My personal preference would be for the Mazda6 wagon that is sold in other parts of the world, but for those that want the extra ride height of a crossover, while retaining the sporting dynamics intrinsic in Mazdas, the CX-5 is worthy of a serious look.