Test Drive: 2013 Mazda CX-5

Mazda's latest crossover wagon shines in handling talent, even if powertrain tends to diminish overall impression

by James M. Flammang

2013 Mazda CX-5

It's back! The "zoom-zoom" feel that Mazda has promoted for years is back in full force, in the CX-5 crossover SUV. Introduced as an early 2013 model, the CX-5 comes across as a delightful and truly sporty wagon.

In the opinion of Tirekicking Today, that "zoom-zoom" theme didn't quite make it all the way into Mazda's two larger crossover SUVs: the CX-7 and the bigger-yet CX-9. Other reviewers disagreed about the CX-7, in particular; but after a substantial test-drive and a subsequent follow-up trial, we found it to lean more toward ordinary than sporty. Overall, in fact, we awarded the CX-7 a single "zoom."

Well, that second "zoom" has defiantly returned with the new, smaller model. Only a few moments are needed behind the wheel to realize that the compact CX-5 feels just like a top-rung sport machine should: tightly attached to the pavement and, even in ordinary driving, bringing a satisfied nod and grin to the driver's face.

This is the first Mazda product to offer the "full suite" of SKYACTIV technology: engine, transmission, and chassis. Mazda claims the CX-5 with manual shift has the highest fuel-economy estimate from the EPA for highway driving (35 mpg) of any SUV sold in North America. City driving yields a 26-mpg estimate. With all-wheel drive, the highway estimate drops to 31 mpg. With SKYACTIV-Drive automatic and front-wheel drive, the EPA estimate is 26-mpg city/31-mpg highway (25/31 mpg with all-wheel drive).

Billed as "all new from the ground up," the CX-5 weighs as little as 3,208 pounds, with a manual gearbox. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, delivering 155 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 150 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Buyers can choose either the SKYACTIV-MT six-speed manual transmission, or SKYACTIV-Drive six-speed automatic. Mazda describes the automatic as combining the advantages of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a dual-clutch transmission. All-wheel drive is optional, and the CX-5 can tow as much as one ton.

Seating five, the CX-5 has a relatively long 106.3-inch wheelbase. Six airbags are standard, along with daytime running lights. A Blind Spot Monitoring system is optional. So are an adaptive front-lighting system, bi-xenon headlights, and a rearview camera with distance guide lines.

Evolved from Mazda's MINAGI concept SUV, the CX-5 rides on 17-inch tires. Grand Touring models get 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

Steering feel, then, is the superlative high point of Mazda's CX-5. This little crossover stays beautifully on-track, carrying on and building upon Mazda's long-standing focus on sporty handling and overall "zoom-zoom" character.

A comfortable ride complements the CX-5's top-notch handling characteristics, but the powertrain does not quite reach the same pinnacle. Automatic-transmission shifts are quiet and crisp, but too "busy" at times. Push hard on the gas pedal at lower speed, and a delay to downshift may be quite noticeable, followed by abrupt forward motion that yields more noise than action. Those pushing-harder shifts also are more drawn-out.

All too often, too, the transmission reaches higher gears swiftly, which is good for gas mileage but not for performance. Acceleration actually is most effective with a rather gentle push on the pedal. The engine is quiet when idling and at speed, but buzzy while accelerating - and a bit beyond buzzy at times.

Front-compartment space is plentiful, but the driver's seat isn't so cushiony on the bottom and doesn't provide so much support, either. On the other hand, the long seat bottoms are welcome. The rear seat is roomy too, but again, marred by hard seat bottoms. Oddly, the center position, despite a hard seatback, feels more cushiony than the sides. Headroom is good in both front and rear, and the cargo hold is spacious. Gauges are gently lit and pleasantly easy to read, but the navigation screen (if installed) is tiny, though easy enough to read.

Visibility is fine, though the triangular rear quarter windows are too high to be of much help. On the whole, the interior is pleasant, if uninspired.

Prices for the CX-5 start at $20,695 (plus $795 destination charge) for the Sport model with manual shift. A SKYACTIV-Drive automatic transmission raises the tariff to $22,095 ($23,345 with all-wheel drive). Topping the line, the Grand Touring stickers for $27,045 with front-drive or $28,295 with all-wheel drive.

© All contents copyright 2012 by Tirekicking Today