I’ve long held a bit of a soft spot for Mazda, mainly due to my first car being one of their products, and then of course also due to the Miata I owned for a while. Mazda has changed quite a bit as a company since then, and as much as I try to not read car reviews from many other outlets in order to not get caught up in a group-think situation, I have been aware that the CX-5 is quite a popular vehicle and generally gets excellent reviews, with the engine offering being the one aspect that has often come in for criticism, mainly due to there not being enough of it, or rather, not enough output from it.
Well, that (engine output) has changed significantly for the better over the last couple of years on certain trim levels, but I did find myself surprised at some aspects that I didn’t think I’d need to be concerned with while evaluating this model in and around Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming last week.
The CX-5 is now available with a turbocharged engine, known as the “Skyactiv-G”, displacing 2.5liters from its four cylinders and delivering between 227hp and 250hp depending on gasoline grade as well a very stout 310lb-ft of torque at a low 2000rpm. Paired exclusively with a 6-speed automatic, it can firmly be placed in the “well beyond adequate” category as regards the output but let’s come back to that in a bit.
Styling has always been a big positive for the CX-5 (as well as most Mazda offerings of recent years), and while I still very much like the original CX-5, this completely redesigned body (as of the 2017 model year) looks substantially similar to the original model unless seen side by side having been reworked in a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” manner. Everything is just a little tauter, a little sharper, and a little more refined and sophisticated as far as the exterior goes.
It (and all Mazdas for that matter) makes a strong statement with its front grille that refreshingly is very distinctive without being at all outlandish or cartoonish, The hood is fairly long for a shortish CUV, the roof doesn’t taper too much towards the rear and then its rump is cut off perhaps a little early but not really to its detriment although there seems to be room left for something to fill the space between this and the much larger three-row CX-9 in the lineup. Curiously Mazda now has two offerings smaller than the CX-5, namely the CX-3 and the slightly confusingly named CX-30 but those will have to wait for perhaps a future review for more details.
In any case, the CX-5 looks great from the outside from the majority of angles, my impression is that the rear may be its weakest point with the rear track looking a little narrow for its body, which is something it shares with the MX-5 (Miata) in my opinion and makes it look a hair bowlegged from certain rear angles, mainly directly from the rear.
Of course, styling is highly subjective and it appears that the market in general finds it attractive as well, as annual sales in the United States have steadily improved to well over 150,000 units last year, which doesn’t put it in the top echelon of the segment’s volume offerings but Mazda is a relatively small manufacturer compared to the others so the CX-5 is clearly a bright spot in the line up and something they should be celebrating.
One of the common things that one hears about Mazda is how their interiors have been punching well above their weight. I certainly didn’t find this interior objectionable, however, I also wasn’t bowled over by it. Perhaps that’s partly due to this being the top level “Signature” trim, with a price approaching US$40,000, and thus I was expecting more. Or maybe I’m a little jaded but I don’t think that’s the case.
This may well be a really nice interior at the entry level price ($25,190 for the “Sport” model) but at half as much again I found that the upper dash that looks vaguely like leather feels more rubbery than anything else while not completely matching the adjoining pieces and the wood trim (real in this trim level), while an attractive color and pattern, wasn’t particularly convincing as such to my eye and touch.
Of course those things are very price-specific sensitivities but the best way to describe it might be the way some described a 2005 Chrysler 300 when it was released, to wit “It looks like a Bentley, at least until a real Bentley rolls up at the light (yo)”. So it’s kind of like that, it looks and feels upscale – until you compare the materials in this upper trim level to a lower trim level of a more “upscale” but similarly priced vehicle. The infotainment left me wanting as well, but I’ll touch on that a little later, let’s look around the cabin some more first.
The seats, while not appearing or feeling aggressively bolstered, actually do quite a good job of keeping one in place. This version was finished in “Caturra Brown” leather, which is a very dark, almost purplish brown that is very subtle and really not far off the black that everything else in the cabin is finished in.
The seating position, both in front and back, is best described as “dining room chair”-like, i.e. upright and all the better for it. The back seats are fixed in place with neither a seatback angle adjustment nor a fore-aft slider, but the fold down armrest in the center does contain cupholders as well as the rear heated seat controls and USB ports for the rear passengers. Of course if you were to carry a fifth passenger in the middle, then all of that is inaccessible.
Headroom is plentiful in all positions and legroom in back was perfectly adequate for me (6’1″ with 32″ inseam) with plenty of comfort all around. The rear door panels are of the same quality as the fronts with the same materials and levels of softness – this is not universally true, often the back seat area gets lower/cheaper quality materials than the front.
The front of the cabin is cleanly styled with a tablet-like screen in the center and separate HVAC controls below it. The dashboard has two cupholders in front, a handy cubby for the phone and other oddments and a traditional automatic gear selector with a second forward/back gate for manual controls (duplicated with paddle shifters on the wheel).
A small toggle for “Sport”-mode pretty much rounds out the center console beyond the infotainment dial controller and small volume knob next to it, just like in an Audi. Overall it’s a clean and fairly minimalist look with style points in particular going to the very attractive vents with their metalwork surrounds.
Instruments are clear and legible and contain my newest favorite feature, the speed limit hash mark indicator! This car can “read” roadsigns such as speed limits and stop signs and (as some other cars do as well) displays a graphic next to the speedometer that is a representation of those signs.
However, and this is possible as the center dial speedometer is actually an excellent digital representation of a real gauge, this gauge then renders the relevant hashmark at the speed limit mark in red as opposed to white for all other numbers and their marks. This changes every time one passes a speed limit sign, making it very easy to ascertain at a glance whether or not one is in violation of the law.
Think back to the days of the 55mph speed limit, in that era either the number 55 or the hashmark at that position were denoted in red as a legally mandated reminder, it’s just like that except it changes depending on what the actual limit is. It can get confounded, such as when you turn in from a 40mph thoroughfare into a residential street that doesn’t have a speed limit sign and then keeps on with the wrong speed limit but for anything except that situation it seems to work well, and even sees temporary road construction limit signs and the like.
In addition to that, the lighting of the gauge itself also changes based on one’s speed, with it highlighting the section of the speedometer that the needle is currently in and fading out in both directions in a range of about 25mph up and down from the current speed. Overall, an interesting effect and feature.
Cargo space is generous and the area is deep and usefully shaped, a result of the fairly high window positions and the fact that there really aren’t any side windows back there, the small ones at the rear side are nearer the rear seat occupants’ heads rather than the cargo area.
The seats fold in a 40/20/40 manner, singly or in any combination thereof, however to fold them flat with the headrests in place does require that the front seats be moved forward and then back once the rear seatbacks are flat, otherwise they get hung up at on the fronts at about a 45 degree angle. At least the driver’s seat has a two-position memory to get it back into the correct position, but the passenger is on their own.
Getting back to the 8″ infotainment screen, I didn’t find myself a fan of the system, and it shows just how quickly these systems advance in technology, a couple of years ago I liked this system, but now found it more boggy and somewhat frustrating to use. It acts as a touch screen at rest, but once on the move the touch function is locked out and one must use the dial controller in the center console.
That’s fine and it works pretty well beyond being more “folder” based than some, (i.e. you have to drill down), but after pairing my phone it insisted on reloading my contacts every morning as well as sometimes during the day. That’s not a big problem and it didn’t take particularly long, but it insisted on doing that before you can make any changes such as changing the radio station, it’s more annoying if one takes frequent short trips rather than a few longer ones every day.
I’m a prolific SiriusXM user and these test cars always come pre-programmed with a few stations, I usually just override the first three with my favorites, in this set-up you have to either delete old ones first or just add your own, but then the new ones add at the end of the existing list and if you use the dial controller you find yourself selecting Audio, then SXM, then Favorites, then dialing all the way towards the bottom of the list before making a selection.
That’s alright as well since there’s a toggle on the steering wheel to either move up or down among the favorites which simplifies it, but beyond being locked out while the system redoes the contact list, it also lost contact with the satellite a couple of times and would not regain it until I shut down and restarted the car, which is annoying.
Worse was the one time it freaked out and rebooted itself while underway and in the process deleted ALL the presets. The only good thing was that I was then easily able to re-program my three favorites in the top three positions but that’s obviously not the way one would want things to be.
I’ve perhaps harped on this a little more than I should but found it serious enough to report it to my contact and this car will be looked at by the dealer and perhaps receive a software upgrade if needed/available. This particular car did not have a lot of miles on it and was built last year – the issue had not been reported by anyone else who had driven it, it could be a one-off issue here. I’ll qualify the criticism by pointing out that the only issues occurred while using the satellite radio portion of the system. The navigation system component worked well, although like many other cars this one also now sports Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto.
Really helpful however was the backup camera with the overhead view. Backing up across the above bridge was made vastly easier with it, and it’d be handy in other situations as well. Combined with the cross-traffic alert system these cameras are getting better and better and let’s be honest, while large pickups and SUVs make backing out of spaces more difficult, this is nothing new, there have always been people that use large vans for family transport or a plumber who parks their truck or van in a manner to block the rear sightlines as well. It’s of course still always advantageous and advisable to swivel one’s head but these systems are of help and not every driver is six feet tall either.
Mazda for a long time played up their Miata connection to everything, even using the tagline “Zoom-Zoom” until fairly recently. As such, people do expect their Mazda to be on the sporty side of the spectrum and as far as that goes this CX-5 delivers.
First, the engine – extremely punchy, from a stop even on loose surfaces all four wheels grip instantly enough to make any slippage nigh-on undetectable and then it pulls strongly to the redline, and then repeats for as long as you’re willing to risk your license as the speed rises rapidly.
The engine noise is on the gruff side, there isn’t any detectable turbo lag or whistle, it just goes and goes better than most any other smaller CUV out there, a turbo 2.5 is on the large size for a turbo-4 and the torque is generous considering the engine can and does run on regular unleaded as well as that grade being recommended by Mazda. However if you wish to use premium unleaded it is programmed to take advantage of that and provide up to 250hp instead, although the torque figure stays the same at 310, or at least that’s what is published.
The spec sheet indicates that the car is equipped with an “engine harmonics enhancer” which I suppose makes the engine sound better or be more audible in the cabin, it certainly is noticeable but not objectionable at full throttle and sounds entirely natural. When at higher rpm, there is a hint of a buzzing feedback in the pedals which was interesting to note, it doesn’t detract from anything though. On the freeway and faster highways though, the engine is silent as is most every other aspect, it is very refined on a long smooth ribbon of asphalt at high speeds.
Brakes are strong with excellent bite and no notable fade, and the CX-5 handles corners with aplomb. The steering is extremely direct and quick, and while electric gives good feedback if perhaps also having a bit too much heft right at the entry point of lower speed corners. At speed however it’s excellent and rewards chucking it into a corner with perhaps even a little trail braking to help settle the chassis.
Of course part of that handling balance is likely attributable to Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus – There are two aspects to this: 1. G-Vectoring Control (pre-plus) will reduce the engine torque slightly when entering a turn and still on the throttle in order to pitch the car forward a little and enhance turn-in and stability. Kind of like trailbraking but with your foot on the gas instead of using the brake.
And 2. the Plus part which takes effect when the turn is almost complete and the steering wheel is returning to center at which time it will lightly engage the brakes on the side of the vehicle on the outside of the turn to enable it to return to straight quicker and more stably.
I can only assume it works, it isn’t something you can hear or feel but the effect is noticeable in that the CX-5 does enter and exit turns quite well and likely does its part to help keep you on the road unlike the hapless driver of the pickup (yes, that’s real).
Mind you, it’s not and never will be a substitute for an MX-5, but for a small CUV it’s excellent in this regard and makes a curvy drive much more enjoyable than usual.
The transmission tends to upshift a bit too soon when left to its own devices but toggling it into “Sport” mode seems to make it run about two gears lower than it would otherwise and hold the gears longer. Around town it then revs too high when just cruising, leaving it more useful for specific applications such as canyon carving without the family aboard.
Using the paddle shifters wasn’t particularly rewarding, yes it allows any gear to be held as long as one wants, but serves more to make one wish for a proper manual transmission. I enjoyed the CX-5 mostly when left in regular mode and in “Sport” when I wanted to be very aggressive on a few roads but still a vast minority of the time.
The ride though, the ride…There’s no way around it but around town on anything but perfect surfaces it’s way too harsh and brittle. It feels sort of like either A) the tires are inflated about 15psi too high (they weren’t, I checked, 37.5psi when warm is perfect) or B) It’s lowered like some of us (well, not me) did as youngsters by just cutting the springs way too much without doing anything else or C) The wheelbase is abnormally short – I checked that as well, the 106″ measurement is right in line with the rest of the segment.
With none of those things being the problem, it seems a poor spring/shock relationship. Sure, it corners great, but when driving normally it’s constantly pitching and bobbing around on most surfaces and any expansion joint or manhole cover or break in the pavement is felt rather than absorbed. Perhaps the 19″ wheels with 225/55 Toyo A36 tires are to blame for being too heavy and thus partly an unsprung weight issue but the ride (or lack thereof) put a damper (sorry) on the day to day normal usage. And no, they aren’t run-flats, there’s a temporary spare under the cargo floor.
Fuel economy even on this powerful model was very competitive, rated at 22/27 and 24 combined I was pleased to note two things. First, in my mix of about 400 miles of driving approximately 150 miles were freeway and highway with minimal traffic, another 125 or so were all around town and the last 125 were when I drove up Poudre Canyon (SH-14) some ways and pushed the CX-5, mostly in higher rpm “Sport” mode for about a third of that distance.
It still managed to average 24.1 mpg per the trip computer but the key takeaway is that when I refilled the tank and did the measurement by hand, if appeared that it actually exceeded the average at the time by about 1 mpg which was good to see. The lowest I ever saw in the running average was 23 and the highest was just under 26 (the freeway/highway trip was at the beginning towards an even higher altitude at higher speeds).
Not bad at all for an engine of this power level without cylinder deactivation (which the non-turbo engines have) and without stop/start either. I used regular gasoline for my refill since the torque rating doesn’t change between grades but am not sure what it arrived with now that I think about it…
Fit and finish, both inside and out, were impeccable. This CX-5 (like all the ones we get) was built in Hiroshima, Japan with pretty much all content (90%) hailing from there as well according to the Monroney, and as is typical, reflected the expectation that comes with that. Others may build cars that are screwed together just as tightly and work as well, but rarely is everything engineered to fit together as precisely with minimal tolerances and acceptable deviations.
The CX-5 is available in five different trim levels (Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, Grand Touring Reserve, and then Signature), this turbocharged engine is standard in the top two of them. Mazda doesn’t offer many standalone options, things are bundled together by trim level these days. As stated above, the base price of the lowest trim level is around $25,000 and then it goes up a couple of thousand or so every time until the engine changes at the fourth trim level (GTR) where the jump is closer to $5000 and then a few more shekels for this one, the “Signature” which starts at $37,085 plus $1,045 for destination.
Let’s start with the options this time as there are only three of them – First the paint, Machine Gray, which is basically metallic charcoal for $300, a Rear Bumper Guard at $125, and lastly the silver Roof Rack Side Rails at $400 which are sort of de rigueur for any CUV or SUV or wagon-looking thing in my opinion.
The standard equipment list, in comparison, is exceedingly long. Of course everything is powered at this level, seats and steering wheel are all heated, the fronts are ventilated as well, entry is keyless, there’s a moonroof overhead, starting and turning off the engine is via a button, parking brake is electric and located behind the shifter, it has all the blind spot, lane keep assist, radar cruise control with stop and go functionality and other helpers as you’d expect, all lighting inside and out is LED, the audio system carries the BOSE brand label and yes, it can be loud and rock you all night long if that’s what you want; dual zone automatic HVAC with rear vents, parking sensors and much more is also included.
In short it comes very comprehensively equipped, looks great, is the most performance oriented CUV as an overall package at this price point, but is also a reminder than progress is continual and it is very easy for the cutting edge to become a bit dull over time. I suspect that for all the clamoring the press has been doing for a more powerful engine, the bulk of sales will still be for the three lesser-engined models as their pricing is more palatable and the basic goodness of the package still exists without some of the questions posed that become more relevant as the price increases.
I’m guessing that the ride is better on the smaller-wheeled versions as well which did end up being the major negative point for me, the other issues will likely resolve themselves in future upgrades and to some extent are less issues the further down the trim level ladder one descends with even the base model being quite well equipped and looking just as good from a physical standpoint, thus I’m confident that the CX-5 will continue to be a winner for Mazda going forward.
Thank you to Mazda for providing us with this vehicle and a full tank of gas, we appreciate it very much.