We did the heavy lifting and found that the new CX-5 should be on the short list for anyone considering a midsize crossover.
Mazda is at a rare point in an automaker’s life where the quality of its products far outweighs the public’s perception of the brand. It’ll be hard for Mazda to stay a secret after Consumer Reports just recommended every model in its lineup, but especially so now that it’s launched the new CX-5, a midsize crossover that resides in the sweet spot for fast sales in the current market climate. Mazda flew me out to San Diego to spend a day driving the 2017 CX-5, and suffice it to say I was thoroughly impressed.
You see, given how hotly contested the midsize crossover segment is, each and every automaker – from the veterans to the relatively new kids on the block – are bringing their absolute best. Honda recently refreshed the CR-V and introduced the turbocharger to the car, which already boasted a fuel-saving CVT transmission. Then Nissan touched up the Rogue, the rising star of this segment that also offers a CVT and a hybrid option. As you can imagine, this helps where regulators are concerned but chisels away at the remnants of driving fun in each car. As a smaller company that likes to stick to its human-centric and driver-oriented design philosophy, Mazda underwent its refresh in a more simple manner.
That was to make many small changes that add up to an entirely new car, although much of the old CX-5 remains. The engine is still a 2.5-liter SKYACTIV four-cylinder (gone is the 2.0-liter option) mated to a reprogramed six-speed automatic with output going to the front wheels or all four if the buyer opts for AWD. However a reworked piston head, altered piston skirts, and new piston rings wring out an extra three horsepower for a total of 187 ponies and 185 lb-ft of torque. As with the engine, the rest of the upgrades seem slight at first but add up to a revolutionary change. The top priorities for the engineering team was a reduction in NVH, an increase in ride quality without sacrificing steering or handling, and better throttle response.
The first was achieved through subtle changes throughout the car: adding door seals, placing the windshield wipers out of the wind’s path, adding absorptive material where reflective material used to be, and using acoustic glass on the front side windows. The result is an interior that feels more insulated from the outside world, enabling clearer conversations and contributing to the upscale feel of the car. The design team had a hand in the visual aspects of making the CX-5 a premium choice, laboring to ensure a driver-centered steering position, ergonomically positioned controls, armrests, and a division of information that splits needs versus amenities, placing the former nearer to the driver and the latter between the driver and passenger.
A plentiful array of materials and styling cues get swiped from the CX-9 while the visual noise gets turned down to help the CX-5’s interior look smooth. Inside it’s hard for a scrupulous eye to find evidence of a lack of effort. The Soul Red Crystal exterior of the test vehicles gleamed in the Southern California sun during our drive and put nearby Lexus and Audis to shame with lines shaped by the human eye and not by a computer. The CX-5’s face looks more complex thanks to a defragmented front end that separates the grille and lights for depth while a more aggressive stance is enabled by lowering the car’s center of gravity both literally and visually by using a high and composed belt line while adding weight to the wheel wells.
Adding both sporting prowess and comfort is no easy feat, so when Mazda engineers softened up the suspension, they had to find a way to recuperate the loss in steering feel. A solid-mounted steering rack and lower friction mounting struts do some of the work on that end, but Mazda likes to tout its G-Vectoring Control, the imperceptible silicone hand of magic that reduces engine torque output anytime the wheel is turned. The slight deceleration force then places a greater load on the front wheels, helping the car to corner more flatly. This is a maneuver that race car drivers do when coming into a corner. The end result is a competent ride in the city, confidence on the freeway, and pleasure on the back roads, although a chassis that’s 15% stiffer helps too.
Hefty amounts of body roll kill any prospect of the CX-5 as a sporting vehicle (it is a crossover after all) and the six-speed transmission constantly changes ratios as if confused on how to tackle a hill climb, but a simple press of the “Sport” button helps to away with the latter of the two annoyances. With the transmission programed to do its job correctly, the Mazda feels both alive and compliant thanks to the aforementioned steering and handling upgrades but also because of the retuned throttle that responds to inputs more quickly and linearly. In the city, it's tuned to account for how quickly drivers mash down to provide abrupt or gradual takeoff, making driving in dense conditions less of a headache.
Separately, these pieces add up to small changes that, when combined, make up a concerto of fluid driving experience. To drive the point home, Mazda borrowed a handful of luxury cars from Germany and Japan including the Lexus NX, Mercedes GLA, Audi Q3, and BMW X1 for benchmarking purposes. Each of the competing luxury vehicles were mismatched for class given that the CX-5 is larger, but all commanded a four or five figure premium over our range-topping CX-5 Grand Touring. In each and every case, Mazda proved that its driver-focus made for a better drive while the upscale interior and attractive button layouts left competitors feeling either too clinical, unimaginative, or at worst, like budget options that inexplicably cost more.
It’ll be interesting to see how the new CX-5 competes with recently upgraded versions of Honda and Nissan competitors, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mazda win that competition, especially with new levels of practicality enabled by reimagining some crucial components. For example, the rear trunk hatch is now mechanically operated (if optioned) and the rear seats offer a more gradual incline when folded down to make stowing long items less of a chore. Rear seats can now be had with heaters to match the heated front seats and steering wheel, and there’s even a USB charging port in the rear armrest so that cables don’t have to snake over the center console and around the shifter.
The driver also gets spoiled, especially with the new windshield-projected active driving display that uses a windscreen-based HUD to project speed, driver assistance system information, and even reads street signs to tell you what the speed limit is and if a stop sign is coming up. To the right of that display is a seven-inch touchscreen display that can also be controlled with the rotary multi-function commander control placed in front of the center console. Unfortunately, that’s still in need of an upgrade to help it stay as up to date as the rest of the cabin. Drivers are also privy to Mazda’s suite of driver aids, which include lane departure warning and lane keep assist, radar cruise control, automatic high beams, smart braking support, and rain sensing wipers.
In total, we’d be hard pressed to find a customer that spends close to $30,000 on the new CX-5 and comes away disappointed. Prices start at $24,045 and go up to $30,695 with the most expensive CX-5 (according to current options) topping out at $33,120. In other words, you’re getting more than what you pay for in terms of standard features, capability, luxury, and above all, engaged but comfortable driving. Fuel economy may be lacking with a rating of 27 mpg combined (24 city, 31 highway with 1 mpg subtracted from each figure in AWD models), but the exchange is a driving experience that outdoes many luxury competitors.
As hotly contested as the midsize crossover segment is, the CX-5 seriously raises the bar and begs deep consideration before turning elsewhere. It’s just a shame that last month it ranked 21st place in segment sales according to Good Car Bad Car, far behind both solid and mediocre competitors. Given the recent design amendments and the fact that underneath the pretty sheet metal is one of this class’ finest, we suspect the CX-5 to put Mazda on the map and bring in some new brand loyalists.