Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Test Drive: Mazda CX-5 Touring AWD



By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

As loyal readers know, I’m not a huge fan of crossovers. However, there are exceptions to every rule. UpShift has previously tested a Volvo XC60 and a Ford Escape V6, and come away impressed in both instances. The Volvo provides moves that would not be out of place in a (big) sport sedan, and the Escape does a darn good impression of a small, body-on-frame SUV, when it comes to the solid ride, low NVH, and towing ability.

Mazda’s ads claim that the crossover is a “product of compromise” but that they “have the technology to save it.” Does the CX-5 measure up to these claims?
                 
I drove a CX-5 Touring AWD at Bass Mazda in Sheffield Lake, Ohio, last weekend. It was not loaded (that’s the Grand Touring model), but it was well-equipped with a power driver’s seat, sunroof, a crisp in-dash LCD touch screen, 17-inch alloy wheels, and steering wheel audio controls among the amenities.

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Mazda’s new Skyactiv® technology has been getting a lot of press among car enthusiasts and the industry as a whole. Instead of going the hybrid route that other manufacturers have chosen, Mazda decided to take established engineering (including the internal combustion engine) up a few notches. They have lightened the structure, and built new engines and transmissions from the ground up. They’ve reduced friction in the powertrain, resulting in an engine that’s 15% more efficient, a transmission that’s 7% more efficient, and a manual (surprise!) with the shortest throws in its class. Mazda also uses ultra-high tensile steel in the body, which is an industry first.
                 
My home Mazda dealer sits on a large piece of property. So what did they do? The entrance road to the dealer is a twisting, turning ribbon of concrete about ½ a mile long. Genius. Pulling out of the dealer, I was pleased that the CX-5 has some usable low-end torque, under 2,500rpm or so. This is impressive given that the engine is only a 2.0 liter. Short story: this thing can handle. It straight up embarrasses everything else in the class. Taking tight turns on the access road at 35-40mph, the CX-5 is planted, poised, and confident. I heard little to no tire squeal. The steering is brilliant—very direct with little play, but not heavy at all. It feels similar to a BMW in this regard.
                 
Then, I guided the CX-5 toward the highway. The 2.0 liter Skyactiv-G (G stands for gas; Mazda also makes a Skyactiv-D diesel engine) moves it without too much fuss. There isn’t a ton of power, but there is enough to keep up with traffic without any issues. The 6-speed manu-matic helps in this regard. The engine doesn’t seem to get bogged down at low RPMs, and it doesn’t rev too high on the highway with the generous overdrive. Going 75mph, the revs were under 2,500 rpm. Wind noise is low on the highway, with just a little around the A-pillars and roof area. Road noise was commendably low. It has a stable highway ride, which is often an issue in small crossovers.
                 
The Mazda also delivers in the interior department, with logical controls and nice materials. The seats are very good. They have solid bolstering and support, especially for the lower back. It’s nice that you can get cloth seats with a well-equipped model. They are grippy and provide a just-right level of cushioning. Likewise, the dashboard is well laid out. The gauges are white-on-black and very easy to read at a glance. An exterior thermometer readout, and range calculator/average MPG display are included in the instrument cluster. Likewise, the radio and HVAC controls have intuitive knobs and buttons. (Remember, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). Even though this is a well-equipped trim level, they didn’t make auto climate control standard—a good move, in my opinion. My daily driver has it, and after more than 2.5 years with it, I still don’t see the advantages that it offers. The radio/nav is a combination of buttons and a touch screen. Buttons control the most important functions, such as volume and tuning, and the screen is used for secondary controls. It’s clear and reacts quickly to touch commands. The stereo is a Bose® unit that has 9 speakers and sounds strong, from the brief time that I had it on.
                
 The driving position is also very good. I’ve driven some cars where I frequently have to adjust the seat and the steering wheel to get comfortable. With the CX-5, I barely moved anything. You don’t have to reach when turning the three-spoke steering wheel, or lean forward at all. The wheel itself sits at an ergonomically friendly angle, and is a nice size, with grippy leather and notches at 10 and 2.
                 
More evidence that the engineers had their thinking caps on when designing the CX-5 is the way the rear seats fold. The lever is in the cargo area, and involved a simple pull. More importantly, the middle rear seat (the entire seat—not a pass-through) folds independently of the two outboard seats. This is especially handy if you’re carrying skis or snowboards, long pieces of wood, defenseman lacrosse sticks, etc. The folding feature gives the CX-5 a leg-up on the competition when it comes to cargo versatility.
                 
What didn’t I like about the CX-5? Very few things. One of those is the rather large rear blind spots, which are an unfortunate and unsafe product of modern car design. You have to do a little guesswork when moving into the left lane, or making a left turn. It’s less of an issue turning right, due to the better angle.  Also, it’s not exactly powerful, but it gets the job done. And, a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder and a diesel are on the way, which should be good for people that can either sacrifice a couple mpgs with the 2.5 or know that diesels are awesome and efficient (like Europeans, everyone that’s been buying VW TDIs for years, and me).
                 
The CX-5 does what the rest of the segment doesn’t—it delivers great handling, yet best-in-the-entire-industry-among-SUVs gas mileage of up to 26mpg city, 35mpg highway. It also features thoughtful and useful design, inside and out. Unless you need more power—which is coming soon—it is hands-down equal to or better than anything else in its class.

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