LAGUNA SECA – It’s called the Corkscrew, and for good reason. Perhaps the single most famous piece of racetrack topography in North America, this left-right two-punch combo can unsettle an unsorted chassis just as fast as the steep 18% gradient can unsettle a novice driver’s stomach. Jack Baruth was here in the same car. I’ll try not to embarrass, nor soil myself.
As I enter the throwaway left-hander, I’m mentally muttering under my breath, “Aim for the third tree, the third tree.” Bris-ing the apex of Turn 8, it’s blue sky time, and I’m hard on the throttle, fully committed. Perfect. Both right wheels just kiss the curb with a faint rumble, and it’s through the right-hand sweeper fast and- wait. Too fast.
Rookie move: lift.
It happens fast. Off track. Rotating left. Into the dirt. Sliding. The tire wall rushing closer. I have time for just one thought…
Thank God this is only Forza.
Jack’s track-take on Mazda’s latest cute-ute revealed a trucklet that actually earned the obligatory mention of jinba-ittai. What’s more, dynamic praise from our resident Visigoth is worth its weight in Nomex, because race car driver.
On the other hand, what are the odds of anyone actually driving Mazda’s clean-sheet CUV competitively? I put it to you that the CX-5’s sparkling on-track performance – while it tells the tale of a brilliantly-sorted chassis and typically sharp Mazda steering – is largely irrelevant. What matters is how it does in the real world.
What’s more, like many of Mazda’s less-stellar offerings over the years, it was a car that couldn’t quite Escape its Ford roots. Why buy the Mazda? Different trim levels. Yawn.
Here though we have a ground-up, complete redesign that makes the statement: “We are Mazda, and we build small, practical, efficient cars that are more fun to drive than the competition because they are lighter and driver-focussed and maybe they might rust a little bit quickly.”
As you can see – wait, did you say something about rust?
Hmm. All right then. Could’ve sworn.
Anyway, for those of you not already aware, SKYACTIV is not a vodka-based sports drink, nor a brand of sweat-proof sunscreen. You can find more details here, but the quick version is: high compression engines, weight-savings everywhere through use of high-strength materials and clever engineering; a focus on driving pleasure as a brand-identifying goal, and on CAPS-LOCK as a marketing tool.
The CX-5 is the first full SKYACTIV vehicle from Mazda, incorporating all the elements of the design philosophy. It is also the first Mazda to sport the new Kodo design language, and I think we can all agree that it looks much better than the out-going smiley-faced Nagare.
This GT model boasts 19” alloys that fill out the wheel wheels nicely, but look relatively normal-sized. The standard 17”s look just fine too, if a bit rinky-dink on the rear, but that’s the way the world is going: the 2018 redesign will probably only look right with the box checked on the optional Donk Package.
If you’re test-driving this car with your heavily pregnant wife (let’s not be sexist: or when heavily pregnant yourself) while the used car manager “makes a few calls” on your Mazda3, then you should find the interior of the CX-5 comfortingly familiar.
Piano black trim, sporty three-spoke steering wheel, easy-to-use HVAC controls; it’s conservative and user-friendly, with that Japanese-VW feel that the old 2.3GT Mazda3 had.
Look at all the smudges I put on that touch-screen: talk about your greasy gaijin. However, with Bluetooth, backup camera, blind-spot indicating mirrors and a decent stereo, there’s nothing else to find fault with up here. And just take a look around back.
I’m 5’11” and probably sit a trifle closer to the steering-wheel than most. Still, the rear-seat in the CX-5 is surprisingly roomy. While it’s directly comparable to the Honda CR-V, somehow the exterior of the Mazda looks much smaller in pictures. Only when you start crawling around in it or park it next to a 5-door Impreza do you see how big the CX-5 actually is.
Rear-facing child seats are a cinch to fit and both Touring and Grand Touring models have a 40/20/40 folding rear seat that allows for a four-adults-plus-skis load-out (no factory roof racks are installed).
With all seats folded flat, the CX-5 is again slightly behind the CR-V in total volume, mostly due to the former’s more-sloping rear glass. The load height is also higher, the rear seats fold only mostly flat – albeit with a single touch – and the tall rear headrests necessitate putting the front seats forward for folding clearance.
Still, if this is replacing a ‘3 Sport, or a Matrix, or an Impreza, the increase in size and flexibility of the cargo area is just fine. And then there’s the reason you’re out test-driving the Mazda in the first place.
Pushing the (standard) starter button from cold at winter temperatures elicits the cacophonous racket of a 5hp Evinrude two-stroke outboard jammed in a cutlery drawer. It’s the first hint that the CX-5’s engine is not your run-of-the-mill… er, mill.
With a 13:1 compression ratio giving you a single bragging right over a 458 Italia owner, the 4-2-1 header under the CX-5’s chunky snout efficiently evacuates hot exhaust pulses, allowing MAXIMUM POWAH to be extracted from regular old no-name brand 87 octane gas. Once warmed up, it’s smooth and unclattery but not particularly tuneful.
Or torqueful, and let’s get my single beef with the whole CX-5 driving experience out of the way first. The Skyactiv-G engine is fine. It skews a little towards the “meh” end on the underpowered/overpowered sliding scale – falling short of the “right-powered” sweet-spot of the GLI or, more closely-related, the Miata.
With 3,426 lbs of AWD automatic, the CX-5 adds a bit of forward-planning to my usual death-defying morning escapades on The On-Ramp of Doom. Unlike the CR-V, it actually wants to be revved up. Like the diminutive Mazda2, it can feel a trifle poky.
What really irks is that Mazda also happens to have the Skyactiv-D 2.2L diesel engine, which I have driven. I know, I know, typical enthusiast driver always belly-aching over the lack of a diesel version that there’s no market segment for: why not ask for a manual wagon while you’re at it? However, please believe me when I tell you that a Skyactiv-D equipped CX-5 would be dinosaur-flying-a-jet-plane awesome.
Diesel-powered Mazdaspeed CX-5. Just let that sink in for a minute, and then go say say a few prayers on your rotary beads that we actually get such a thing. Mazda is promising a Skyactiv-D powered something for the 2014 model year, but it’s still a maybe. If you’re listening, Mazda Claus, I promise to be good. ish.
I’ve already praised Mazda’s new automatic in its Mazda3 application. It’s still good here, although working with an extra 400-odd pounds of heft and only 2 extra lb-ft of twist to help it along. It’s smooth-shifting, direct-feeling and, being conventional, ought to be durable.
Occasionally, however, a bit of a firm prod on the accelerator is required to provoke a downshift. And the manual-shift mode is BMW-backwards (push away to downshift). [EDIT: Controversy!] Please, Mazda, this transmission’s good enough to warrant paddle-shifters. The chassis and steering? Well, that’s good enough to warrant a sport-mode.
And here’s what you already know, but I’m happy to reinforce: even in non-enthusiast, max weight all-wheel-drive-n’-auto spec, the CX-5 is a hoot, a hustler, a corner-carver. It’s a Mazda.
You might not fall for it as quickly as you would a base manual version, or its smaller, more-chuckable bretheren, but the CX-5 is more than willing to go for a gallop. When I drove the Honda CR-V on some very nicely winding roads, it felt aggrieved and alarmed by any spirited driving, spluttering and clucking, “What-where-why are you doing this to meeeeee?”
In contrast, the CX-5 is not only uncomplaining but also even a bit provoking. It is the difference between taking the dog for a walk (more like a drag) and having the dog take you for a walk. There are at least three major roadtrips that I would take this summer, just to find roads good enough for this trucklet to pound around.
In the rain and the traffic and the stop-and-go drudgery of everyday driving, it’s still reasonably good – although the more cut-and-thrust driving you do, the more noticeable that torque vacuum gets. The high-up seating position of a CUV is comfortable and commanding, it’s relatively quiet, and then there’s the fuel economy.
Over the course of three hundred kilometers, I used twenty-seven litres of fuel. Converting from the Canadian (carry the two, divide by moose) one gets 26.1 mpg. Is that an amazing, stop-the-presses, wait-’til-you-hear-this number?
No, but it’s a solidly decent figure that matches the lighter Skyactiv-3 I had, both of which vehicles were driven, um, enthusiastically. Your mileage may literally vary, but it should theoretically be possible to trade up out of a smaller hatchback into a CX-5, with little-to-no fuel penalty.
Much as the Miata is the halo car for Mazda, the CX-5 isn’t really a MX-5 with a luggage rack, as they’d probably like you to believe. Instead, it feels like the old Protege5: a modestly-powered little practical wagon that could still hustle along, snapping at the heels of a WRX on a curvy road, despite having half the horses.
This is a good vehicle, and it does a great job matching the pragmatism of the competition, while at the same time combining it with some much-needed joie de vivre. Would I buy one? Most assuredly.
With the diesel.
Mazda provided the vehicle tested and insurance.