Driving my old 993 to work at 5:30 this morning, listening to the blat of the Billy Boat exhaust competing with Corinne Bailey Rae’s sublime second album for my attention, I had a pair of random thoughts. First thought: I will never own a Ferrari, and that’s okay. This represents a sort of satori for me, because I’d always planned on buying a nice 575 or, resale and sense of aesthetics permitting, one of those awkward 612 Scags, after my all Porsches were paid off. The titles for said Porkers have been in my file cabinet for years now, but there’s no Memorandum Title for a long-nosed Italian next to them.
Second thought: I really, really, liked that CX-5 I drove two weeks ago.
I wonder if those two thoughts are related?
Regardless, something about the way I value and enjoy automobiles has changed. My desire to own the flashiest and sexiest whip I can (not quite) afford has been cauterized by endless exposure to “Cars and Coffee”, YouTube videos, and braying-donkey print-journos Facebook-bragging about selling their souls in exchange for temporary access to the transportation enjoyed daily by their betters. My notions of “fast” have been shattered by cars like Switzer’s thousand-horsepower GT-Rs and 997 Turbos. Fatherhood and occasional forays into performing music have given me new respect for something which can be parked on the street without concern. Racing in spec classes has led me to respect the rider, not the mount. The seemingly irrevocable decline of the American economy makes me wonder if it isn’t possible to consume a bit less and enjoy a bit more.
If the Ferrari 575 was the embodiment of my thirty-something philosophy — fast, brash, pedigreed, aggressive to a fault — then the Mazda CX-5 might just be my fortysomething philosophy embodied. It’s one of the few truly great cars I’ve driven since entering this business. How can a “cute-ute” with modest power and zero curb appeal be great?
Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
There’s a lot to be said about the CX-5’s “SKYACTIV” construction, its precise dimensions, its market positioning, and its competitive prospects. You’ll be able to find all of that in Brendan McAleer’s review, which should come out next week. If you’re in a hurry, you can always check out the short drive review I did for LeftLane here. Prior to leaving for Mazda’s CX-5 preview event, which was held at Laguna Seca, I’d been very dismissive regarding the merits of debuting a small SUV/wagon/crossover/whatever on a racetrack. I’d even considered leaving my helmet at home, since it doesn’t fit in a RegionalJet overhead compartment and I therefore find myself forced to gate-check the thing and spend my flights worrying about whether I will ever see it again. “What’s the point of bringing a helmet for three laps?” I wondered.
As it turns out, I did nearly sixty laps of Laguna Seca in the CX-5. The first three were for you, dear readers; the rest were for me. A few months ago, I asked where all the great Japanese cars had gone. Here’s one answer to that question. The CX-5 is meant to channel the spirit of the Miata in the way that Porsche claimed the Cayenne would for the 911 — but unlike the Germans, Mazda’s pulled it off. Finally, we have a modern small wagon that feels light on its feet, eager to change direction, frisky and friendly.
Truth be told, the least impressive part of the whole package is the much-ballyhooed SKYACTIV engine. It’s no better, or more characterful, than the old 2.3/25 Duratecs found in the old Focus and the outgoing Fusion, and it’s fighting a curb weight which, although it is lightest in the class, is still about a half-ton more than the iconic Japanese compacts of yore had to carry.Still, matched to the six-speed manual which comes standard on the base model, it is fast enough. It’s no trick to stroke along even the tightest California back roads at speeds in the 70-90mph range. Too much more than that, and the four can’t hang. Watching the radar speed displays at Laguna Seca was instructive; the rate of acceleration falls flat just before the magic hundred mark.
The fact that we are even discussing the CX-5’s triple-digit potential, however, is a testament to the chassis. Just like my old Porsche 944 — a vehicle with a remarkably similar power-to-weight ratio, by the way — the suspension is way ahead of the engine, and the brakes are somewhere in the middle. During the press preview, the PR people droned on about the trucklet’s spiritual ties to the RX-8. Having run an RX-8 in SCCA National Solo, I dismissed those claims out of hand, which was a mistake. This is one of the best-steering front-wheel-drivers I’ve ever experienced, and you can rest assured it stands head and shoulders above the rest of the class. The CX-5 can be finessed through fast roads by thumb and forefinger on the wheel and it never fails to inform and reassure. During the rough single-lane sections of my drive, the ground clearance was actually an advantage. I didn’t hit the bump stops a single time during the course of the drive, even though I tried to force the issue a few times by full-throttling my way through some very dicey whoops and camber changes. Something like a Subaru Outback would be left for dead by this nimble little box.
I didn’t have the time or inclination to make a finely-judged comparison of the CX-5’s dash-pad polymer composition or rear cargo-area height with that of the competition, but the overall impression given by the interior is certainly in line with the expectations one would have at the price. Inside and out, the vehicle looks solid, well-finished, and pleasant. The seats are just about up to the task of fast driving, the stereo is acceptable, and nothing fell off or rattled.
Some of LeftLane’s readers took me to task for suggesting this was an “enthusiast vehicle”. They cited the lack of power and inability to either dominate the Autobahn or pose convincingly as a dominator of same. I think they missed the point. Power and raw speed may have distinguished “enthusiast vehicles” in the past, but we live in an era where a Camry on DOT slicks can rip a thirteen-second quarter and your ex-wife’s SUV can bully the air at a buck-forty or above. Ford and Chevrolet both sell ponycars that would humiliate my old dream Ferrari 575, and they sell them brand new for half of what the Ferraris still cost on the used market. The Porsche PanArabia Turbo S Carrera GT2 Orthodontist Edition handily outpaces its own Cayman R on the racetrack. Numbers aren’t telling the story any more. In 2012, enthusiast vehicles are ones which whisper to the driver with steering feel and predictable trail-braking, not scream at him with six hundred horsepower and single-use ceramic brakes. Forget the numbers.
There is, however, one number to remember: $20,895. That’s how much the CX-5 I drove costs new at the dealer, assuming you pay full whack. It’s a complete proposition at that price. Everything you need and more. No reason to be ashamed of buying the entry-level car here. We won’t weigh your worth by the length of your model designation. After three hours in the little Mazda, I couldn’t think of a single change or additional feature that would significantly increase the enjoyment factor.
This being TTAC, I feel compelled to remind you of a few potential issues. This is a brand-new vehicle design from a manufacturer known to suffer from a bit of fragility and oxidationophilia. Your neighbors will call you reckless for not buying a CR-V. If you are one of the henpecked beta-males who make up something like forty-two percent of cute-ute buyers, making the Mazda move may result in your monthly allocation of you-know-what being slimmed-down to bi-monthly. I have no idea whether or not the CX-5 will last to 200,000 miles, and neither does anyone else.
Okay. You’ve been warned. If you haven’t been warned off, good for you. This new Mazda is something we haven’t seen in a while. It’s a great little car. Pun intended. It’s a car for us. If you’re looking in this market, consider yourself advised to look at the CX-5. Maybe you’ll get as excited about it as I did.