In search of the compact crossover that best impersonates a hot hatch, we first examined the Volkswagen Tiguan. The Tig proved quick and composed, but expensive and softer than the typical Teuton. For a lower price and sharper handling, no brand holds more promise than Mazda. But focusing intently on driving enthusiasts with limited budgets hasn’t proved profitable. So with its latest products Mazda has been putting eggs in a second basket by also making fuel economy a top priority. The Mazda CX-5 is the first all-new product to emerge from Hiroshima’s new “SKYACTIV” dual focus.
My wife was smitten by the looks of the Mazda, but mostly because of its “zeal red” paint. To my eye, the CX-5’s nose-heavy proportions promise more than the powertrain can deliver and the parts don’t quite flow together to form a cohesive whole. Still, I’ll grant that most people see an attractive, sporty crossover.
Inside, CX-5’s designers have been inarguably successful, crafting the cleanest, most upscale cabin from Mazda in some time. The “Plan 9 from Hiroshima” aesthetic that detracts from the Mazda3’s appeal is nowhere in evidence. Piano black trim and red stitching inject enough visual interest to ward off the coal bin blues.
The CX-5’s windshield is more steeply raked than the Tiguan’s, but the view forward isn’t overly compromised. The view rearward fares less well thanks to a rising beltline and thick C-pillars. In the Grand Touring a rearview camera and blind spot warning system compensate. The seats, though the firmest in this group, are well-shaped for comfort if not lateral support. A high console makes for a sportier, more cockpit-like driving position.
Rear seat passengers get a lot of space but, unlike in the VW and Ford, no vents with which to cool it. Partly for this reason the air conditioning sometimes struggles to cool the cabin. At least it doesn’t have a large roof opening to contend with. Unlike those in the other two, the CX-5’s sunroof is a conventionally-sized, single panel unit.
Cargo volume is the largest in the threesome. Even better, on the way home from the grocery store you can take curves at speed without fear of inundating the cargo area carpet. A well on each side of the main floor is perfectly sized for a gallon milk container.
Other reviewers have praised the Mazda’s handling. But while the CX-5 does feel tighter and more precise than the Tiguan and most other compact crossovers, with good manners when hustled, it’s no Mazda3. Owing to heavier, slower, duller steering than in the hatchback and a higher seating position within a larger vehicle, you’ll never forget you’re driving a crossover. Handling is a strength compared to other crossovers, but not compared to a good hatch.
Mazda’s engineers managed to reduce the CX-5’s curb weight to an admirably low 3,426 pounds. The significantly smaller Tiguan weighs about 165 pounds more, and the new Escape weighs over 200 pounds more even with its lightest engine. This aids handling, but they’ll have to somehow cut another quarter ton before the 155-horsepower 2.0-liter SKYACTIV engine feels worthy of the chassis. The turbocharged 2.0-liters in the others feel far stronger. The CX-5’s engine does nearly match the Escape’s lesser engines (a non-turbo 2.5 and a turbo 1.6) in performance, but still trails in sound quality. A wheezy, buzzy soundtrack makes it seem even more strained than it is. This isn’t what the big grille promises! On top of the engine thrash, there’s also more wind and road noise inside the CX-5. Some of the weight savings seems to have been managed through reduced sound deadening. The SKYACTIV six-speed automatic performs well in the Mazda3. In the CX-5 it has too much of a power deficit to make up, and the combined powertrain feels unresponsive.
Ads tout the CX-5’s 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway EPA ratings. However, these impressive numbers are only earned by the powertrain hardly anyone will buy, a six-speed manual transmission connected to only the front wheels. Add the automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive, and the ratings drop to 25/31. These numbers are still a significant 4 mpg higher than those of the Tiguan. In casual suburban driving the trip computer reported 28. Like the CX-5’s handling, this stat is good compared to other crossovers, but is middling at best compared to a hatchback.
Ah, but the price. The CX-5 Grand Touring looks more expensive than the Tiguan SE, especially inside, and is packed with far more features, but actually costs much less. Even with the Tech Package (nav, proximity key, xenon headlights) the sticker isn’t much over $30,000. Compared to the VW, this is a $3,300 savings before adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and $5,800 less afterwards.
Add this relatively low price to the Mazda CX-5’s roomy, attractive interior, best-in-segment fuel economy, and sporty (for a crossover) handling, and the total more than compensates for the weak engine for many people. The CX-5 has been selling very well–the parent company might yet be saved. Those who must have more thrust might not have long to wait. While a MazdaSpeed-worthy boosted mill isn’t even rumored, allegedly a 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine will join the roster next spring for the 2014 model year.
Mazda provided an insured vehicle with a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.