Review: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring – Off The Beaten Racetrack

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer

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.

No, I didn’t attend the Laguna Seca launch of Mazda’s latest crossover, for two very good reasons: one, clearly I have no business being on a racetrack; two, neither does the CX-5.

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.

Let’s face it, the previous Mazda attempt at carving out a slice of the red-hot crossover market wasn’t the greatest car in the world. It was just a Tribute.

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?

“Um. No.”

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.

Why does the front end put me in mind of Angry Birds? Overall though, a conservatively handsome effort that should have broad appeal by being both inoffensive, yet not overly bland.

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.

Let’s talk about what we do get with the Skyactiv-G CX-5, because there are two other items on my Zoom-Zoom wish list. First, a “Ds” or similar sport-mode for the very good Skyactiv auto-box.

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.

Brendan McAleer
Brendan McAleer

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  • Mike978 Mike978 on Apr 22, 2012

    I wonder why the 6 speed manual has 35mpg highway whilst the auto (6 speed also) only has 32. Usually the difference is minimal (+/-1 mpg) on most vehicles and I would have thought sixth gear is the overdrive gear so under the same highway test conditions the engine would be at the same revs and therefore be comparable in efficiency. Any idea why the difference?

  • Zulu Zulu on Jun 10, 2012

    Come to Australia and enjoy the CX5 2.2 litre Diesel..........129KW @4500rpm and 420Nm @2000 rpm (173 hp & 310 lb/ft in your language) with a compression ratio of 14:1 to boot!. Magic bit of gear - throw on some 245/50 R19 rubber and go play. You can't please all the people all the time and there will always be someone with something to whinge about but Mazda have got this one right and the overall package is great. Mine is Storm Blue and I love it.

  • 3-On-The-Tree To say your people are total monsters is an unfair statement. You can judge the Japanese government but to say the citizens are culpable or responsible is wrong. That’s like saying every Caucasian person in the U.S is responsible for slavery or the civil rights era of violence and discrimination against African Americans and are benefiting from it. That’s 79 years ago, the average Japanese citizen born during WWII has nothing to do with what happened. Even my Japanese grandmother who was living in Yokohama whose home was firebombed was just trying to survive with 3 kids and a husband fighting in the war. Just like every war the citizens suffer, I saw it in Iraq. You can’t judge the people from the misdeeds of their government, my mom was born after the war, you really think she is responsible for what happened?
  • Irvingklaws Was a must have for my wife's new car. After years of windshield mounts, trying to keep the sun off the phone, wires running across the dash, etc...it's been a welcome upgrade. Don't have it in my current (old) car, just a stock stereo with the aforementioned windshield phone mount and wires...which is fine enough for me. But if I upgrade the radio with an aftermarket unit, the first thing I'm looking for, after separate volume and tuning KNOBS, is Carplay. Note, I've yet to find an aftermarket head unit meeting these basic qualifications. The infotainment in my '17 GTI had both of these and was near perfect, I'd be happy with that unit in any car.
  • Haze3 Near must have... car guy make car, software guy make software THAT I CAN USE EVERYWHERE and not just on some specific brand of truck/car/suv.
  • Wolfwagen If there is no Rust or rot this would be a good buy when MB craftsmanship and engineering meant something. While I prefer the 500 or 560 for the larger engine, this is good
  • Wolfwagen Tim, Now you should ask the B&B who we want to succeed and why. You could limit it to EV or non- North American MFGs.
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