By on July 6, 2012

After I reviewed a Mazda that’s no longer being made, I decided that perhaps my next Mazda review ought to involve a vehicle that’s actually available for purchase. We’ve experienced Jack Baruth’s impressions of throwing the CX-5 around Laguna Seca and Brendan McAleer’s extensive review of the optioned-up CX-5 Grand Touring, and now I’m going to share my experience of putting the base CX-5 Sport through the meat-grinder of a weekend enforcing discipline at a far-from-civilization 24 Hours of LeMons race.
My plan: pick up the CX-5 at LAX on Thursday, meet some friends for dinner in Los Angeles, drive 133 miles north to Merle Haggard country, use the CX-5 to haul race gear around Buttonwillow Raceway Park, and then go back to LAX. This being a 24-hours-straight race, I figured I might have to nap in my vehicle instead of driving the 15 miles to and from the Bedbugge Inn, which made the CX-5 seem a more practical choice than, say, a Miata. So, I got on the horn to the Mazda PR guys and demanded a CX-5 Sport, a case of Brass Monkey, and the keys to the JDM ’82 Cosmo in the magical basement below Mazda USA headquarters. All I got was the CX-5, which I then drove around Los Angeles looking to recreate the photograph from the cover of Double Nickels On the Dime (sadly, State Route 11 became part of I-110 in 1981, so the shot above is the best I could do).
No problem, though; I had a large selection of Los Angeles music to play through the CX-5’s AUX jack, starting with (pre-Hagar) Van Halen and then right into X, Ice-T, War, and Fear. The audio system in this car pumps out some excellent bass and features digital controls orders of magnitude less maddening than most. However, the USB jack in mine was on the fritz (by holding pressure on the connector I was able to give my USB-charging phone enough juice to stay alive) and the location of the 3.5mm AUX jack seems calculated to break and/or get packed with Doritos residue. I’d just fix that stuff with a buck worth of parts and a soldering iron, were I to own this vehicle, but I’m betting most owners won’t be willing to do that.
The Sport’s interior is all nondescript-but-competent plastic and cloth, of the sort that doesn’t feel particularly expensive but also doesn’t leave a weird petrochemical residue on your fingers (see: every Chrysler-built rental car made between 1981 and the reign of Marchionne). Overall, very pleasant interior, something most could live with in a daily driver for… well, nobody can say how many miles the CX-5 ought to be good for. As this photograph shows, the view out the rear quarter windows is pretty bad, so you’ll be as dependent on your mirrors as the driver of a Value Van.
I headed to downtown Los Angeles, to have some refreshments with former LeMons judge Jonny Lieberman.
During the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that most of Repo Man was filmed in downtown LA. Naturally, we set out to find some of the locations that Alex Cox chose for what I consider to be the greatest car movie of all time. I was reasonably sure that the scene in which J. Frank Parnell dies of radiation poisoning from the aliens in the trunk of the Malibu was filmed very close to our watering hole
Sure enough, 544 Mateo Street was just a few blocks away.
I wanted to shoot the Mazda at more Repo Man locations, but I had to get to Buttonwillow (where, in a meta-Plate O’Shrimp Moment, a LeMons team showed up with a CRX driven by J. Frank Parnell and converted to full Repo Man ’64 Malibu specs).
But I’ll be heading back to Los Angeles when we do the Arse Freeze-a-Palooza race in Chuckwalla, and I’ll be sure to shoot some car photos at the Repo Yard… plus maybe a few at some Double Indemnity locations.
Heading north on I-5, I soon found myself climbing up the steep grade to the Grapevine (of “Hot Rod Lincoln” fame). I’ve driven this route many times, as those who followed my 1965 Impala Hell Project series know, in vehicles ranging on the power-to-weight spectrum from an unregisterable ’83 Sentra running on three cylinders to a ’68 Mercury Cyclone with souped-up 351 Windsor engine, and the CX-5 Sport’s 155 horsepower/150 lb-ft-o-torque was sufficient to keep the speed up even on the toughest slogs of the Grapevine. This car had the six-speed manual transmission, however, and so I can’t say whether the slushbox would have shifted at the right moments to keep the revs up. Lose momentum on the Grapevine without big torque and you’ll find yourself trapped for eternity in the slow lane with the octogenarians in their Celebrity Eurosports.
Some might say that 155 horses isn’t enough for 3,300 pounds, but then you might as well ask why you need a truckish-looking car with big ride height instead of the minivan that would probably serve your needs— if you’re looking for the fuel-economy/cargo-capacity combo that CUV shoppers look for— better. Wait, did I really say that? Anyway, I found myself spinning the engine to redline in every gear on freeway onramps, which is a worthwhile tradeoff for fuel economy that hovers around 30 miles per gallon (more on that later).
I wouldn’t feel comfortable hurling this thing through the Corkscrew, Baruth-style, but that’s just because my mediocre-at-best track skills coupled with the feeling of height in this car would freak me out too much. The two-wheel-drive CX-5 feels very car-like during sub-11-tenths driving maneuvers, and that’s what matters to those who want truck-esque macho lines without Peterbilt-grade handling.
One of the things I like about 21st-century Mazdas is the lack of gingerbread-for-its-own-sake complexity in the instruments and controls. Drilling down through endless nested menus on a touch-screen is fine for a smartphone, but let’s just say that the world’s best user-interface software engineers don’t work for car companies and leave it at that. Here we have a a couple of legible gauges and a little display screen with relevant information.
Same goes for the climate controls. They’re a bit dated-looking, but they work a lot better than their similar-looking 1990s ancestors. Of course, I’d be willing to sacrifice a lot of functionality in order to have a retro-futuristic Mars Base Style cockpit, with all the wildest features of the Mitsubishi Cordia Turbo and Subaru XT Turbo instrument panels, but the Japanese seem to have lost the ability to design such masterpieces in our new century.
After dropping off my stuff at the Scabies-n-Domestic-Violence Motel in the meth-and-lot-lizards universe that is the Buttonwillow highway oasis, I proceeded to the third annual Arse Sweat-a-Palooza 24 Hours of LeMons. At this point, my memories become a jumble of 1959 Humber Super Snipes, Olds Diesel-powered Corvettes, dust, and fatigue. Around the paddock, back to the motel, back to the track. Repeat, endlessly.
So, most of my driving of the CX-5 took place under conditions of hallucinatory levels of exhaustion, on construction-pocked stretches of I-5 populated by aggressive drunks in Ford Excursions. I think it’s a measure of the ease of driving the CX-5 that it was always easy to pilot the thing under such sub-sub-optimal conditions.
Photograph courtesy of Nick Pon
I didn’t come close to overwhelming the Mazda’s cargo capacity; it inhaled boxes of penalty-box supplies and my suitcases with ease. You don’t get as much room for your crap as in a minivan, but it beats the space of the Mazda3 hatchback by quite a bit and it doesn’t carry the grim cultural baggage of minivan ownership.
So, it’s pleasant to drive, looks pretty good, and appears to be well built. My only substantial complaint about driving this car is the hyper-touchy brake pedal; the brakes appear to have been designed for the application of a single dainty toe wielded by Twiggy (however, keep in mind that I’ve been spending a lot of time behind the wheel of a primitive steel box on wheels with manual drum brakes that require Paul Bunyan-grade force for ordinary stops) and I came close to detaching my retinas during a few stops. You’d get used to it after a few days.
I did get the chance to take the CX-5 onto a race track, but I was scanning the (yellow) weeds for lost (yellow) transponders and didn’t crack 20 MPH. That means I can’t indulge in any table-pounding tirades about understeer at the limit.
The tallness of the CX-5 tends to lead to a certain amount of highway wandering when high winds start kicking up the Tulare dust. This might lead to some nervous moments once the suspension gets a bit loose, but that’s many years down the line.
I wanted to pull off a door panel and take a look at the hidden connectors, in order to see how much low-bidder hardware Mazda might have installed in order to save a few yen. I didn’t have time for that, what with the 136 bad-driving LeMons teams I had to keep under quasi-control, but what I found under the hood looked pretty decent.
One quick litmus test I like to give new vehicles is a glance at the battery connectors, because you can bet that any car company that saved four cents per unit with a crude stamped-steel battery connector will have cut corners in a lot of places you can’t see. Mazda uses a no-frills-but-sturdy connector that ought to last through all the battery changes the car will get during its lifetime.
After packing up the race gear, I headed back to Los Angeles to catch a Denver-bound 737. Filling the tank, I came up with 27.6 miles per gallon for a trip that was equal parts stop-and-go traffic and high-speed highway driving, with 97-degree temperatures and the AC on full blast most of the time. Mazda claims 26 city/35 highway for this car, so my results seemed about right. If my way of life mandated a CUV, would I buy this one for the as-tested MSRP of $20,695? Short answer: yes.

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38 Comments on “Review: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Sport...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Now Mazda bring us the 6-speed manual with AWD and we can PRETEND that your CUV is an actual wagon.

    • 0 avatar

      Nice piece Murilee. Loved your description of the famed Buttonwillow motels.

    • 0 avatar

      Pish… AWD? It would be nice if they offered it with more than THREE FREAKING COLORS and almost no available options. Shame on you Mazda…

      • 0 avatar

        In the current state that Mazda is in, I think they’re cutting expenses and maximizing profits by reducing the number of product permutations. What they are delivering, however, seems to be compelling – they’re selling CX5s pretty well from what I hear.

      • 0 avatar

        No shame at all, given Mazda’s current financial situation. Note Murilee Martin’s mention of the battery conector. It’s better Mazda only offers 3 colors for an MTX rather than cheap out under the hood.

    • 0 avatar

      The 6 speed FWD CX-5 exists for MPG marketing purposes only. If Mazda were serious about this being an ‘enthusiast’ CUV, they’d let you get it on more than one trim level and with AWD.

      At least Subaru still lets you get a stick in all but the top-of-the-line 4-cyl Outback (although the turbo is long gone).

  • avatar

    My wife just got an incredibly interesting sales packet in the mail for this car.
    It consisted of a manila folder marked “Your eyes only” or some such top secret thing.
    Inside it had an envelope with photos, a bunch of top secret, redacted documents and other items to make you think it was some CIA mission dossier.

    It was actually pretty cool. Must have cost a fortune to produce and mail.

    • 0 avatar

      The day I put down a deposit for a CX-5 that was coming in (none on the lot and they sell them as soon as they come off the truck)I came home and found one of those dossier’s in the mail.
      Impressive and expensive for sure.

    • 0 avatar

      Sadly yesterday I received something similar from Rogers Wireless trying to sell me a new phone at secret prices to lock me into a new 3 year contract. Yes… let me just whip out my credit card for you. They spend so much to bark up the wrong tree. I suppose if a few people bite, then it was all worthwhile.

  • avatar

    Nice review. Entertaining as always!

    It’s great that the CX-5 is selling well. I’m still holding out for the diesel version so hopefully they set a target date for it sometime soon. But I also worry about premature rusting. So for me it’s a toss up between a diesel CX-5 (assuming it comes) and a Jetta TDI wagon sometime next year.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve long thought that the CX-5 would get the diesel for the 2014 MY, but I’m really hoping it finds its way into the new Mazda6. A new CX-9 is in the pipeline, and that would be another ideal candidate.

      I’ve suspected that the very high popularity of the diesel in other markets is what has kept it from making its way to the US. I’m hoping the recently announced production increase of SkyActiv engines means that diesels are heading our way.

      • 0 avatar

        Diesel popularity (and lack of engines) is one of the supposed reasons why Tiguan TDIs still aren’t available in the U.S. So hopefully Mazda’s increased gas and diesel engine production fixes that problem and gets a diesel powered CUV on the lots over here. I’m not holding my breath on a diesel Tiguan. We might see a Tiguan TDI in 2015 but that’s too far off for me.

  • avatar

    It looks like a competent mom-mobile, but the black plastic around the bottom looks so cheap.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    further evidence that the vehicle Mazda needs to make is a 5 skyactive. My Miata driving and loving sister who now has two dogs (one of which is a great dane) and wants better fuel economy than the Miata keeps asking me when Mazda is going to do it so she can buy it. Will be curious to see how the 3 does when it gets redesigned and (presumably) gets the full skyactive treatment, not just the engine.

  • avatar

    Emilio Estivez FTW!


  • avatar

    The building at the corner of Mateo and Palmetto (544 Mateo Street) is also the outside of Patty’s Pub on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

  • avatar

    But Mazda succumbs to the insane practice of 160 mph speedos on cars that wouldn’t reach that velocity falling from Mount Everest. Otherwise a good effort!

    • 0 avatar

      My (former) RX8’s digital speedo was the coolest thing ever. I’d prefer that on any car I drive.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s actually a purpose for that, which is to place highway cruising speeds top dead center of the speedo so that they are easier to view at speed. But it does look pretty ridiculous otherwise.

  • avatar

    I really like this car. It’s a great blend of pretty fun to drive, cargo capacity and good mileage and I would definitely think about a used one down the road.

  • avatar

    Nice work Mr Martin – you can never have too many Repo Man references.

    The CX-5 sounds very nice. Either a diesel or a 2.5 liter version would seriously tempt me.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m with you. Drop in the diesel 2.2 (first choice) or a SkyactivG 2.5, and we’ll be at the dealer to make this our next family vehicle.

      Its only major competitor, in terms of what we are looking for, would be a Mazda5 with the Skyactiv diesel or 2.5, but I think neither have a good chance of materializing in the US.

  • avatar

    I’d love to see a comparo between the Mazda5 and the CX-5.

    The M5 has so much more utility, and it’s cheaper, but to get a stick you have to go with a poverty-spec version.

    I paid 19k brand new, but would’ve gladly paid another 5k for good seats and a steering wheel that didn’t feel like a Nylabone chew toy.

    Skyactiv (or MS3-turbo’ed) Mazda5 Sport? Yes please.

    My alternative fantasy vehicle Subaru doing a WRX-underpinned van like the Mazda5.

    • 0 avatar

      The Mazda5’s steering provides much better feedback (among the best I’ve experienced with FWD) and it handles much more like a car. It also has a stronger engine, no replacement for displacement and all that. The CX-5 feels taller and heavier. To be fair, the one I’m currently driving has AWD. It might feel a little lighter with FWD, but it wouldn’t feel any closer to the ground.

      • 0 avatar

        the Mazda 5 drives way better than any van has the right to drive. My old job used one for a while as its courtesy vehicle, and even with the automatic, it begged you to grab it by the collar and throw it around. As long as I didn’t look up or behind me I’d forget I was driving a van.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, I’ve been surprised by how readily ours will roast the front tires with the traction control off. That 2.5L 4-pot is a torque monster.

        It’s just sad to take so many unnecessary steps down when we moved out of our WRXagon into the Mazda5. I’d preach the good word far and wide, should Mazda see fit to fit all the Speed3 bits into the 5.

      • 0 avatar

        Hello, I’m a longtime lurker who appreciates your reviews and comments. I’m going to be getting rid of my beloved Mazda5 and going AWD (living in New England but being from the Great Lakes region makes for some harrowing drives through the mountains and snow belt). I am looking at either a Mazda CX-5 or the new 2013 Subaru Outback. The previous Outback was not at all fun to drive (based on many reviews and my test-drive) but for 2013 Subaru claims to have redone the suspension signifciantly in order to improve handling. Has anyone tried the 2013? Also, how do expect the Mazda AWD would be in snowy conditions (we have an Impreza and it is like magic during blizzards)? If you had about $30,000 to spend on an all-wheel drive vehicle with some cargo space (so, no sedan unfortunately), what would you buy? Your opinion, or that of others, would be much appreciated!

    • 0 avatar

      Mazda5 with skyactive (poor gas mileage is the car’s only drawback, for me) and four wheel drive would be perfect…

  • avatar

    Just took delivery of a loaded AWD touring model and after 350 miles I can make a few observations.This car/SUV/whatever handles almost as well as the Mazda 3 hatch I traded in and if I had lost my mind and bought the GT model with those $300.00 19 in. tires I’m sure it would be on par and a bit jittery.The chassis is first rate like all Mazda’s,stiff with very little flex and flat around winding mountain roads here in the Pocono’s.The interior more VW than Honda or Ford but then who needs pinball machines lighting up on your dash.Now the bone of contention,the engine.Yes it will drop a gear or two climbing the 1200 ft. mountains around here but then make up for it when you can whip it around curves on your way down.The auto transmission does fight you a bit when driving on interstates always wanting to get in 6TH gear but you can beat it with cruise control or a heavy foot.So far I’m getting 29 MPG in mixed driving which beats the hell out of the 22-23 I was getting with the Mazda 2.5 engine and I can actually see out of this new Mazda which is more than I could say about the 3 (Do something about the blind spot on the passenger side Mazda)
    All in all it’s a good looking vehicle,lots of room in the cabin and good gas mileage.Can’t ask for much more than that.

  • avatar

    AWD and a stick with a little towing capacity for my snowmobile and lumber yard runs, and I’d try it. Although I may have to take the Stephen Lang challenge and see if I can get my 03 Legacy wagon to 300k (I’m more than halfway there).

  • avatar

    Re: the 160mph maximum on the speedo…

    This arrangement is better than the 280km/h (173mph) maximum on my Mazda 3 MPS (Mazdaspeed 3) that puts 120km/h (72mph) at the 9 o’clock position (zero is at 6 o’clock) and 200km/h (123mph) at 12 o’clock.

    The first time I took it on the motorway, I was cruising at “say-bye-bye-to-the-driving-licence” speeds before I started wondering why everyone else was going so slowly…

  • avatar

    Great review! Love the CX-5’s new lines and the fact that Mazda stuck to making it fun to drive…even at 4/10ths.

    The SkyActiv 2.0 sounds like a good enough engine but one wonders about the possibilities. Could we eventually see a turbocharged version? Since Mazda has already confirmed no SkyActiv V6 (as broke as they are, certainly justifiable) wouldn’t a turbocharged SkyActiv 4 cylinder be a great upgrade engine for the CX-5 AND the new 6? (which from preliminary photos and renditions looks to be a spectacular looking car).

  • avatar

    Liked this review and eventually they reached the uk. I ordered a sports nav manual awd diesel 175bhp and will see it in around 6 months! Selling well indeed….

  • avatar

    I was considering one of these as a replacement for my wife’s V6 Vue but have to agree with previous commentors that $30k+ is highway robbery for a crossover with a wheezy four cylinder. Looks like a used turbo cx-7 is back in my crosshairs.

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