The new Mazda CX-5 is one of the most anticipated mainstream vehicles of 2012. And it has the credentials to seriously worry its SUV rivals.
It came, it saw, but it never quite conquered. The Mazda CX-7 – after just over five years of valiant service – has been displaced by the all-new Mazda CX-5 as the Japanese brand’s SUV volume star.
The Mazda CX-5, for starters, is more compact yet offers more cabin space than the Mazda CX-7 that was always larger than the norm for the compact-SUV segment.
More crucially, however, is that the Mazda CX-5 range starts at $27,800 - $6190 lower than the most affordable CX-7.
The Mazda CX-5 is also the first Mazda to be built entirely using the company’s ‘Skyactiv’ efficiency approach, helping it to overcome criticisms of the CX-7, especially in four-cylinder turbo guise, that it was heavy on fuel consumption.
Skyactiv made its local debut in the Mazda3 SP20 last year, but that was merely an engine and gearbox.
For the Mazda CX-5, the Skyactiv count is upped significantly to incorporate a stronger yet lighter body and a lighter yet stiffer chassis.
There’s also a brand new ‘Skyactiv-D’ 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine that, unlike the CX-7’s diesel, comes teamed with a six-speed automatic gearbox.
Power is rated at 129kW but most promising is the segment-leading 420Nm of torque, produced at 2000rpm.
We can tell from a very brief drive in Japan late last year that the diesel impresses for both refinement and performance, though we can’t expand on that until the Mazda CX-5 diesel variants arrive in late March. The most affordable diesel variant, however, starts at $39,400, putting the best drivetrain out of reach of many buyers.
For now, our review focuses on the SP20’s ‘Skyactiv-G’ 2.0-litre petrol engine that is also used in the Mazda CX-5.
The four-cylinder petrol is a good if not outstanding performer in the Mazda3, and perhaps predictably it’s no firecracker in the bigger, heavier CX-5.
Mazda quotes a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 9.4 seconds for a front-wheel-drive manual CX-5, and it certainly doesn’t feel any quicker than that. Mazda may be using a computer-generated Cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, in its CX-5 TV ads, but performance is best described as adequate, even with just two on board. Overtaking manoeuvres will need to be considered efforts.
The 2.0-litre remains a civilised motor, though, even when pressed into the upper reaches of its rev range, which you’ll need to do if you’re looking for any meaningful momentum.
More frustrating is the six-speed auto, which although is sufficiently quick with downshifts when inclines are met is far too hasty to change up gears.
The auto is missing an intelligent shift mapping system that can recognise when the driver is clearly asking for more revs, frequently picking a gear that is not just one but sometimes two gears higher than ideal for the driving situation.
We found it slightly worse in the CX-5 Grand Touring AWD (starting price $43,200) that carries a 109kg weight penalty over the CX-5 Maxx Sport FWD model we also tested.
Ironically, we achieved a better average fuel consumption figure in the AWD model (8.9L/100km v 10.0L/100km), though there was a longer stint in the AWD CX-5 that also included plenty of freeway driving.
Neither figure could match Mazda’s official figures of 6.4L/100km (FWD) and 6.9L/100km (AWD).
We’ve started our drive assessment with a bit of a negative, but from there it’s an almost relentless list of positives for the Mazda CX-5.
The chassis is superb and is a step forward dynamically over the CX-7 that was one of the better compact SUVs to drive.
Drivers will be able to exploit the CX-5’s poised handling more with the diesel engine but it is still clearly evident in corners with the underpowered petrol.
Mazda’s mastery of steering also strikes again, with an electric-powered helm that is gifted in its weighting and linearity. It’s superior even to the steering of the similarly sized – but certainly not similarly priced – BMW X1.
The suspension remains always supple despite the terrific body control, providing exemplary ride comfort – whether you’re on the 17-inch wheels of the Maxx Sport or 19s of the Grand Touring – on a variety of roads and surfaces.
That includes gravel roads, where the AWD system is also effective, while the CX-5 offers a ground clearance of 210mm (AWD) and 215mm (FWD), with a laden ground clearance figure of 150mm.
Road noise, an issue that has been somewhat chronic for Mazda, is also respectable, but it’s not only Mazda’s engineers who have done a great job on the CX-5.
The interior is expertly packaged, creating more cabin space despite a wheelbase that’s 50mm shorter than the CX-7’s. (The CX-5’s less steeply raked windscreen helped in this regard.)
There’s plenty of space for all limbs in the rear seat, the bench offers good under-thigh support useful for longer journeys, and the rear window line is also lower than the CX-7’s to give kids a better view out.
With the Maxx Sport and Grand Touring models, the back seat is divided 40:20:40 (Maxx is 60:40) with the three individual sections automatically flopping down via rear release levers.
The centre section allows longer items such as skis to be stowed while keeping two rear seats in play.
Mazda’s clever ‘Karakuri’ seat system (seen in previous Mazdas such as the Mazda6) also ensures the cargo bay is flat by moving the rear-seat squabs forward and downward. This expands the CX-5’s boot space from 403 to 1560 litres.
Thought has gone into smaller storage, too, such as well sized console bin and glovebox, and door pockets that are moulded to fit one-litre bottles.
There are some signs of cost-cutting when it comes to interior material selection – there are soft plastics for the front doors but not rears, for example – and the fit of the centre console is looser than we’d like, though this doesn’t prevent the CX-5 from having the most premium look and feel yet for a Mazda cabin.
There’s also a pleasant tactility to the ventilation and multimedia controls, and the main dash section features a generously sized colour menu and sat-nav screen (standard on Maxx Sport and above and far more convincing than the one found in the Mazda3).
The entry-level Maxx is no poverty pack, though, with its standard equipment including 17-inch steel wheels, Bluetooth with audio streaming, cruise control, keyless engine start, tilt and reach steering wheel, trip computer, hill start assist, tyre pressure monitoring system and reverse-view camera.
Bonuses for stepping up to the Maxx Sport include 17-inch alloys, foglights, dual-zone climate, leather-wrapped steering wheel/gearlever/handbrake, the aforementioned sat-nav and three-way-split back seats, and rain-sensing wipers.
The flagship Grand Touring adds 19-inch alloys, daytime running lights, bi-xenon headlights, auto-dimming rear view mirror, electric sunroof, eight-way power driver’s seat, keyless entry, front and rear parking sensors, and a terrific-sounding 231-watt Bose audio (with nine speakers).
A $1900 optional Tech Pack is also available on the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring, bringing blind spot monitoring, auto high beam/main beam headlights, and a lane departure warning system that, if you cross line markings without indicating, will mimic the sound of driving over a rumble strip, but was also a system we found to be inconsistent on test.
It’s a pity these safety technology features aren’t available on more affordable Mazda CX-5s (Mazda says it will consider it if there is customer demand), though an extensive list of faults is impossible to find with this vehicle.
And styling isn't one, either (though of course you're free to disagree on this subjective area). As the first vehicle to be based on Mazda's new Kodo design language, there's a neat interplay of upward- and downward-arcing body lines, with a strong, rising shoulder line and short front and rear overhangs that contribute to proportions that are far better balanced than the not dissimilar yet slightly awkward BMW X1.
A change to the way SUVs are categorised by the industry VFACTS means the CX-5 – along with the Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail, etc – is classed as a medium-sized SUV despite being shorter than the CX-7 that was a compact SUV.
Regardless of what category the Mazda CX-5 sits in, though, this is a vehicle that should be at the pointy end of any SUV buyer’s shopping list.