Compact SUVs are the go-to family car in Australia’s fragmented and trend-driven new vehicle market, and none wears this mantle better than the just-updated 2015 Mazda CX-5.
And that isn’t just because it’s a class-leader in a number of areas — see our 10-car mega test here for our rationale — but also because with about 60,000 sales since early 2012, it’s far and away the most popular car in its class.
Last month the company sought to cement this dominance by launching a mid-life update, addressing key areas of weakness — namely the average multimedia setup and excessive road noise.
This goes further than simply papering over cracks. And it’s on paper that the Mazda appears a better bet than before.
Being the top-selling SUV in the nation, however, comes with the burden of expectation — our contention being that the CX-5 is increasingly emblematic of the prototypical modern family hauler.
In this sunburnt land, that task means chewing up miles in long-legged and languid fashion. The big road trip may be less de rigueur than it past decades, but it remains a tradition for many.
With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to push the new CX-5 beyond the traditional week-with review and stretch its legs a little. And stretch them we did, to the tune of 1500 kilometres up the Hume to Canberra, and back home to Melbourne via the Kosciuszko National Park.
Our test car was an entry-level ($32,190 plus on-road costs) Maxx model with the bigger 2.5-litre petrol engine (the 2.0-litre is underpowered) and all-wheel-drive, which is standard with this engine. If a car is competent at base level, it’s likely to be good higher up the food chain as well. See a full breakdown of the price and specification across the CX-5 range here.
Mazda says the Maxx spec is its second most popular behind the Maxx Sport, accounting for 25 per cent of sales. Petrol engines are in 80 per cent of all CX-5s sold, and 65 per cent are AWD. So this variant and the next one up the chain are the two volume cars.
It’s worth noting that all CX-5’s have a five-star safety rating and six airbags, and the optional package consisting of Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and low-speed autonomous braking for $1230 on the Maxx and Maxx Sport is commendable.
First things first: let’s look at the main areas Mazda has changed. The car doesn't look much different, with tweaks across the range limited to revised grilles and headlights/tail-lights.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the previous CX-5 was its dated touchscreen infotainment system (an issue common to a number of compact SUVs on the market at present).
The updated model gets Mazda’s excellent MZD Connect system familiar to those who have driven a new-generation Mazda 3 or top-spec Mazda 2. But unlike those cars the CX-5’s screen is not a floating unit perched atop the dash, but rather is integrated within the dash.
The 7.0-inch screen is much higher resolution than before, and while it still operates via touch, it also gets a Commander rotary dial (a la BMW iDrive) and several chunky buttons mounted on the transmission tunnel. It’s a much more ergonomic and upmarket solution.
There’s no satellite navigation system available at base level (though the Maxx Sport grade and above all get it), but you get integrated Aha, Pandora and Stitcher internet radio apps, excellent Bluetooth streaming that re-pairs in a flash, two USB ports and a reverse-view camera as standard, though oddly no rear parking sensors. There’s also a nifty new storage area in front of the narrower gear shifter.
It’s not just the new rotary dial that’s new between the front seats either. Amongst the glossy black trim available even on the base Maxx is a new Sport button (on petrol models only) that tells the six-speed automatic gearbox to hold onto lower gears for sportier response, and an electric parking brake.
Features such as these, and others like the faux carbon door trims, lovely chunky steering wheel with buttons, and the starter button in place of the key, mean this Maxx AWD grade feels like anything but a base stripper variant when ensconced inside.
There remain a few shortcomings, however. The new plastics that surround the embedded screen have quite a bit of ‘give’ and feel a touch cheap. In addition, the cloth seats up front remain a little flat in the base for our taste, even though Mazda updated the frame and added 30mm to the length to the base. We’d also like a digital speedo, please.
All told, though, it’s an good cabin that’s better than before.
Shift into the back row and you get a decent, class-competitive amount of legroom and headroom, overhead grab handles and bottle holders in the doors. Like up front, the seat bases are 30mm longer. There’s no ski port with cupholders though, and crucially, there are still no rear air vents. That’s a tight-arse move, Mazda.
The cargo space remains an acceptable 403L with the rear seats up, though if you flip them down 60:40 you get 1560L. This falls short of the Honda CR-V (556L/1648L). There’s a 185/80 space-saver under the floor, which itself is mounted high, rendering the load area a little shallower than some.
Hit the starter button and you’re greeted by the familiar, louder-than-average initial idle of Mazda’s SkyActiv four-cylinder petrol engine, which runs an extremely high compression ratio (the 2.5-litre petrol runs at 13.0:1) to yield fuel savings, matched in AWD as standard to a six-speed auto with torque-converter.
Outputs are 138kW at 6000rpm and 250Nm at 4000rpm, enough to lug about its 1568 kilogram mass well enough — though it’s not the rocket the 129kW/420Nm diesel CX-5 (or the 178kW/345Nm Ford Kuga turbo petrol) is.
Plant your right foot, and the excellent auto will kick down and pile on the revs needed to access that upper reservoir of torque. Having driven a number of petrol compact SUVs out there, only the new Kuga and the top-pec turbo Subaru Forester are notably swifter.
You’ll trundle along at 110km/h at a nudge over 2000rpm, while flick the Sport button and the clever self-shifter will keep it peaky and relatively on the boil if you see a nice ribbon of road.
Mazda claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 7.4L/100km. On our testing route, which was about 60 per cent highway, 30 per cent urban and 10 per cent aggressive driving, we managed 8.8L/100km. Given a lot of rivals are particularly thirsty, that's an acceptable figure.
One area the previous CX-5 was weaker than some was in the suppression of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Mazda claims to have reduced NVH levels from both the engine and the tyres (226/65 aspect on Maxx and Maxx Sport alike) on highways by about 10 per cent through more sound insulation.
Changes include thicker rear glass, more insulating layers in the dash, extra damping material in the floor and even new floor mats. It also added new latch and door seals, added sound-deadening into the ceiling and filled all spaces in the door trim.
It’s certainly more refined than before, though it's also still no cone of solitude, either. It doesn’t match the traditional family hauler, a Commodore or Falcon, for NVH and proverbial long-legged-ness, and we suspect some key rivals such as the Volkswagen Tiguan would top it.
One area where the CX-5 does excel is in its dynamic performance. Body control, along with chassis balance, is top notch for an SUV of this ilk.
Its electric steering is beautifully weighted even if it doesn’t give vast feedback from the tyres and 17-inch wheels — steelies, which is a bit cheap, but they beat plastic hubcaps and you’ll be less annoyed if you kerb them than you would with alloys — and its nose tucks in with veracity.
It’s actually a treat to drive, given it carves up sections where most rivals would wallow. Its ride, fitting this mould, is a little firmer than some, with a fast rebound rate from springs tuned for a modicum of aggression.
The CX-5 continues to use a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension system, though this update gets revised damper structures, and new bushings for the front lower arm. The rear damper pistons are up 5mm and are calibrated for faster response to inputs too.
Flat but firm, we’d call it, though it never really grates and rounds off most corrugations well enough. The flagship car’s 19-inch alloys may convey a harsher nature, we’d suspect.
Really, though, it’s the city and surrounding suburbs that are the CX-5’s natural stomping ground, and while it doesn’t have the wonderful outward visibility of a Subaru Forester, it’s light steering, firm-ish but fine damping and raised driving position feel suited to the task.
The CX-5's AWD system is front-biased in ideal conditions, but uses sensors to detect slip and apportion a share of torque to the rear axle if needed, on snow, sand or wet roads. In regular driving this a FWD car.
From an ownership perspective, Mazda offers lifetime capped-price servicing, pegged at alternating figures of $299 and $326 at ratios of nine-months/10,000km.
So what’s the bottom-line? As a go-to family hauler, the CX-5 ate up most of what we threw at it, and the changes to interior are more than worthwhile. There are some foibles, but the Maxx 2.5 remains about the best bet in the sub-$35k compact SUV class for our money.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and Mike Costello.