2019 Mazda CX-5 review: Akera AWD turbo petrol

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Akera now comes with the company's 2.5-litre turbo-petrol engine, giving buyers the sort of performance it has long deserved. There are flaws, but it's the top-seller for a reason.

Mazda’s belated embrace of turbocharged petrol engines in its current fleet of cars has been most welcome. The first recipient was the new CX-9 family crossover, then the Mazda 6 sedan and wagon joined in, attaining the punch it they long deserved.

Next off the rank is the updated 2019 CX-5, also known as Australia’s top-selling SUV for seven consecutive years. The engine in question is called SkyActiv-G 2.5T. This 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo makes very healthy outputs of 170kW and 420Nm, promising sharp acceleration.

The new range-topping engine joins the existing non-turbo 2.5 petrol, range-opening 2.0-litre petrol with front-wheel drive, and 2.2-litre turbo diesel which was the performance leader of the line-up. It’s available on the flagship CX-5 GT and Akera spec levels, reflecting its positioning.

We have the Akera 2.5t here, priced at $49,170 before on road costs – $2500 more than the naturally-aspirated version and $500 less than the diesel. This range-topper is expected to account for 20 per cent of CX-5 sales in the first year, equating to 400 units a month, reflecting Mazda’s semi-premium status.

Its key spec competitors are the 162kW/350Nm Volkswagen Tiguan Highline ($49,490) and 178kW/345Nm Ford Escape Titanium ($45,840). Power-wise, you could also include the 188kW/353Nm Holden Equinox ($46,290).

As you may have noticed, the CX-5 2.5 turbo trails this fellow high-performing trio in terms of peak power but offers easily the most torque, or pulling power, of any contender. It almost offers nearly as much torque as the 2.2 diesel (140kW/450Nm).

It sends the CX-5 from 0-100km/h in a brisk 7.7 seconds (2s faster than the non-turbo 2.5 and 1.1s faster than the diesel) and can tow 2000kg, though it only has a 150kg tow ball download rating.

It’s a lovely engine, better described as muscular and relaxed than ‘peaky’ and high strung like a hot hatch, with greater levels of refinement than the other engine options and good rolling response from low speeds, helped by the fact the peak torque arrives at 2000rpm. It’s closer to being the petrol unit the CX-5 has always deserved.

Mazda trumps features such as multi-hole injectors, variable-displacement oil pump, and variable geometry turbo. Cooled exhaust gas recirculation lowers combustion temperature and accommodates the high 10.5:1 compression ratio, meaning it runs more efficiently. Nerd alert.

The engine is mated as standard to a familiar six-speed automatic transmission with torque converter, with a sports mode that tells it to hold lower gears through corners to improve your exit response, and aggressively downshifts under braking.

The fact that seven-, eight- or nine-speed gearboxes are beginning to proliferate, the 6AT clearly has wider ratio gaps, but the engine’s broad slab or torque largely papers over this. The average buyer will barely notice the gearbox, which is the point. A Tiguan’s DSG shifts more aggressively, but also requires a slightly tempered driving style compared to the Mazda.

Claimed petrol fuel economy is 8.2L/100km, though we averaged 9.8L/100km in real-world driving. The diesel uses about 30 per cent less fuel, though commendably the 2.5t can run on cheap 91RON fuel, unlike some rivals (including the VW). It also has a relatively subtle stop/start system.

While entry grades of the CX-5 come with front-wheel drive (FWD), the Akera is all-wheel drive (AWD). The on-demand system uses 27 sensors to allocate torque to whichever end has surface purchase. It also banishes the slight torque steer we noticed on the FWD Mazda 6 2.5t.

So, the engine is definitely a step up in quality, though clearly for many urban commuters the $3000 cheaper, naturally-aspirated 2.5 will do general commuting work without fuss. The 2.5t is more for people who appreciate driving. The diesel option is quite refined, though has a few more vibrations than the petrol, and is better suited to regional buyers or those who tow.

The Akera’s interior is a mixed bag. The leather driver’s seat has electric adjustment and memory settings, while the telescopic steering column adjustment has plenty of fore/aft movement, and the TFT analogue instrument display is crisp. The leather wheel is lovely, too.

The choice of materials is nice, with soft leather, injection-moulded squishy plastic on the doors, dash and console, nice wood accents along the dash and upper doors and plenty of stitching. The pentagonal, silver-rimmed air vents are also a nice design.

On the other hand, the climate controls are mounted quite low, below a large slab on dark plastic, which we think looks and feels a little off. There’s also a lot of dust- and fingerprint smudge-prone shiny black plastic along the transmission tunnel.

Cabin storage includes two front cupholders, a small-diameter but deep console, one-litre bottle holders in the doors, a padded phone area under the fascia and a sunglasses holder in the roof.

The 7.0-inch touch screen is also smaller than average and the processing power could be better, given the slow loading times on start-up. On the other hand, you get the great MZD Connect rotary dial and now also Apple CarPlay/Android Auto (check out our demo here). We should point out that it also works as a touchscreen, but only when stationary or at low speeds.

There’s a vast list of standard equipment, including sat-nav, a Bose stereo, a projecting head-up display giving you the much-needed digital speedo, DAB+, seat heating and ventilation up front, a heated wheel, a small glass sunroof (many rivals have panoramic roofs that are larger), proximity key, and active LED headlights.

In terms of active safety, you get autonomous emergency braking forward/reverse, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, lane assist and departure warning, and radar-guided active cruise control with stop&go. You also get a 360-degree camera, though its low-resolution means it appears too grainy for our liking, and parking sensors at both ends.

Read our pricing and spec story for more info on the equipment front.

The CX-5 has never been the most spacious medium SUV in the back seats, and a Honda CR-V or Subaru Forester beat it in this area, in terms of headroom/shoulder room/legroom, door apertures and outwards visibility. However, two 190cm adults can fit.

There are rear vents, LED reading lights, bottle holders, a skim port, two ISOFIX anchors and damped grab handles. The middle seat has a very short base and the humped transmission tunnel makes it largely useless for anyone but a small kid.

The electric tailgate opens to reveal a modest 442L boot that again trails a CR-V or Nissan X-Trail, or for that matter the new Tiguan. It’s acceptable for a pram or a few cases, but not as massive as the best in class. There’s also only a temporary spare wheel. There is a clever lever system that allows you to fold the novel 40:20:40 back seat row flat really easily, however.

One of the things Mazda pins its messaging on are driving dynamics. There are a few changes for 2019, including an updated G-Vectoring Control Plus system. The first iteration of GVC reduced engine output in response to steering inputs to harness weight transfer. GVC Plus also lightly brakes the outer wheels as the driver returns the steering wheel to centre, post-turn.

Mazda has also fitted wider front and slimmer rear stabiliser setup, softer front bushings, urethane rear damper top mounts to kill vibrations, and changed the damper valves top add some refinement to the ride quality.

The CX-5 remains a pleasant, competent and able handler, though as with almost any SUV the motor-driven steering is a little vague and the higher roll axis means some body movement in corners. It does dispatch twisty roads with agility and a stable, planted feel though, certainly in a more engaging and reassuring fashion than a Nissan X-Trail or Subaru Forester.

Despite riding on 19-inch wheels, necessitating 225/55 tyres with slim sidewalls, the ride quality over ungraded gravel or potholes is actually excellent, and the noise (tyre and wind roar) suppression is much better than older Mazdas. There is a hint of brittleness or stiffness from the front wheels at times, resulting in mild kickback through the steering column, but it’s minor.

One thing we’d add is a Hyundai Tucson or Kia Sportage both ride better.

From an ownership perspective the CX-5 comes with a five-year and unlimited kilometre warranty, and services are capped at alternating prices of $315 and $343, excluding brake fluid and air filter every two years ($65 and $71 a pop). By comparison the diesel alternates between $336 and $364, and the 2.5 non-turbo petrol $310/$339. The intervals are a modest 12 months or 10,000km.

So, the updated Mazda CX-5 Akera turbo-petrol. Be aware of the smaller-than-average boot and small centre screen, and the fact that the drivetrain is not tuned to feel like a proper performance setup, as the numbers may suggest.

Yet there’s no doubt the new engine is better, and it remains a stylish, well-equipped and generally good-to-drive family SUV that by and large lives up to the price tag.