Mid-sized SUVs are the new normal in Australia. Keeping up with the Joneses is no longer about matching your neighbour's big sedan, it's about which high-riding wagon is sitting in the driveway.
Sales figures would suggest the Mazda CX-5 is the object of neighbourly envy for a fair chunk of Australia's middle class. It was the best-selling medium SUV in the country in April, comfortably outselling the Hyundai Tucson and Toyota RAV4. What's all the fuss about?
For one, it's a bit of a looker, even in second-from-base Maxx Sport trim. Slim, squinty headlamps and a sharky snout blend neatly into the car's flanks, while the rear end is nicely rounded. It represents a subtle evolution of the previous CX-5's design, and that's no bad thing.
It rides on 17-inch alloy wheels as standard wrapped in 225/65 tyres. Stay tuned for a rundown on what sidewalls like those do for ride quality.
Priced from $38,590 before on-road costs (as of April 1, 2019), the 2.5-litre all-wheel drive Maxx Sport $3000 pricier than the 2.0-litre front-drive Maxx Sport, and $1600 cheaper than the CX-5 Touring.
Standard equipment is relatively generous, although most proper luxury features are reserved for higher-grade models. A six-speaker stereo, DAB+ radio, push-button start without keyless entry, automatic LED headlights with high-beam assist, rain-sensing wipers, and an electric parking brake are all stock.
You also get a rear-view camera with rear parking sensors, autonomous emergency braking in both forward and reverse, lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, and adaptive cruise.
Inside, there's dual-zone climate control, satellite navigation, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and a central rear armrest. The seats are trimmed in cloth, but the steering wheel and gear selector are both leather-wrapped and feel lovely in the hand.
In fact, the cabin is just a generally nice place to spend time. Mazda has its sights set on premium status, and while the CX-5 won't be giving German engineers any sleepless nights, it's a well thought out, nicely put together environment.
The seats are wide and comfortable, although a bit more under-thigh support wouldn't go astray, and everywhere your elbows or arms rest is pleasingly soft to the touch. In fact, most places you touch are nicely appointed and damped, from the click-clack of the metal-effect climate dials to the rocker switches on the steering wheel.
Unfortunately, MZD Connect is starting to feel its age. It's slow to start up, and can feel laggy as you flick through the menus. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard – and the former worked flawlessly, although the fact you can't use the touchscreen at speed is annoying.
Instead, you need to flick through options with the scroll wheel on the transmission tunnel. It works fine, but undermines some of the software's functionality.
Space is generous for front seat passengers, with enough seat and wheel adjustment to accommodate even gangly drivers, while the second row is fine without really feeling standout. It's a bit narrower and darker than, say, the cabin of a Subaru Forester or Honda CR-V back there, with less knee, leg and shoulder room, but there's enough space for taller teens. They'll be happy with the air vents, door pockets and fold-down central armrest on offer, too.
It's a similar story in the boot, where you'll fit 442L with the rear seats in place and 1342L with them folded. There's a space-saver spare under the floor, and the rear seats fold 40/20/40 from a lever in the boot.
The loading lip is low (good), the floor is flat and wide (good, good), but the rounded boot lid (stylish) doesn't open quite high enough for my liking (I'm tall, but bad). Because of its shape, it also hits the plumbing on the roof of my underground garage, which is an issue I didn't suffer with the Ford Escape and Holden Equinox. Personal, but potentially relevant if you have a tight parking space.
Mazda's luggage cover is very clever, clipping into the boot lid itself. When you open the boot, it extends and raises out of the way, essentially allowing you to load your junk without fiddling with an annoying cover. It's a small thing, but it's a good thing, and shows practicality is still a consideration in Hiroshima.
Although Mazda offers a 2.5-litre turbocharged engine in the CX-5, it isn't available in the Maxx Sport. Instead, the standard engine is a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol unit making 140kW and 252Nm. It's put to all four wheels through a six-speed torque converter automatic as standard.
The numbers are middling on paper, and the result is acceptable performance that'll never really knock your socks off. Mazda claims 9.7 seconds for the 100km/h sprint, which feels accurate in the real world.
Although it can't keep pace with its own turbocharged siblings, let alone those from the likes of Holden, Ford and Volkswagen, the combination of a torque converter and naturally-aspirated petrol will feel reassuringly normal to lots of buyers.
There's no funkiness off the line, no jerking, jolting or waiting as transmissions and turbos sort out their proverbial. Press the accelerator a little bit and the car accelerates slowly. Press it a lot and the car accelerates faster. Simple!
With that said, Mazda's six-speed 'sports automatic' is starting to feel its age. Whereas seven- and eight-speed ’boxes allow for engine speeds just above idle at 100km/h, the CX-5 is spinning at 2100rpm and backed by a gentle engine drone.
It's also slower to downshift than a DCT, especially if you need to drop more than one gear at a time, but most of the time it just slushes away unobtrusively in the background, shuffling through the gears without too much fuss.
Mazda claims 7.4L/100km on the combined cycle (0.5L more than the front-drive equivalent), while we saw 7.0L/100km on a loop skewed towards highway driving and closer to 10.0L/100km around inner Melbourne.
Flicking into Sport Mode sharpens up the throttle and encourages the transmission to hold a lower gear, but this isn't a sports car. Leave the button alone and let the powertrain do its thing in the background.
At launch, Mazda claimed it'd made big strides on the noise, vibration and harshness front (NVH) in the CX-5. To these ears, it's worked. Although the engine can get a bit shouty when really pushed, the car is a comfortable, quiet cruiser on the highway.
It has a lovely loping gait on the open road, soaking up big bumps with aplomb, while the tall sidewalls mean sharp-edged bumps don't thud into the cabin like they do in some other SUVs with their giant rims and liquorice tyres. Potholes, speed bumps and cobblestones also flow under the car without doing too much to ruin the ambience.
Under the skin, Mazda has fitted the CX-5 with its clever G-Vectoring Control Plus tech. It essentially makes tiny adjustments to the amount of torque sent to the wheels based on steering and accelerator inputs. I'd love to say my bum is capable of discerning its impact, but it'd take a pretty finely tuned arse to notice the difference between GVC on and GVC off.
Combined with light, smooth steering and the car's comfort-focused suspension, the system makes for handling that's predictable and inoffensive. The CX-5 feels quite small on the road, and is easy to thread through the urban jungle. It's unthreatening and car-like, with the extra ground clearance and all-wheel-drive grip people like from SUVs.
My girlfriend, who drives a first-generation Mazda 3, took it for a spin and said "I love sitting up high, and I love the tyres not chirping when it's wet". If you ever needed an indication of why people like SUVs, that's it in a quote.
As for the CX-5 Maxx Sport AWD? It's a competent, attractive, relatively practical mid-sized SUV. The only thing holding it back is the price.
Maxx Sport trim makes sense with front-wheel drive, but the small price jump from Sport Maxx AWD to Touring AWD is hard to ignore. The latter gets a head-up display, front parking sensors, electric folding mirrors, pleather/suede seats and traffic sign recognition – all of which more than justifies the extra spend.
If your heart's set on all-wheel drive and your budget is tight, the Maxx Sport is perfectly competent. But if you're able to stretch to the Touring, it's worth the extra spend.