Thumbs Up: Great fuel economy, epic manual transmission
Thumbs Down: Oddly-high passenger seat, limited manual gearbox availability
Buy This Car If: You want a Mazda3 but need the practicality of a crossover
Crossovers, to quote from Mazda’s very own ad for the CX-5, are the rolling embodiment of compromise. They typically offer little of the off-road capability of body-on-ladder-frame SUVs, yet fail to deliver fuel economy on par with midsize sedans. Ride quality tends to be too soft or too harsh, with few landing in the sweet spot in between. Worse, most crossovers offer zero entertainment behind the wheel, which makes them vehicles of necessity, not vehicles of choice.
What if, Mazda asked, there was a better way? What if a crossover could deliver both reasonable fuel economy and some measure of entertainment behind the wheel? What if we could make a crossover handle, without degrading the ride quality into the “punishing” range. Finally, what if we could branch out from the box-on-box design that typified badge-engineered products from Ford?
The answer to these questions is served up in the form of the 2013 Mazda CX-5, an all-new compact crossover that dips heavily into Mazda’s SkyActiv bag of tricks. To start with, it’s light, tipping the scales at just 3,208 pounds in front-drive trim (for comparison, a Honda CR-V weighs about 100 pounds more). It gets Mazda’s SkyActiv 2.0-liter engine, good for 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque and mated to a six-speed SkyActiv automatic or manual transmission. Best of all, it gets a suspension designed by Mazda, which means the 2013 CX-5 fears no highway onramp or offramp.
Mazda’s compact crossover also debuts the company’s Kodo design language, and we say that’s a good thing. To be honest, we weren’t fans of the now-outgoing Nagare design language, which gave the Mazda3 and MX-5 their grinning guppy front-end look. We didn’t really care for the blandness that was the Mazda Tribute, either, since it was clearly just a Ford Escape with a different badge and a few interior bits changed up.
The CX-5, on the other hand, is a clean design that doesn’t look like anything else on the road. The front end no longer resembles a happy anime character, yet Mazda resisted the urge to go to the opposite extreme, vis-a-vis Mitsubishi’s front end styling. In between seems to be just right for Mazda, and the CX-5’s front end manages to pull off “distinctive” without being “over-the-top.”
In profile, we actually see a bit of BMW X3 influence, primarily in the front and rear. That’s not a bad thing, and Mazda has in no way copied the X3’s design. We liked the absence of chrome trim and the blacked-out daylight opening, and even admired the flowing character line across the door tops. We’re oddly puzzled by the lower (but subtle) character line, which seems to go its own way without regard to the rest of the CX-5’s styling. It’s not unpleasant, but to our eye it lacks a certain flow (which is probably why we write about cars, not design them).
The rear carries over the same grown-up styling as the front, which gives the CX-5 a contemporary look. The roof spoiler adds to the CX-5’s a sporting flavor, and we like the fact that Mazda uses the same black fascia trim and side sills across the entire model range. Overall, the styling is a huge step up from the outgoing Tribute, which has been looking a bit outdated tired in recent years.
Inside, the CX-5 gets a simple-but-elegant dash, trimmed in piano black and metallic silver. There’s very little chrome to be seen and not even a trace of fake wood, both of which are big pluses on our scorecard. The CX-5 has no pretensions of luxury, so its interior is rendered in a utilitarian yet semi-sporty manner.
The exception to this rule is the CX-5’s instrumentation, which looks to be lifted from a high-end luxury crossover. Gauge faces have machined-look surfaces, and all three primary dials (tachometer, speedometer and driver information display) are trimmed in aluminum. On their own, the instruments aren’t what you expect to see in a budget-priced crossover, and Mazda deserves recognition for its attention to detail.
We’re fans of the CX-5’s cloth sets, too, which are oddly bolstered given the crossover’s daily commuter mission. We doubt many CX-5 owners will be running track days or strafing canyons in their new grocery-getter, but the front seats seem to give you the kind of support needed, should you get the urge. For the most part, we found both front chairs comfortable, although we wish the oddly-high passenger seat could have been dropped a few inches.
Don’t expect the same snug and secure fit in the rear seats, which exist in the form of a relatively flat bench. On the plus side, there’s ample head room and more than a reasonable amount of leg room, which makes the CX-5 a great choice for car pool commuters.
Power comes from the previously mentioned 2.0-liter SkyActiv four, rated at 155 horsepower at 150 pound feet of torque. In base Sport models, Mazda’s superb SkyActiv six-speed manual transmission is an available (and in our opinion, must-have) option, and we simply can’t praise this gearbox enough. Not only is this manual the best in the segment, but in our humble opinion it’s one of the best in the industry, period. Our only complaint is that this gearbox isn’t available on mid-level Touring and high-end Grand Touring models, and we hope that Mazda reconsiders this in the future.
Gushing gearbox praise aside, the SkyActiv drivetrain is good enough to get the CX-5 from 0-60 mph in a hair over nine seconds, which is plenty quick enough for a crossover daily driver. The CX-5 delivers some impressive fuel economy numbers, too, returning an EPA-estimated 26 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. In mostly-city driving, we managed to achieve a respectable average of 27.6 mpg, which is better than the highway fuel economy we saw from the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport recently tested.
We’ll admit to being fans of the CX-5’s road manners, too. The ride was firm without being harsh, while the steering was communicative without being heavy. At normal speeds, there was less body roll in corners than expected, but aggressive corning reminds you that the CX-5 serves up a generous amount of ground clearance, too. We’d sum up the handling as poised, and a competent driver can wheel Mazda’s compact crossover through corners at speeds that would embarrass most others in the class.
We know several people who’ve purchased Mazda5 MPVs simply because they’re supremely functional yet still somewhat entertaining, By our own estimation, the CX-5 dials up the fun factor even beyond the Mazda5, at least in models with a manual transmission. If there’s a shortcoming in the CX-5, that’s it: in order to get the superb six-speed manual transmission, you have to settle for a base (Sport, in Mazda-speak) model with front-wheel-drive. If Mazda is bold enough to offer a manual transmission in the Mazda5 MPV, we sincerely hope it’s bold enough to increase the number of CX-5 models available with a manual transmission in the crossovers sophomore year. We’d bet that the take-rate for the manual transmission would surprise them.
Mazda loaned us the 2013 CX-5 Sport for our evaluation. Base price on our press fleet tester was $21,490, including a delivery charge of $795, and our CX-5 came without any options. For comparison, a similar Honda CR-V LX would sticker at $23,325, while a comparable Toyota RAV4 would list for $24,245.