Mazda's got an interesting challenge. How do you meet ever more stringent government fuel economy standards, and still maintain your image as the company that builds cars that are fun to drive? The 2013 Mazda CX-5 is the company's latest attempt to answer that question in the form of a compact crossover vehicle. The all-new CX-5 will hit showrooms in the middle of the first quarter of 2012 carrying a sticker price that should average in the $24,000 range, with EPA estimates of 26 mpg city/32 mpg highway (6AT/FWD). I had a chance to drive a few pre-production examples of the CX-5 following its debut at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show.
CX-5 joins a lineup that already includes a compact crossover, the CX-7, and a mid-size crossover, the CX-9. CX-5 represents a new model of design for Mazda, which they call "Kodo." "Kodo" translates to "The Soul of Motion." Mazda designers, stationed in studios in Irvine, California, Frankfurt, Germany and in two locations in Japan collaborated on the Kodo concept vehicle, which will guide the design for the next generation of Mazda vehicles, much as the Nagare concept guided the design of the previous generation. CX-5 is the first Kodo-inspired production vehicle.
The big design evolution that I can see on CX-5 is in the front fascia. The crossover's grill is still trapezoidal, like other Mazdas, but it is much less prominent. The Mazda "wing" shape is defined in the front fascia by the headlights and lower grill. Seen from the side, CX-5's front fascia is nearly flat, with no element protruding beyond the front top edge that the driver can see from the vantage point of the cabin -- which will make CX-5 very easy to park. CX-5's side reveals Mazda's characteristic attention to surface development, with crisp key lines defining areas of gently curving sheet metal. An ascending shoulder line and assertive stance emphasize the Kodo aesthetic of a cat that's ready to pounce, or an athlete poised at the instant just before the starter's gun sounds. Around back, it's easy to see how the cabin tapers toward the top, giving CX-5 a subtly trapezoidal, stable-looking shape. The body manages to deliver the two-box SUV shape, while still looking aerodynamic and sleek.
In the Driver's Seat
CX-5’s driving position is very much SUV, with a high hip point and more chair than Lay-Z-Boy seating attitude, especially when compared to the CX-7 and CX-9. The beefy steering wheel is adjustable for reach and angle, which makes finding the right driving position easy. A control screen, which is also the navigation touch screen, is mounted at the top of the center stack, which is exactly where it should be. HVAC controls and vents are below the screen. CX-5 bucks the trend of button-heavy center stacks. Mazda engineers made an effort to pare down CX-5’s control layout to the essential, and they’ve been quite successful. The only sign of clutter is on the steering wheel itself, which houses eight buttons on its spokes.
CX-5’s front seats are comfortable, though not particularly generously sized. The second row is very easy to get into and out of, thanks to wide-opening doors that are smartly shaped to accommodate feet and heads. There’s 34.1 cubic feet of luggage space behind the second row. The bottom of the second row sinks when the back of the seat is folded (60/40 on Sport trim, 40/20/40 on Touring and Grand Touring), resulting in a nearly flat load floor and 65.4 cubic feet of cargo space. The only clunky part of the operation is that you have to remove the second row headrests in order to fold down the seat completely – though Mazda has thoughtfully provided small storage nooks in the cargo hold for the headrests once they are removed. Several competitors have solved this issue with fold-down headrests, and I wish Mazda had followed suit.
On the Road
CX-5 is the first Mazda vehicle to execute the entire suite of “Skyactiv” technologies, a combination of engine, transmission, body and chassis attributes designed to enhance efficiency and sustainability. Since CX-5 is a clean sheet design, much attention was devoted to reducing body weight. Extensive use of high strength steel, as well as coordination with suspension and powertrain engineers, drove the design of an advanced framework. Suspension mounting points are heavily reinforced, and located where handling compromises are limited.
Mazda’s Skyactiv 2.0-liter gas engine powers the CX-5. A choice of 6-speed automatic or manual transmissions connects the front wheels to the power; all-wheel drive is an option on the Grand Touring models. The new engine is designed to operate at higher than normal compression ratios. Friction has been reduced, and combustion improved so that the engine delivers 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque on 87-octane pump gas.
Driving the CX-5, I was initially disappointed with the engine and automatic transmission. Though I appreciated the direct feeling of the Skyactiv transmission – there’s little if any clutch slip when the transmission shifts gears – I wanted more power when I merged onto the freeway, and when I drove up long inclines. When our test route took us to more challenging roads, I found myself enjoying the CX-5 more. New electric power assist steering and perfectly tuned suspension creates the sensation that Mazda calls “Jinba Ittai” – the feeling of maneuvering the car at will. No one will ever mistake the CX-5 for an MX-5, but it does have the soul of a Mazda. And that’s a good thing.
CX-5 enters a very competitive marketplace. The compact crossover segment is getting plenty of attention right now, with a new Honda CR-V and a new Ford Escape each on the horizon or closer. The compact crossover makes a lot of sense for a lot of buyers who seek improved fuel economy and a smaller footprint, but aren’t willing to completely sacrifice the utility and confident driving position of an SUV. Mazda has a well-deserved reputation as a driver’s car, and that’s the challenge for CX-5, just like it was a challenge for the outgoing Tribute (a rebadged Ford Escape).
The serious competitors in the compact crossover field are the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. I haven’t driven the new Ford Escape yet, but it will also garner some attention. The Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage are worthy entries into the field, and the GMC Terrain/Chevrolet Equinox have their fans. I’d toss the Jeep Patriot into the field as well, though it lacks the refinement of CX-5.
Mazda’s engineers promote CX-5’s Jinba Ittai, claiming that “corrective actions are unnecessary.” While that may be true of CX-5’s steering, handling and aesthetic design, I politely suggest that a corrective action may be required in order for CX-5 to excel beyond its competition. That corrective action, in my opinion, would be adding more horsepower.