by Doug Gutrie
Last summer, I drove the 2013 Mazda CX-5 and thought, huh?
The compact crossover SUV was well regarded, a finalist for the Detroit North American International Auto Show Truck of the Year award. Yet the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine was weak and buzzy-sounding.
Since then, Mazda upgraded the 2014 CX-5 lineup by adding 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engines with 29 more horsepower and 35 more pound-feet of torque to its upper level Touring and Grand Touring models.
The new engine is more than more powerful. It is plush because the increased power peaks at lower rpm than the small engine in the Sport model. It’s working harder while making it feel and sound like less effort. More moxie and a meatier sound from the engine bay completes the CX-5 package while sacrificing little fuel economy in front-wheel-drive or optional all-wheel-drive configuration.
Introduced last year, the CX-5’s price was competitive, its handling nimble, fuel economy class-leading and looks unique. Despite the small engine that forces its transmission to do a lot of shifting to deliver power on demand, CX-5’s abundant good qualities made it an instant success.
CX-5 replaced CX-7, a vehicle dating back to Mazda’s Ford partnership. It had shared underlying architecture with the boxy previous-generation Ford Escape. Three years after the breakup, CX-5 is completely new. It immediately became Mazda’s second best-selling vehicle, behind the compact Mazda3 sedans and hatchbacks.
CX-5 is roomy. There’s more legroom up front than in Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, and VW Tiguan. Rear legroom is better than CR-V, Sportage, and Tucson. It equals Escape and Tiguan. Only CR-V has more total passenger space.
The CX-5’s long hood and forward-leaning looks come from Mazda’s latest interpretation of “Kodo Soul of Motion” design. There’s a lot in common here with the new Mazda6 sedan. The badge-shaped grille is a better direction than the grilles that looked like smiley faces.
From the inside, the windshield and hood feel low, giving good visibility forward. Not so good aft, through the small lift gate window. The seating position is high and commanding; the suspension is taut and handles well in the curves.
The practicality of the crossover is the big cargo space that gets bigger with the back seats folded down.
The interior of CX-5 isn’t as nice as Mazda6. It has similar styling with leather-like soft touch materials on the dash and doors, shiny piano-black horizontal accents give the cockpit a wide appearance. But where there is metal trim in the sedan, there is hard, undisguised plastic in the crossover. The area surrounding the shifter looks cheap.
Mazda has simple three-knob environmental controls and a nice, deep padded pocket at the base of the center stack for cell phones. The seats appear to be the same comfortable, well-bolstered units in Mazda6.
The 5.8-inch color touch screen, standard with a backup camera in the Touring model and above, is surrounded by redundant buttons. It’s a good thing, because the optional TomTom navigation system is slow and requires you to follow rigid complicated voice commands.
The most popular model has been the Touring edition, which comes standard with Bluetooth hands-free connectivity for wireless phones and music players. It’s a $400 option on the base Sport model.
All models come with push button start. Options include blind zone alert and something Mazda calls the Smart City Brake System that can detect a pedestrian or a dog ahead and bring the CX-5 to a halt when operating at less than 15 mph.
Grand Touring gets leather and 19-inch alloy wheels that look sporty, but add more tire rumble to the already noisier than average cabin. The ride was more comfortable and quieter with the higher profile tires on 17-inch alloy wheels that are stock on all other models. The competitors in this class come with standard steel wheels and hub caps.
The nimble character of a $30,340 Grand Touring model I tested had me pushing the gas pedal hard and often. So the 25.9 mpg performance I saw in a mix of city, highway and twisty country roads wasn’t bad. The vehicle is EPA rated for 25 mpg city, 32 highway and a combined average of 27 mpg.
If you are looking for maximum mpg, a front-wheel-drive Sport model with a standard, five-speed manual transmission gets an EPA rated 26 mpg city and 35 highway. That’s the best fuel efficiency in the compact SUV class. With all-wheel-drive fuel economy drops to 25 city and 31 highway.
The larger engine is a better match for the bulk of the SUV, earning a rating of 25 mpg city and 32 highway with front-wheel-drive. The all-wheel-drive version gets 24 city and 30 highway. Mazda claims CX-5 can travel 400 miles on a tank of gas.
With the end of the Ford partnership, Mazda had to find new ways to build its cars, launching a holistic engineering approach. Mazda hasn’t gone the hybrid or turbocharger route. Skyactiv technology improves every element of vehicle performance through attention to detail and maximizing system potential. The cars are lighter and their structures stiffer. The engines have higher compression ratios coaxing power and efficiency from lighter weight engines.
Diesel engines in the Mazda6 are next, the first offered by a Japanese manufacturer in North American. How long it will take before the high mileage diesels find their way into Mazda’s SUVs depends on how well they sell in the midsize sedan.
For those of you who are keeping track, yes, I said the same 2.5-liter engine failed to put any real zoom into the new Mazda6 when introduced in March. But that’s a larger, midsize car. The new diesel engine option with its powerful torque is on the way soon for Mazda6.
Adding the 2.5-liter engine put CX-5 on par with the power of its well regarded competitors. It now matches CR-V’s horsepower and is stronger than any competitor’s engines that aren’t turbocharged.
Sometimes you have to be patient before you can, as the Mazda ads say, Zoom Zoom.