2021 Mazda CX-5 Review: A Decent Compact SUV With Deal-Breaking Tech

The verdict: The CX-5’s interior (mostly) shines as a near-premium offering, but a fun driving experience and nice leather upholstery can’t make up for its new and incredibly frustrating user interface.

Versus the competition: Mazda’s entry is one of the most fun to drive in a crowded class of compact SUVs, but while it does have higher-quality interior materials, its flawed multimedia interface lags well behind the competition.

Mazda’s most popular vehicle is the CX-5 compact SUV, and for the 2021 model year it received a number of small updates to its safety features and tech, as well as a new Carbon Edition trim

Related: Here’s Every Car That Earned an IIHS Top Safety Award for 2021

Despite its popularity within the Mazda lineup, the CX-5’s sales are dwarfed by the likes of the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4. With its new updates, premium interior and powerful turbocharged engine, can the CX-5 Signature give those rivals a run for their money?

Driving the 2021 Mazda CX-5 Is (Relatively) Fun

The CX-5’s driving experience is one of the SUV’s strongest suits, particularly with the optional turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. When using 93-octane premium gas, the engine makes 250 horsepower and 320 pounds-feet of torque. It also runs fine on 87-octane regular gas, though on that fuel, its output is reduced slightly to 227 hp and 310 pounds-feet of torque. (Our test vehicle used premium.)

With power like that, the CX-5 is no slouch. It’s fairly quick off the line and has more than adequate passing power. Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo four is a peppy little engine — one the company has put under the hood of nearly every vehicle in its lineup save the subcompact CX-3 SUV and MX-5 Miata sports car. The engine shines more in smaller vehicles (such as the CX-30 SUV and Mazda3 sedan and hatchback) than it does in the CX-5, likely due to the CX-5’s added heft. The power is nice, but the 2.5 turbo doesn’t transform the CX-5 into a hot rod.

I had more issues with the CX-5’s six-speed automatic transmission, which has taller gearing — likely for improved fuel efficiency given the absence of additional gears for the transmission that most vehicles have nowadays. The result is that it holds onto each gear longer, creating more engine noise. For a car aiming for a refined experience, the noise can seem, well, unrefined — almost CVT-like.

Choosing the 2.5 turbo engine also carries a fuel economy penalty. With the turbo engine and all-wheel drive, the CX-5 is EPA-rated at 22/27/24 mpg city/highway/combined; lose the turbo and keep the AWD, and those numbers rise to 24/30/26 mpg. The CX-5 is also available with front-wheel drive and either the 2.5 turbo (23/28/25 mpg) or base four-cylinder (25/31/28 mpg). The turbo AWD CX-5 lags behind AWD versions of the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV, all of which have combined mpg ratings of at least 28 and highway mpg ratings in the low 30s. All three also have significantly less power, but comparably equipped versions are also lighter and none feels underpowered to me.

Ride quality is a rough spot for the CX-5, as its ride is very firm (even with underinflated tires, which usually helps soften up a ride). There’s a fair amount of body roll in corners, too, but that’s not surprising for an SUV. Braking feel is linear and confident even on snow- and slush-covered roads — which speaks as well of Mazda’s tire choice (my CX-5 had Toyo A36 all-season tires) as of the brakes themselves. Steering, always a Mazda strong suit, remains sharp here.

The CX-5 may be closer to a commuter car than a sports car, but it’s still relatively fun to drive. It’s actually one of the more fun-to-drive SUVs in its class — maybe even the most fun to drive, though that’s a fairly low bar to clear.

The Good News About the Interior

The materials inside the CX-5 are top-notch for the class. On the top Signature trim we drove, that meant high-quality leather upholstery, plus buttons and switches that feel sturdy and well made.

The interior aesthetics didn’t do much for me. It’s a fairly boring design; other Mazdas, like the CX-30 and Mazda3, have a more visually interesting style. The Caturra Brown leather in our test vehicle surprised me; it looks black in low-light conditions, so when I opened the car door in broad daylight, I was concerned I was somehow getting into the wrong car.

Cargo space is also average for the class. Our measurement of the space behind the backseat put the CX-5 on par with the 2021 Nissan Rogue, at 17.9 cubic feet of cargo volume. (We started our own measurement program because standardized specifications allow too much variance from brand to brand, while understating sedan trunk volume and overstating hatchback volume. Our numbers should not be compared with manufacturer-supplied specs.) For the record, Mazda measures the CX-5’s volume at 30.9 cubic feet with the backseat upright and 59.6 cubic feet with it folded.

The Bad News About the Interior

As part of its updates for the 2021 model year, the CX-5 got a new 10.25-inch center display standard on all trim levels. 

“Wait, Brian, why didn’t you say ‘touchscreen’?” I’m glad you asked! On outgoing models, the CX-5’s display could function as a touchscreen when parked, but with the new screen, the touch function is gone entirely; every action must be carried out via a console-mounted knob controller.

Yes, it’s awful. We’ve complained about the system for years, and Mazda — in the name of safety — went and made it worse by taking away the ability to at least occasionally use something other than its clunky controller. In Mazda’s view, using a touchscreen while driving is so unsafe it shouldn’t be done, ever (even when you’re not in motion, apparently).

Testing Mazda’s theory that the controller is safer than the screen, I used Google Maps to navigate via the car’s standard Apple CarPlay smartphone connectivity. (Android Auto is also standard.) At one point, Google wanted to change my route and I disagreed. Trying to use the knob controller to cancel the route change while driving felt extremely dangerous. It certainly took lots of my attention away from the road. 

Part of the advantage of smartphone mirroring tech like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is that it operates like your phone, giving users a familiar interface — one optimized for touchscreens. Requiring all of those actions to be done via a rotary knob and click system is frustrating and counterintuitive. Every moment interacting with the display in that way diminished my enjoyment of the CX-5.

Seating comfort was also a weak point, though far less an issue than the display. The cushions up front are padded in such a way that I felt like I sat more on top of them than in them, and the SUV’s rear legroom and headroom left much to be desired for my 6-foot-1 self.

More From Cars.com:

  • How Do Car Seats Fit in a 2021 Mazda CX-5?
  • Mazda CX-5: Which Should I Buy, 2020 or 2021?
  • Mazda CX-5, CX-9 and Mazda6 Get Carbon Editions for 2021
  • Here’s Every Car That Earned an IIHS Top Safety Award for 2021
  • 2021 Mazda CX-30 Review: More Fun, Still Flawed

Safety-First Attitude

If Mazda is making these frustrating choices solely for safety, it’s at least in keeping with its industry safety ratings. The 2021 CX-5 is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick Plus for 2021, and it received a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Standard safety tech includes adaptive cruise control, low-speed forward emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning with lane keep assist, and blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert. For 2021, Mazda added a driver alertness monitor and low-speed rear emergency braking with pedestrian detection to the CX-5 Signature trim level, which also has a 360-degree camera system.

The CX-5 earned mixed grades in Cars.com’s child-safety seat testing.

Should You Buy a CX-5?

There’s a lot to like about the CX-5. Its interior is high-quality, if a bit cramped in back, and with the optional turbocharged engine, it has a sportier feel than its rivals. But the switch to a center display without any touch capability is a total deal-breaker for me; I never looked forward to dealing with it, which made driving the CX-5 feel like a chore.

The CX-5 Signature we tested carried a sticker price of $39,225 (including destination), and driving a nearly $40,000 vehicle should be a far less frustrating experience.

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