5 things that define the Mazda CX-5

Forgive us if you like to pore over monthly sales charts, but this factoid bears repeating. Mazda’s compact CX-5 crossover outsells the larger CX-9, the smaller CX-3, Mazda’s 3 and 6 sedans and the Miata roadster and coupe. Combined. In other words, Mazda sells more CX-5s than it does everything else in its U.S. lineup put together.

No one around here is surprised. It’s the market, of course — what people buy these days — but it’s also what this Mazda delivers. The CX-5 started strong when it launched in 2012. It’s gotten significantly better in areas where it was weak, and for 2019, it’s almost all the way there. The CX-5 could be a case study in how to improve a product.

If there’s a surprise, it’s how the CX-5 sells compared to its primary competitors—which is to say at a fractional rate. Compacts like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4 retail in two to three times greater volume than the CX-5. This must come down to Mazda’s relative size, its reach in the United States, its reputation or its marketing budget because it’s hard to believe it’s the car. From an enthusiast driver’s perspective, the CX-5 is a man among boyish small SUV/crossover/personal-transportation appliances, and it’s easy to pinpoint why.

Here are five things that define the Mazda CX-5 and separate it from its bigger-volume competitors.

The Look. Competitors try to create drama or “presence” with big, excessively adorned grilles, oddly shaped light clusters and molded-in pseudo aero devices. By necessity, the CX-5 follows some of the current styling trends, but it looks serious as opposed to cartoonish. No single piece of adornment looks like it was stuck on in a misguided effort to raise someone’s pulse rate. As two-box compact crossovers go, the CX-5 looks clean, classy and handsome.

The Interior. When the CX-5 was re-skinned for 2017, Mazda took the opportunity to dig below the surface metal and address one of its bigger shortcomings. Engineers introduced thicker seals, better air-channel blockers, denser sound insulation and more acoustic-layered glass. Today, the CX-5 is one of the quietest and more vibration-free compact crossovers going — and that may not be the best part.

The interior presents in the same fashion as the exterior: clean, handsome and sophisticated above the class, with a fabulous finish and materials that say Acura or Lexus more than Honda or Toyota. Nearly 20 years after BMW introduced the first iDrive dial-and-click control interface, the best of these mechanisms still go in the “doesn’t completely suck” column rather than the “really effective” column. The CX-5’s interface doesn’t completely suck when you master it. The line-topping CX-5 Signature comes standard with stuff that not long ago was reserved for luxury sedans approaching the $100K threshold, including LED lighting, real wood inlays, ventilated front seats and heated steering wheel and rear seats.

It all contributes to a general upgrade in refinement, and that gets us to what might be the CX-5’s single most important trait.

The Chassis Tuning. This has been the CX-5’s stock in trade since 2012, measured by its class competitors. Its steering is rock solid but also charming. It’s not remotely inclined to wander off center in a straight line, but it turns in with subtle authority when you dial in lock. The body stays level almost until the tires start to lose grip. The CX-5 is nimble and lively enough that you might actually want to take the crooked way home.

Its chassis-management electronics are sophisticated for the class, as well. Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus system briefly cuts torque delivery at turn-in, shifting weight forward to give the front tires more bite. Rest assured, it works, to the point where it might catch you off guard. If you’re lazing along with the freeway flow, then pull out to check the 911 that just flashed by, you might be surprised how quickly the CX-5 changes direction when you start switching lanes.

Yet that sort of dynamic response has always applied. The problem was that the first CX-5s bordered on stiff, by ride quality, and the suspension worked with a lot of racket. The general improvement in refinement helps, but Mazda has steadily tweaked bushings, springs and shock rates to improve the ride without significantly neutering the CX-5’s dynamic behavior. You now get maybe the best ride-handling balance in the class and smooth, quiet travel just about all the time.

Odds and Ends Short of Perfect. There are some niggling CX-5 shortcomings. Its brake pedal is a bit squishy at the top of its travel, and while the driver adjusts quickly, the pedal jumps out as singular glitch in an otherwise well-sorted car. The short, landscaped display screen above the center stack seems small by current standards, but the nav display is more troublesome (though it’s not unique to this car). If you want big-scope orientation during a longer trip, there is absolutely no detail in the map, beyond interstates or a few major state roads. If you need useful detail, you’ll have to settle for a tiny slice of geographic space, and the necessary detail is almost always down the road from where you are. The only solution is frequent fiddling with scale and moving the map.

The USB ports and climate controls for the back seat are pretty much obscured to outside passengers when the middle seat is occupied, and three in back makes for a much tougher crowd in the CX-5 than it does in a Chevy Equinox. At 31 cubic feet, the Mazda’s cargo volume trails most vehicles in this class. The RAV4 offers 37, and that extra 6 cubic feet matters.

What’s it all mean? Unless you approach an NBA player in physical stature or put an absolute premium on space, none of the odds and ends do much to subvert the CX-5’s strengths.

The Powertrain. File this one under “Greedy”. None of the engine/transmission combos in this class are lustworthy or particularly inspiring, and the combo in the CX-5 today is light years better than where it started seven years ago. If only….

The first 2.0-liter SkyActiv powertrain in the CX-5 was basically a dud. The engine was borderline anemic, and the six-speed automatic’s shift strategy was optimized for fuel economy, with no sport mode to improve response. That meant full-throttle acceleration just about all the time if you wanted any kind of legitimate go. So Mazda bumped the standard CX-5 four-cylinder to 2.5 liters and subsequently did something it said it didn’t want to do: It offered the 2.5 turbo from the CX-9 as an upgrade in the CX-5.

The 2.5T delivers 252 hp with 93 octane (227 with 87 octane) and a class-leading 310 lb-ft of torque. As significantly, Mazda has reprogrammed the six-speed with a sport mode that 1). Allows more effective manual shifting and 2). Holds gears more readily at part throttle and delivers deeper, quicker, rev-matched downshifts in full automatic. The result is a much more responsive engine/transmission combo and one of the quickest standard-brand compact crossovers going — off the line or at speed.

The problem? It’s more the dream. Mazda’s 2.5T is optimized for low-end torque and a bit rough around the edges, and it neither revs well nor sounds particularly satisfying. The transmission still shifts up well short of redline because there is no more acceleration in a given gear past about 5,000 rpm. If you use the six-speed as a manual, there’s no point going much higher up the scale, because the only thing waiting is a lot of unproductive noise and vibration.

If Mazda brought back the six-speed manual that disappeared in 2017 — one of the few back steps in the CX-5’s product evolution — at least we’d benefit from a foot-operated clutch. That’s not going to happen, but maybe we can hope for 1,500 more productive revs and a silky, satisfying whirr that encourages operation near the redline. That would make the CX-5 the true sport sedan among compact crossovers.

It’s already the sport compact crossover, not counting more expensive machines like the Porsche Macan, and it doesn’t feel much like settling when you drive it. We should all appreciate Mazda’s ongoing effort to make the CX-5 a small SUV/crossover/personal-transportation appliance for people who enjoy the drive as much as they enjoy getting there.

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