Rare is the compact crossover buyer who prioritizes performance.
It’s a price-sensitive segment, where comfort, safety and utility rate higher than the thrill of the drive.
Nevertheless, I submit that Mazda’s CX-5 is the most fun-to-drive crossover not bearing a German nameplate.
Lithe and maneuverable in city traffic, quiet and stable at speed and better than competent when the road turns curvy, the CX-5 can feel from behind the wheel more sporty sedan than crossover.
And, if you consider driving more chore than delight, never fear; you’ll find plenty else to like about this compact Mazda.
The CX-5 is updated for 2016, with minor styling tweaks, improved interior materials and better ride quality. Revised suspension tuning improves ride quality, without impacting handling, and greater use of sound insulation cuts cabin noise. New options include LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning. Bluetooth is standard and every CX-5 built since January includes a rearview camera.
Other standard gear includes full power accessories, air-conditioning, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels.
All but the base trim get the Mazda Connect infotainment system. Its touchscreen grows from 5.8 to 7 inches, and adds a console-mounted multifunction control knob that requires less driver attention than most competitive systems do.
Other small crossovers — namely Ford’s Escape — are quicker than the CX-5, but none is more responsive. Mazda’s focus on weight-loss produces a light and rigid chassis. Steering is accurate and well weighted and builds effort progressively. Good on-center feel (the amount of “play” felt in the wheel at top-dead center) promises relaxing long-distance driving.
Builders often use overheated cabin design to infer performance. But the CX-5 goes the other direction, with understated design elements and abundant soft-touch surfaces (especially appreciated on the padded armrests and the knee bolsters affixed to the inside of the center console). The feel is fresh, modern and warm.
A new electronic parking brake frees space on the console, which Mazda leverages into a larger storage bin. Door pockets grow this year and an open storage bin at the base of the instrument control panel houses two USB inputs and an auxiliary jack.
The CX-5’s 60/40-split folding rear seat is long on leg- and headroom. The bottom cushion is enlarged this year to improve comfort for larger passengers. On upper trims, an innovative folding mechanism provides a nearly flat load floor.
The CX-5 is one of the segment’s thriftiest entries. Both of the available power plants — a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four or a 185-hp 2.5-liter four — return 29 mpg combined, with AWD trims producing 26/24/30.
While other reviewers generally consider the smaller engine underpowered, the 2.5-liter pushes the CX-5 to a quick-for-the-class 8-second 0-60 sprint. A new transmission Sport mode alters shift patterns to boost performance but is too aggressive for everyday use; only daredevil drivers on twisty roads will likely find it satisfying.
Which begs the question: Must one be a thrill-seeking daredevil to enjoy the CX-5? Of course not; but it never hurts.
2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD
Base price: $21,795
Trim level base price: $29,870
As tested: $34,485
Options included adaptive cruise control; Smart City Brake support; lane-departure warning; adaptive LED headlights, with automatic high-beam control; LED foglights; auto-dim mirror with Homelink.
EPA ratings: 26 combined/24 city/30 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified