Whether you call them small SUVs or compact crossovers, the broad appeal of these vehicles lies in their size, practicality, price, and elevated seating position. Driving dynamics aren’t nearly as important, likely falling somewhere around the speed of the windshield wipers and the feel of the glovebox latch among the priorities of most buyers. Most of these vehicles go down the road with an inoffensive ride and enough confidence to satisfy the segment’s buyers, but to those of us who enjoy the way steering and suspension play together, this category is about as entertaining as, well, measuring the speed of power windows.
Feel the Energy
There is an exception. It’s apparent as soon as you begin driving Mazda’s CX-5 that it has an energy that’s absent from its appliancelike competition. The steering is precise and tuned to provide the feedback of a sports car, and the suspension greets corners with composure instead of reluctance. A six-speed automatic snaps off quick shifts and avoids the monotonous engine noise created by competitors’ continuously variable automatic transmissions at full throttle. There are additional little touches for driving enthusiasts, such as a floor-mounted accelerator pedal. This particular feature isn’t exactly a big deal, but Mazda went to the trouble for the same reason luxury brands do: because it feels better in operation than a hanging pedal.
We do wish there were a bit more energy connected to that pedal. Mazda’s 2.5-liter inline-four with 187 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque is the sole engine offering—at least until the promised diesel arrives—and while it provides a satisfying snap of acceleration from a stop, its enthusiasm for moving the 3537-pound CX-5 wanes as speed climbs. At the test track, our front-wheel-drive test vehicle ran from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 16.2 at 86 mph. Add heavier all-wheel-drive hardware and those times undoubtedly will lengthen. Most of the class is quicker, led by the Subaru Forester XT, which hits 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds. The CX-5 does out-drag the all-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4 and the Nissan Rogue, but we have yet to test the latest front-drive versions of the Toyota and the Nissan.
Mazda’s 2.5-liter does better on the fuel-economy side of the equation. The EPA predicts 24 mpg in the city, 31 on the highway, and 27 combined, which is good but not best in class. A front-drive Honda CR-V with the optional turbo 1.5-liter four-cylinder returns 28 mpg city and 34 highway in EPA testing; the new Chevrolet Equinox with a 1.5-liter turbo four manages 26 city and 32 highway. Still, the CX-5’s fuel economy is better than average, and ours exceeded its EPA estimates with a 32-mpg average in mostly highway driving.
At highway speeds, Mazda’s efforts to silence the CX-5 with a thicker windshield and additional sound insulation have paid dividends. In our test, the sound level at 70 mph dropped from the previous model’s 69-decibel reading to a luxury-car-like 65 decibels. The redesigned interior also moves the CX-5 closer to the premium brands. The 7.0-inch infotainment screen that sticks out of the instrument panel like a tiny flat-screen television is easily controlled by the rotary knob behind the shifter—or by touch when the CX-5 is stopped. Materials are first-rate, seat comfort is excellent, and the newest design aesthetic has hints of Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Rear-seat space still trails most competitors. The 2017 model uses a heavily revised version of the previous CX-5’s platform rather than a completely new architecture, which means the new interior is no larger, but the rear seats are more comfortable than before, feature two stages of recline, and fold flush with the cargo floor. Buyers seeking maximum cargo and rear-seat space might be better served by the RAV4, Equinox, or CR-V.
Those who value steering and handling can look past the smallish rear seat, which isn’t so far off the class norm to be a deal breaker. And while we would like a bit more power, the CX-5 is a compelling and enjoyable small SUV in a class that too often is anything but.