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[REVIEW] 2014 Mazda CX-5 – Practically fun

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Mazda is a bit of an underdog in the automotive world. In a previous review, I tested Mazda’s largest vehicle in their lineup, the 7 passenger CX-9 SUV. Although a bit long in the tooth now, I found it to be a competent people hauler that lives up to Mazda’s sporty aspirations as a brand. Ever since then, I have been itching to test their hot new compact SUV offering, the CX-5.

The CX-5 gives the company a modern small SUV. That’s something that every car company needs nowadays. Mazda said that for this vehicle, it focused on styling, handling, and fuel economy.

Sure enough when the CX-5 was unveiled in 2011, it seemed to check off all of the right boxes with its class-leading fuel economy, head-turning design, and expected better-than-the-rest handling.

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Long gone are the days of the Mazda Tribute (aka the Ford Escape) and the CX-5 no longer shares a platform with any Ford vehicle. Instead, it is is based on the same chassis as the critically acclaimed Mazda3. So naturally, I had big expectations for the small ute.

Keep reading to see what I thought of Mazda’s latest compact SUV entry, and whether it is practical and zoom zoomy enough to compete.

EXTERIOR

Mazda’s current design language, known as KODO or “Soul of Motion” is supposed to mimic nature in both its calm and more furious states. Their marketing material states that KODO “abounds with graceful yet energetic lines”.

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Whether or not you believe in this spin, there is no doubt that the CX-5’s sculptured body looks muscular and taut despite being compact. Mazda says that both the edgy creases and rounded surfaces are as much for finesse but also for function, creating optimal airflow that keeps its coefficient of drag down to a low 0.33. This helps to not only keep fuel efficiency high, but also wind noise to a minimum.

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My CX-5 GT was fitted with attractive looking 19” aluminum alloy wheels outfitted with 255/55R19 tires (the same aftermarket Toyo winter tires I wasn’t a fan of on the CX-9).

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The larger wheels definitely make a huge difference over the Sport and Touring model’s 17” rollers. I reckon that they’re almost worth upgrading to the Grand Touring package for that option alone due to their visual appeal and increase in handling performance without degrading the ride quality.

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The sharply raked A-pillar is matched with complimentary C-pillars, creating a fastback design which also affords all occupants one of the widest fields of view in the compact cute-ute segment. The swoopy back does eat into cargo area a little though.

I loved how the shapely front and rear fenders hugged those aforementioned wheels, and to my eyes anyway, the end result is a cool dune-buggy look combined with an athletic swagger.

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The other downside to the attractive creases, rising beltline and fastback design is that while the visibility is good, the rear tailgate’s glass is quite high. Therefore there is a rather large blindspot below the rear window. Fortunately my test vehicle was equipped with an excellent rearview camera that completely rectified this issue. I would recommend that you add this option as well if you’re shopping for the CX-5.

INTERIOR

The interior is neatly finished and packaged well, but more basic than plush. You’ll need to go to the much larger CX-9 if you want that.

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The dashboard is well put together with its soft touch materials and the headunit in my Grand Touring trimmed vehicle functions similar to the one in Mazda’s CX-9 and Mazda6 midsized family sedan.

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If you want GPS satellite navigation, you’ll need to add on the optional Tech package, which includes the same TomTom based navigation system that I talked about in my Mazda CX-9 review. My test car wasn’t equipped with the Tech pack, but because it was a GT, it had the same touchscreen headunit, complete with the NAV button. Pressing it obviously didn’t do anything.

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I found the CX-5’s touchscreen easier to reach than the CX-9’s due to the smaller cabin. My only complaint was that the plastic ledge underneath the headunit tended to get a lot of fingerprint smudges as it is a natural place for someone’s fingers to rest on when using the screen. Perhaps some sort of padding there would help?

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With large side and front glass, visibility is good. I appreciated the large outside wing mirrors as well.

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As mentioned earlier, the rearview camera, viewed on the headunit’s smallish 5.8” screen, is a welcome addition with the CX-5’s high rump and high tailgate window line. The camera resolution is high and therefore the image quality is good.

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The CX-5 also has a good blindspot warning system, a bit of a rare but nice active safety feature in this class. It’s a bit sensitive when you’re on the outside of two left turn lanes, but works very well otherwise.

The front seats are actually surprisingly sporty and sculpted, living up to Mazda’s Zoom Zoom character. They could use more lateral support for the twisty roads, but this is not intended to be a sports car. All my passengers also found the seats comfortable.

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The rear seat is surprisingly commodious for its class, easily fitting 2 passengers and 3 in a pinch. It folds into 3 separate sections (not just 60/40) to form an almost flat floor.

I particularly liked how I could fold the rear seatbacks down from the cargo area with just a pull of the lever mounted on either side of the cargo area walls.

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I had only two small points of contention with the interior. Firstly, the front heated seats seemed to take longer than expected to warm up. Something that I really got to test out in record breaking low temperatures in Vancouver. Yes, that is indeed ice in the Fraser River in the photo below!

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This wouldn’t be so bad if the cabin warmed up faster. However, the CX-5 seemed to take ages to get the heat pumping into the cabin in -8 degrees C outside temperatures. Certainly much longer than the other press car I had that week.

I wonder if this has to do with the SKYACTIV design once again, or if it was just my test car.

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Lastly like other Mazdas, the driver-side window switch cluster and mirror controls are unlit except for the driver’s side window switch itself.

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SO HOW DOES IT DRIVE?

Mazda isn’t a very big company and hybrids and electric vehicles cost a lot to develop. So Mazda reduces fuel economy the old fashion way. Less curb weight, and clever engine tweaks.

The CX-5 showcases SKYACTIV technology, which is Mazda’s nomenclature for their comprehensive approach that optimizes engine, transmission, and body weight to increase fuel economy.

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SKYACTIV technology for the engine includes a race car high 13:1 engine compression ratio and direct injection technology in order to improve fuel economy. It’s paired with a 6 speed automatic transmission that is quite responsive.

For 2014, the CX-5 is offered with an all-new SKYACTIV-G 2.5L direct injection engine with 184 hp at 5700 rpms, and 185 ft-lbs of torque at 3250 rpms. These are gains of 19% more horsepower and 23% more torque respectively over last year’s engine offering. A welcome addition as the original specification engine was shy on power for its class, especially for passing maneuvers and climbing hills.

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With this increase in horsepower, the CX-5 no longer feels lethargic. While 185 ft-lbs of torque won’t pin you back in your seat, you don’t have to rev the engine very much to get it going. More importantly, the vehicle doesn’t feel flatfooted around town.

Since fuel efficiency is largely dependent on weight and not just engine power, Mazda crafted efficiency not just into a lighter engine design, but also into every panel and bolt. A starting weight of only 3194lbs for a manual transmission CX-5 Sport is actually lighter than some compact cars, including Mazda’s own MAZDASPEED3 at 3281lbs.

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My fully equipped GT AWD model weighed in at a relatively svelte 3532lbs. Note that all CX-5s also offer a 2000 pound towing capacity.

The benefit of all of this “fat” trimming is that overall handling is a high point. Mazda is known for making cars that are fun to drive and the CX-5 lives up to those expectations. The steering is responsive and precise, despite a slight deadspot on centre. This small SUV feels agile with controlled body roll and quick steering.

Helping with this agility is Mazda’s full time Active Torque-Split All-Wheel-Drive system (only available on automatic transmission models). During my test week with the CX-5, Vancouver experienced record-breaking low temperatures, resulting in a lot of black ice on the road.

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I could definitely feel the system working to compliment the winter tires when accelerating in slippery tight corners. This helped me to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction before the intervention of the stability control system. Since ATS AWD is an active system that works all the time to shuffle power front-to-back and even side-to-side to prevent slippage, it definitely adds to driver confidence and peace of mind.

Other good news is that the ride is mostly compliant even though it can be a bit choppy at high speeds on bad pavement due to the short wheelbase (e.g. Highway 1 with its milled/asphalt surface).

As a class, small non-luxury SUVs are pretty loud. Engine noise is quiet except if you floor it for passing or going up hills. In these scenarios, you can hear the small engine working hard. Thankfully it’s not too buzzy like many 4 cylinder engines in its class (e.g. the Hyundai Tuscon’s), but it’s definitely noticeable when at load.

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Wind noise is acceptable, but road noise is a bit louder than expected when on poor surfaces. I wonder if the SKYACTIV mindset’s attempt to cut down on weight may have gone a wee bit too far here.

No doubt the road and tire noise may be partially attributed to the Toyo winter tires that were fitted to my test vehicle. But perhaps some additional improvements can still be made here.

WRAP-UP

So the Mazda CX-5 seems like a competitive entry in this small SUV segment.

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There have been rumours that Mazda may be bringing its 4 cylinder SKYACTIV diesel engine to North America. This engine has already been held in high regard in Europe and I say bring it on! This will even further improve torque and fuel efficiency.

Overall, the CX-5 does impress me with, its 1) attractive styling, 2) agile handling, 3) active all-wheel-drive system, 4) the promise of good fuel economy, 5) versatility though features.

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On the downside, noise isolation and acceleration aren’t high points.

Nonetheless it makes for a sporty alternative to other small SUVs and lives up to my expectations from the brand. It’s not just a very easy to drive small SUV, but also a good small “car”. For me, it ranks as being one of the top 3 offerings in its class.

Be sure to give the CX-5 a test drive if you’re in the market for a small SUV. It will be sure to put a bit of practical zoom in your garage!

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Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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