By Nauman Farooq
A few months ago, I was at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which is one of the oldest, most renowned, and among the most dangerous race tracks on the planet. I was there because this was the place where Mazda choose to launch their new crossover, the CX-5.
Now why would a car company launch a crossover vehicle at a race track, even if it is the title sponsor of the facility? Simple. It’s because Mazda believes their new vehicle (which replaces the Tribute from their line-up) is one fine handling vehicle.
Mazda takes their “Zoom-Zoom” slogan very seriously and likes to inject fun-to-drive characteristics in each and every vehicle they produce.
While most people would agree, that the equivalent Mazda is more fun to drive than cars it usually competes against, their drawback however, has been fuel-economy.
To address the fuel-consumption issue, Mazda has spent a lot of time and money in recent years, developing a new range of engines, gearboxes and platforms and are calling their new philosophy Skyactiv (there is no “e” at the end).
We first got a taste of this Skyactiv technology in the 2012 Mazda3 GS. Though that vehicle got the new engine and gearbox, it still was based on an old platform, so hence the full-effect of the Skyactiv technology wasn’t applied.
The CX-5 is the first Mazda to go on sale that has the full Skyactiv package, which begins with the new stiffer, yet lighter platform. Mazda engineers worked hard in shaving off weight while retaining its safety performance. The theory here is, a lighter car not only burns less fuel, but also handles better. Does it work? Keep reading.
On the engine front, you get the same 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine you’ll find under the hood of that Mazda3 GS I spoke of earlier, but now thanks to its ingenious four-into-two-into-one exhaust system (a system too big to put into the old Mazda3 platform), it produces a little bit more power. Peak power output is 155-hp and 150-lb/ft of torque, which to be honest is not enough.
That power can either be fed to just the front-wheels, or to all four wheels in the optional all-wheel drive package (worth an extra $2000). You also get to pick from either the six-speed manual gearbox or the six-speed automatic with Sportshift ($1200 extra).
Having driven both the front-wheel drive version and the all-wheel drive version, with both the manual and automatic gearbox, I’d suggest that the all-wheel drive with the automatic gearbox is worth the extra money. Why? Because while the manual is a decent gearbox, the automatic is just much better suited to this vehicle. As for the argument of front-wheel drive versus all-wheel drive, what I can tell you is that when the vehicle is put into a obstacle avoidance test, the all-wheel drive vehicle is much better at sorting itself out.
However, for most people, the cheaper front-wheel drive version will make more sense and I won’t blame them. Plus, this new platform is very capable and the vehicle feels very much like a car, not like some small truck. Its handling is truly spectacular. No wonder we did most of the testing on a race track.
My only quibble with the handling is to do with the steering feel. Like many modern cars, Mazda has fitted the CX-5 with an electronic power-steering system. Mazda says this system is not only lighter than a conventional hydraulic-based system, but they can also better program the response from the steering. In reality, for the average person it might not make much difference, but for enthusiasts, the new system lacks feedback. However, the now ceased Mazda RX-8 also had electric power-steering, and that had plenty of feel, so more feel can be programmed if the engineers deem it necessary.
Since I’m quibbling, I would also like to point out that the engine does not feel very willing. It might have 155-hp, but in reality it feels like a lot less. The problem is a lack of grunt in the low-end of the rev range, and that makes the vehicle feel slow. Passing someone on a two-way road requires some planning and perfect execution, because this is no road rocket. Put your foot down in this and you’ll likely be saying “ho-hum” rather than “zoom-zoom.”
I’m not much of a fan of its interior either. When I tested the vehicle in California, I thought it was fine. But after spending a week in it recently, my views have changed. The quality of fit is fine, but the finish does look cheap. Also annoying is the placement of the air vents on the dash. If you want air to hit your face, it’ll come through the steering wheel, which freezes your hands and makes them ache. I could not drive this vehicle with my usual 9 and 3 position.You also would need to spend some time finding the right driving position. Usually I get along with Mazdas just fine, but not this one.
So, it is not a vehicle for me, but if you like what you’re seeing and reading, you can go to your Mazda dealer now and pick one up. Starting price for the GX model with front-wheel drive and the manual gearbox is just $22,995. However, the fully loaded GT model with all-wheel drive, automatic and all the gizmos is yours from $33,890. That really is a lot of money for something with just 155-hp. But if speed is not your thing, it might be alright for you. I just hope Mazda’s enthusiastic engineers are working on a Mazdaspeed version to keep the likes of me content.
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