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2014 Mazda CX-5: First Drive

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Nearly a year ago, we took a first drive of the Mazda CX-5 and pronounced it the best-handling crossover yet. In the year since, with several new entries in the compact class, the CX-5's halo holds—even if you expand upward to luxury makes and outward to bigger, brute-force performance utes. If steering and handling matter most, you'd have trouble doing any better in such a practical package.

There's only one thing. When you get the current 2013 Mazda CX-5 with the automatic transmission—as most people will—it can feel a little anemic with a full load.

Rest assured; Mazda has already erased that complaint this year—and rather dramatically widened the appeal of this vehicle, we think—with the introduction of a 2.5-liter engine that's now included in all but the base Sport versions of the 2014 Mazda CX-5 (for which we've already posted this full review).

More accessible torque, and more of it

With 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, the new direct-injected 2.5-liter engine makes nearly 30 more horsepower and 35 more lb-ft than the 2.0-liter—and it's an all-new engine, building on the same clean-slate SkyActiv engineering initiative that governed the development of the entire vehicle, focused around getting the most efficiency gains, every step of the way, without giving up the fun-to-drive qualities.

Although the new engine still doesn't make its peak torque until 3,250 rpm, and it seems to love being in the 3,000-to-5,000-rpm range—without much coarseness or noise—the CX-5 is a relatively light (for a crossover) 3,375 pounds, so it can leap away from stoplights quite quickly when you stomp your right foot down. It's not scorching, but it would be plenty to take off with the family loaded in, up a grade, quite rapidly. Expect the new engine to clock in the low 8-second range to 60 mph, versus about 9.3 seconds for the Sport AWD version with the 2.0-liter engine.

Just as in the Mazda6 we drove this past week, the all-new six-speed automatic transmission plays a major role in making the most of the new engine's smooth, willing character. It launches with little slip, then makes a near-instant 1-2 shift about as quickly as a dual-clutch unit. There's a manual gate for the shifter, and its response when you ask for a downshift is quick. The only complaint here is that under full throttle, even in the manual gate, it still forces you to the lowest possible gear available at that speed. Otherwise, this transmission does everything right, downshifting right away, whenever revs are needed for more pep, but keeps them down whenever it can for better fuel-efficiency.

Bigger engine, without the bigger thirst

And gas mileage is still great with the new 2.5-liter. Mazda has made gear ratios a little taller than in versions with the 2.0-liter, and it's only lost about 1 mpg altogether in the translation—with EPA numbers working out to 25 mpg city, 32 highway with front-wheel drive or 24/30 mpg with all-wheel drive.

At the same time, there are still plenty of things about the CX-5 that we'll readily agree don't place it at the head of its class. Its cargo floor feels higher up than it should be, and the rear seatbacks don't fold completely flat, leaving you with more of a hump and angled-up area than in many other models. Although as a tradeoff you get decent all-season tires (17-inch Yokohamas for Sport and Touring, 19-inch Toyos for the Grand Touring we drove)—not low-rolling-resistance ones or run-flats) and with a real (compact) spare—so you buck some of the issues with road noise and general road harshness you'll find in some other models.


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