2013 Mazda CX-5: First Drive Of All-New Compact Crossover

November 20, 2011

The Los Angeles Auto Show, which opened this weekend, was definitely the show of compact crossovers.

Both the 2012 Honda CR-V and the 2013 Ford Escape were unveiled to the public there, but we think a third crossover deserves equal billing despite being from a smaller carmaker.

The 2013 Mazda CX-5, which will go on sale in mid-February, is a handsome, spacious entry in the heart of the compact crossover field, and it provides handling that's second to none and fuel economy that promises to be at or near the top of the class.

Its one drawback is that it feels underpowered at the points where you need lots of torque: entering or merging with traffic safely, passing on a two-lane road, and so forth.

That factor aside, we quite liked the CX-5 on a day-long drive last week through the hills of southern California. Windy, hilly roads show off the CX-5's handling to best advantage, though it's perfectly tractable and useful around town as well.

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 is an all-new entry into the crossover category, and although Mazda won't say it outright, it probably replaces the larger but no more spacious CX-7.

2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover on test drive, Southern California, Nov 2011

2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover on test drive, Southern California, Nov 2011

The design, Mazda says, is the first application of its new "Kodo: Soul of Motion" philosophy, and we like it better than the rictus-grin front styling of previous Mazda models. Its vertical five-point grille and long hood give it sporty proportions, as does a raked rear liftgate with a long roof spoiler complete with downward ailerons at the edges.

The doors open wide, and the seats are comfortable and spacious enough to seat four six-foot adults on long journeys. The seating height is lower than the tallest SUVs, halfway between that of a car and a truck, which for us was the perfect height--and adds to the sporty feel of the CX-5.

Mazda's new 2013 crossover has only a single engine, a 155-hp 2.0-liter four that features a 13:1 combustion ratio, the highest of any U.S. gasoline engine. It can be paired with a six-speed manual that has nice short Miata-like throws and will account for about 1 in every 10 CX-5s, the company says.

2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover on test drive, Southern California, Nov 2011

2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover on test drive, Southern California, Nov 2011

The rest of the models will be fitted with a six-speed automatic, which comes with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. It shifts quickly and has a manual mode that will hold the engine in the selected gear until you shift again, unlike those from other makers, which revert to automatic selection after a set period of time.

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 corners flat and every facet of the driving experience--acceleration, cornering, braking--is linear and predictable, to the point where there's almost nothing to comment on--it all works as it should, with no remarkable features except how well it functions.

But there's that power shortage, most noticeable in passing or merging. It's more rewarding to drive an underpowered car fast than an overpowered one, and so the CX-5 is rewarding, but we wonder whether family buyers and the stereotypical soccer moms won't balk at having to rev the engine well past 3000 rpm to get what oomph there is.

2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover on test drive, Southern California, Nov 2011

2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover on test drive, Southern California, Nov 2011

The pre-production prototype CX-5s we drove didn't have completely finished interiors, but the materials we did see were good quality. The dashboard styling and controls are blissfully straightforward and functional, unlike the increasingly overwrought styling of some competitors.

And Mazda has clearly aimed to make this the driver's crossover, with a bottom-hinged accelerator pedal--to reduce foot fatigue--and excellent visibility to the front and sides. The rear-quarter visibility, however--like many crossovers--is dreadful, making the optional reversing camera almost a necessity.

The load bay is wide and the rear seats can be folded down with releases on the side panels--assuming you've already removed the rear-seat headrests. Those fit neatly into depressions in the floor sides, though, a nice touch we wish more makers would provide.

The 2013 CX-5 will come in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring trim levels, mirroring other Mazda vehicles. Pricing hasn't yet been released.

Mazda provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person drive report.

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