2014 Mazda CX-5: First Drive

February 5, 2013
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.

That said, the CX-5 has a quite firm ride. We wouldn't call it harsh, but it can get busy, or jiggly, on choppy two-laners. That all pays off, of course, as soon as the road turns twisty. The suspension loads up more like that of a sport wagon than that of a crossover—and there's no sudden unloading out of corners or between transitions as in some other taller vehicles. This is a vehicle that, surprisingly, likes the rhythm and flow or snaking backroads and, when you go in a little too hot, is way more forgiving than you'd expect. And its front seats are better than what you get elsewhere in this class—with just enough side bolstering to hold you in place and add comfort.

Swooning over steering

While the suspension is nicely tuned, the steering we'll call pretty much perfect—and by far the best in this class. The ratio is quick; it's well-weighted; and overall, it has a precise feel that's better even than many other compact and mid-size sedans—and more road feel, my co-driver and I agreed, than the Mazda6 we'd driven the day before.

We had a chance to almost do a back-to-back, with the loaded 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring model that we spent the most time with totaling just over $30k and roughly compared to the 2013 Ford Escape Titanium EcoBoost that we'd driven just before hopping a plane to go drive the new CX-5. Despite being nearly identically dimensionally, the CX-5 feels far more light and nimble—and at 3,732 pounds for the Escape, the Ford weighs more than a couple hundred pounds more.

The model lineup remains quite simple, even with the second engine. You can still get a manual transmission—definitely our preference if you go with the smaller engine, and the way to get the CX-5's top 35-mpg highway rating—but only with front-wheel drive, in the base Sport model. CX-5 Sport models all come with the 2.0-liter engine, while Touring and Grand Touring models step up to the 2.5-liter engine.

We've found models with front-wheel drive to be capable for most uses and perhaps a bit more fun to drive; the all-wheel drive system in the CX-5 isn't a performance system, so having it mainly uses a little more gasoline and adds a bit of weight—and more snowy-driveway capability if you need it, of course.

Touring models get the Blind Spot Monitor system, upgraded audio, fog lamps, rear cupholders (and an armrest), a rearview camera, steering-wheel controls, and upgraded upholstery, while top-of-the-line CX-5 Grand Touring models get leather upholstery, nine-speaker Bose audio, dual-zone climate control, a power driver seat, front heated seats, and Sirius satellite radio. Options are limited to a Bluetooth Audio Package on the Sport; a Bose sound and moonroof package on the Touring, and Technology packages on the Touring and Grand Touring—as well as a few other a la carte options such as remote start and rear parking sensors.

Unimpressive infotainment, otherwise a steal

Available on the Sport and included in both of the other models is a new touch screen system, including Bluetooth, HD Radio, voice command, text-message audio delivery, and Pandora compatibility). Essentially the same as the system in the 2014 Mazda 6—minus the Command Controller—it's adequate but far from ideal. As we noted in that model it can be surprisingly sluggish, and the menu structure is odd.

Also new is Smart City Brake Support—newly wrapped into the Tech package—will automatically brake the vehicle for hazards at speeds ranging from 4 to 19 mph.

We still think that the 2014 Mazda CX-5 remains a screaming good deal, for those who must be practical but want something fun to drive, in base Sport form, with the manual transmission. But for those who want an automatic and the whole family along, we won't hesitate to recommend the new CX-5 2.5-liter models.

And from all of Mazda's engineering effort, the biggest payoff might just be in real-world mileage. Over a couple of hours and 75 miles or so of blasting down backroads and suburban boulevards between Texas hill country and Austin, we managed to average more than 26 mpg overall—definitely better than we've seen in real-world driving in any rival models.

While other automakers are pushing the message of turbocharging and smaller engines, here's Mazda, offering two new naturally aspirated engines that offer a comfortable, linear driving experience that we dare say is easier to live with from day to day—all while getting near-best-in-class numbers with the stronger engine.

That, the price, and the driving experience are especially worth taking note of. While the CX-5 isn't the roomiest or most refined in this class, it delivers a precise, predictable, at-ease driving experience you usually only find in lower, leaner vehicles—leading to what Mazda's grille now only surreptitiously suggests: a smile on your face.

See our full review of the 2014 Mazda CX-5 for more information, including pictures, specs, pricing, and more firsthand observations.

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