2017 Mazda CX-5 first drive: Better, but is that good?

March 13, 2017

Look closely to spot the “all new” in the all new Mazda CX-5.  

Perhaps you’ve noticed the small differences in the bumpers, or the recurved sheet metal. Maybe it was the little differences in the interior, or the quieter ride?

Attention to that kind of detail might make you a watchmaker—or it could make you a shopper in a hotly contested category that doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon.

The 2017 Mazda CX-5 had to change because the automaker can’t afford to miss out on a “Field of Dreams”-esque gold rush—automakers need only build them, buyers figure out the rest.

The 2017 Mazda CX-5 didn’t have to change because, frankly, there was nothing wrong with the last one.

Never mind the little changes this year; the 2017 Mazda CX-5 has a big challenge.

MORE: 7 things to know about the 2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

Inside addition

The interior of the new 2017 Mazda CX-5 is memorable, in part, because last year’s edition had fallen behind the times.

That’s not shade thrown at the last-generation CX-5—most compact crossovers have interiors that blend together like episodes of “Friends”—Mazda’s last effort was only par for the course.

This year’s interior is cribbed heavily from the CX-9. Softer interior materials and better plastics drape the cabin, which are noticeable. Obsessive compulsive items like natural-height arm rests, aligned seams, and an asymmetrical steering wheel aren’t things you’re likely to notice at first, but they’re part of a longer, more nuanced approach play.

Engineers played hide and seek with nasty noises coming from the engine, road, and suspension. As a result, the CX-5 is a smoother customer this year with added seams in the doors, acoustic glass (in Touring trim or higher), and more carpet in the cargo area. A quick sound check revealed an 84 db reading on our gauges on pencil-straight asphalt at a steady state 65 mph. That’s calm enough to be quieter than the last model, but just a few clicks from most luxury cars.

2017 Mazda CX-5 First Drive

2017 Mazda CX-5 First Drive

A digital gauge that displays fuel economy and trip information buried into the instrument cluster remedies our biggest gripe from last year’s car. Our second-biggest gripe has remained, but could change soon.

A 7.0-inch touchscreen planted on top of the dash is standard, but still retains Mazda’s simplistic and frustrating operating system—for how much longer is unclear. Mazda has hinted that it may add Apple’s CarPlay soon, and deliver to early CX-5 buyers an upgrade to switch on the system, but details haven’t yet been announced.

Regardless of how you listen to music, or navigate, the 2017 Mazda CX-5 watches the road better this year.

DON'T MISS: What's new for 2017: Mazda

An available forward-facing camera is new for this year that, combined with adaptive cruise control, relieves drivers of the burden of stopping and going in heavy traffic. Forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking is only standard on the highest trim of the CX-5, Grand Touring, something that competitors are offering on base models already. According to Mazda, roughly half of CX-5 buyers opt for the top trim anyway, so we’ll call it a wash?

Should drivers happen to glance at the road from time to time, a newly available head-up display can relay information such as speed, blind-spot monitor information, cruise control and following distance, current speed limit, navigation information, and lane guidance. That sounds like a lot, because it is. We can’t profess to need all the information projected on to the windshield, but at least the blind-spot indicators are helpful.

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

Power complex

Officials from Mazda say that a version of the CX-5 with a diesel engine is parked outside the EPA awaiting certification as we speak. It has a future in the U.S., but not until after this fall and it will join the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain as an answer to a trivia question in 2034.

That 2.2-liter turbodiesel did a do-si-do with last year’s base engine, a 2.0-liter inline-4 that will be offered north and south of the border, but not in the U.S.

The only available engine in the CX-5 when it goes on sale later this month will be a 2.5-liter inline-4 largely carried over from last year. Its 187 horsepower is nearly identical to last year’s, although how it arrives at that number is slightly different. Pistons were shaved, cylinders were massaged, and response time has dropped, but the bottom line is: same power, slightly lower fuel-economy numbers.

Those mileage numbers will undoubtedly rise with a diesel engine, but although final pricing for that model hasn’t yet been announced, it’s almost certainly sixes—the oil-burner will cost more up front.

Dropping in a version of the 2.0-liter turbo-4 found in the CX-9 may seem like a foregone conclusion for the new CX-5, but we’ll have to wait longer. 

A 6-speed automatic is standard across all models, and don’t bother asking for a manual transmission this year—no one asked for one last year anyway, less than 1 in 20 buyers bought one.

Even without turbocharging, the 2.5-liter is still peppy and bright, solid rack mounts on the steering wheel relay pertinent information through the steering wheel compared to a relatively lifeless RAV4 or others in the class.

Mazda’s new G-Vectoring control that cuts torque to shift weight forward during a corner cuts down on head-toss inside the cabin, while virtually operating in silence in the background.

But Mazda is preaching to the choir: among gripes with the last CX-5, how it drove wasn’t one of them.

Five alive

Behind the wheel of the 2017 version, the crossover reveals itself as more than competent for its class. There are myriad tests to affirm the Mazda’s supremacy among drivability for compact crossovers, although few matter.

The 2017 Mazda CX-5 is incrementally sharper: it’s quicker to respond, better to drive, more fun to toss around, and sharper in every way. If tasked to drive a crossover every day around Southern California and in and out of the surprisingly lush hills south of San Diego, I’d deport myself to the moon if I didn’t pick the CX-5.

Rather, compact crossovers are meant for the daily slog between school and home, the store and work. Measuring lateral grip in most of these cars would be less helpful than setting a pizza in concrete.

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5

2017 Mazda CX-5 First Drive

2017 Mazda CX-5 First Drive

For practical purposes too, the CX-5 is better: a flatter loading floor with power liftgate, reclining rear seats, premium audio, and a quieter cabin make for a better crossover.

Tall 6-footers can sit behind other 6-footers, and its interior is just as accommodating as the CX-9 from which it was cast.

But the new CX-5 faces the same problems as the last.

As a small automaker, Mazda struggles to keep pace with evolving tech from bigger firms—namely infotainment and self-driving features.

And the competency of the prior generation casts a long shadow on the new car; the 2017 version is better in nearly every way—albeit in very small increments.

Mazda provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

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