Whereas the majority of CX-5 models sold in Europe come with a diesel engine, in America, only the petrol is offered, and at launch, the Mazda was criticised for the fact that its 155 bhp 2 litre SkyActiv unit, the sole choice, was not really powerful enough for the car. That was addressed when a more potent 184 bhp 2.5 litre option was added to the range for the second year of sales, and it was one of these which was under the bonnet of my test car. So endowed, the CX-5 goes well. Coupled with a 6 speed automatic gearbox, there is decent acceleration in every gear and from any speed. I took the Mazda up on the canyon roads north of Los Angeles, and had no problems in maintaining momentum on the gradients which whilst never truly steep (that’s not how they do hills in America!) are long and often quite testing for a car. If I am going to find fault, it is that the car is a bit noisier than ideal, with engine noise being the most obvious culprit. but it is far from bad, and is indeed something you could easily live with. It is not the raw performance that is the strongest suit for this vehicle, though so much as the overall driving experience, which is, in my opinion, class leading, beating even the much-rated Ford Escape (Kuga).
Although in the Sport trim of the test car, you get a plastic steering wheel as your interface, this proves little hardship, as the steering feel and indeed the handling of this car are excellent. It was a lot of fun to hustle around the swooping bends of the canyon roads where I took the Mazda to get some photos (and to test it out on somewhere more interesting than the freeways down in the valley). There is a lovely fluidity to the steering which you won’t find on many of its rivals, with their over-assisted and vague set-ups, there is no body roll to speak of, and the CX-5 simply goes where you point it, feeling like it is glued to the road. Perhaps this should not be a surprise, given that its maker also produces the MX5 sports car, but even so it was a delight for this to prove to be a fun machine to pilot. There is no penalty with the ride, either. With 225/65 R17 wheels between the rest of the Mazda and the ground, it did an excellent job at smoothing out all but the very worst of the bumps, ridges and craters that you encounter on the streets of this area. When you need to slow down or stop, there are nicely judged brakes with a very progressive feel to the pedal. An electronic parking brake is fitted, with a button on the centre console to operate it. There were no issues with visibility. Despite the rather upswept third side window, even judging things over your shoulder was easy, and the near vertical rear end make assessing the back of the car very straightforward. There was a good field of view from the door mirrors. I only had the CX-5 for one day, and part of that was spent at the Auto Show, which means that I covered a shorter test distance than usual in a one day rental in this area. Even so I notched up 120 miles, and needed to put 4.2 US gallons in the tank to refill it before returning, which computes to 28.5 mpg US or 34.1 mpg Imperial, Some rivals would doubtless do better, but whether you would want to drive them is another matter!
The other criticism at launch was of the interior. Again, this was addressed with the 2014 mid-cycle update as part of a process which has seen Mazda improve the quality of not just the materials but also the design of the insides of all its products to take them from feeling a bit on the thrifty side to being class competitive. Certainly there were no real issues with what I saw, though my impression was that it did all look a bit “old-fashioned”. Key contributor to that assessment was the radio unit which incorporates an old-school digital display screen on the top of the central part of the dash, with its simple LED displays of the selected audio channel, the digital clock and not a lot else. Mounting it high up makes it quite accessible, though the buttons to operate were in some cases a bit fiddly, and it was rather basic, lacking XM Satellite radio, let alone navigation. That aside, there was much to approve, though. The mouldings are precise and fit together well. There is a piano black gloss inlay that stretches across the width of the dash which provides some colour and texture contrast to the main dash moulding itself. The dials, as you tend to find in Mazda products are in quite deeply dished individual recesses under a single cowl. A central speedometer is flanked to the left by the rev counter and to the right by the digital display area which includes a bar chart style fuel gauge. All are clear and easy to read. The steering wheel boss has repeaters for some audio unit functions and cruise control. Column stalks operate indicators and wipers, with the lights also incorporated into the left hand stalk. The central part of the dash, below that audio unit and a pair of air vents has three rotary controls for the air conditioning, and there are a couple of other stand-alone switches, but this is a nice and simple design, in complete contrast to the jumbly mess you get in the rival Ford product.
In entry level trim, which was the case for the test car, you get cloth seats and manual adjustment for everything. The column goes in/out as well as up/down, and it was easy to get a good driving position. You do not really notice the extra height of the CX-5 when getting in and out, but you certainly feel that bit higher up once underway, looking down slightly at some of the regular saloons in the freeway traffic queues. I did not spend any lengthy time in the seat, as most of the test mileage was up in the hills, hopping in and out, taking photos, but it certainly seemed comfortable enough. There is plenty of space in the rear, too, with ample headroom thanks to the SUV styling, and even when the front seats are set well back, sufficient leg room for adult legs. three people will fit across the width of the CX-5, though there would not be that much space to spare. No central armrest features in this trim level, which is a slightly surprising omission.
The boot is a good size, though there are rivals that offer more room. The rear wheel arches intrude a certain amount, but this does mean that the area behind them has been used for a welled recess for odds and ends, which would doubtless prove useful and there is a lot more space for these bits and pieces under the boot floor around the space saver spare wheel. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split 40/20/40 and simply drop down onto the rear seat cushions, creating a much longer load bay, though it is not completely flat, sloping upwards towards the front of the car. Inside the cabin. there is a good-sized glovebox, a cubby area in front of the gearlever, another one under the central armrest and a lidded area above the driver’s knee, as well as bins on all four doors which are shaped to house a bottle. There are map pockets on the back of the front seats.
Although there is no badging to tell you, Mazda sell the CX-5 in three trim levels in America: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. The Sport is the entry level model, and comes as standard still with the 2 litre engine. Add the optional automatic gearbox, though, and the engine gets upgraded to the 2.5 litre unit. The same is true if you opt for All Wheel Drive. The CX-5’s base model includes 17″ alloys, a rear spoiler, a four-speaker AM/FM stereo with an auxiliary input and a USB port as standard, wheel mounted controls, along with air conditioning, cruise control, keyless starting, an anti-theft system, auto headlights, cloth seats, split folding rear seats. Upgrade to a Touring, for just under a further $2000, and as well as all the features in the base Sport model, you get standard automatic transmission, a leather wrapped steering wheel, an upgraded audio unit with a 5.8″ touch screen display, HD radio, six-speaker stereo, Bluetooth, a power-adjustable driver’s seat and blind spot monitoring, Costing a further $3000, the Grand Touring trim adds dual-zone automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, heated mirrors, a power moonroof, a nine-speaker Bose Premium Sound System with XM Satellite radio, heated front seats, and leather upholstery. The available navigation system was seen as a bit clunky and old-fashioned even when the CX-5 was new, and is definitely not a class-leading capability now, so it is perhaps not a surprise that this was upgraded for the 2016 model year cars.
I was impressed by the CX-5. Whilst there may be individual points where one of its many rivals beats it – larger boot, or availability of more equipment features, for instance – as an overall package, this struck me – as indeed it did the testers of one of the major US motoring magazines in the same month as I tested the CX-5 – as the clear class leader. The UK press may rave about the Ford Kuga, but if I compare this CX-5 with the Ford Escape I drove earlier in the year, there is no question in my mind that I would prefer the Mazda – from its physical appearance (easily the best looking car in its class to my eyes), the way it drives and even for the interior that looks like it was designed for simplicity not over-embellished in a mis-guided belief this will make it “premium”. As to the other rivals I have sampled, they are simply nowhere in comparison. Make it a bit quieter, and add some of the latest technology features which it is widely believed buyers actually want, and it would be pretty well perfect. And that, looking at the new second generation CX-5 on the Mazda stand at the LA Show, would seem to be exactly what Mazda has done. The latest car looks just as good as this one, taking styling cues from the larger CX-9, and the interior looks like it has had something of an upgrade, so as long as the driving experience has not been ruined – and Mazda’s track record suggest that this will be very far from the case – then the CX-5 should remain the class leader for some time to come. Why don’t the buyers realise this and purchase it in the quantity that seem to like the insipid Toyota RAV4 and ugly Honda CR-V? I wish I knew.