What You Learn Driving the 2017 Mazda CX-5

The CX-5 is the antidote to today's dull compact crossovers.

Chris Perkins

We generally don't pay too much attention to compact crossovers. That's why, when you come here, you're more likely to find an exhaustive report on every 911 variant Porsche cranks out than a review of the Nissan Rogue. So, why are we talking about the Mazda CX-5?

It's simple—Mazda builds cars for people like us, and we figure that some of our readers have kids and partners who told them that, no, you can't use your BMW E30 project car as a family hauler. And as much as we adore the Miata, Mazda sold around nine times as many CX-5s in the US last month.

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The CX-5 isn't quite "all-new" for 2017, but it gets new bodywork and a new interior. Both are excellent. The CX-5 draws on the second generation of Mazda's "Kodo" design language. It looks far better than any of its direct competitors, and I even think it could stand proud next to a Mercedes-Benz GLC or a Jaguar F-Pace. It looks expensive, while most of its competitors look bland (Nissan Rogue), or fussy (Honda CR-V).

Chris Perkins

Inside, there’s a distinct luxury-car vibe, with top-notch styling and great build quality. Some of the materials used throughout reflect the CX-5's $24,000 base price, but nothing feels cheap. I'm especially fond of the two-tier dashboard, with its pointed vents and woodgrain trim. White leather is always a risky choice, say, if you like to wear jeans, but that combined with the sunroof gave the well-optioned CX-5 I drove an open, airy feeling.

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A lot of the switchgear—like the gear selector, infotainment system, and climate control knobs—are carried over from other, older Mazdas, but it's all high-quality stuff. Mazda is also one of the few Japanese automakers that has actually figured out how to make an easy-to-use infotainment system. It's similar to BMW's iDrive our Audi's MMI, controlled either by the touchscreen on the dash or a dial in the center console.

Considering our loaded CX-5 Grand Touring AWD tester offers all this goodness for $34,000, it starts to make some luxury SUVs feel pointless. What does an Audi Q3 offer that the CX-5 doesn't?

On the move, the CX-5 continues to shine. You get the sense that Mazda engineers spent a lot of time making sure all of the CX-5's controls were tuned just right. The CX-5 now gets Mazda's G-Vectoring control, which briefly retards spark timing ever-so-slightly to increase the vertical load on the front tires during turn-in. We've got a big technical explainer on exactly how this works—it's complex, but fascinating.

Can you feel it working? It's impossible to turn the system off to see how the car reacts without it but overall, the CX-5 offers excellent handling for a crossover. The steering is sharp and nicely weighted, making this 3655-lb all-wheel drive CX-5 feel lighter and smaller than it is in reality. Where other crossovers roll through corners and feel ponderous, the CX-5 stays admirably upright. This nice handling doesn't come to the detriment of ride quality, either. It's supple enough without feeling floaty.

Chris Perkins
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One big complaint leveled at the previous CX-5 was its excessive amount of road noise, and while I haven't driven an older model, the newer one was nice and quiet even in loud, angry New York. That makes it all the easier to enjoy the Grand Touring's nice Bose audio system.

The US-market CX-5 is only available with one engine at the moment—a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder making 187 hp—though Mazda has a diesel planned too. It's basically the same engine that's optional in the Mazda 3 and standard in the 6, and just like those cars, it's paired to a six-speed automatic.

If you've driven other modern turbocharged four-cylinder engines, you might miss the low end grunt when driving the CX-5, but you'll appreciate its responsiveness. The transmission isn't exceptional in any particular way, but hey, at least it's not a CVT.

With this powertrain, the CX-5 is quick enough, but no one is going to be wowed by its straight-line performance, as if that matters in this segment. The extra torque and fuel economy of the upcoming diesel might be worth waiting for, however, especially if you're looking for something practical to replace your VW Golf TDI wagon.

Chris Perkins
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The CX-5 is hardly the most exciting vehicle on sale, and certainly not even the most fun-to-drive Mazda on sale, but there's something heartening about it. Compact crossovers don't need to drive all that well in order to sell in big numbers, but Mazda still sees the value in making the CX-5 as sharp as can possibly be.

This is a car built to satisfy corporate bean counters by nature of its existence, but one engineered by true enthusiasts.

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