A favourite in the class for both efficiency and reliability Mazda has traditionally been quite good at focusing on driving dynamics, from their diminutive Mazda2 up through the mainstream Mazda6, and the always-good Miata roadster.
Dating all the way back to 1979, Mazda’s corporate structure involved the Ford Motor Company in varying capacities. It started with Ford buying increasingly larger stakes in the Japanese company and ended in the late-2000s. Most would agree that it was a successful partnership – Mazda has always been smaller than the large Japanese players, and pairing up with Ford gave them the resources they needed to let their engineers breathe a little bit. Many of their mainstream cars were influenced by Ford: powertrains, chassis engineering, even things like brake calipers shared similar part numbers. It was no surprise that the former Mazda Tribute was very similar to the Ford Escape, save for the front and rear fascias, and some smaller details (suspension tuning, for example). The Tribute sold reasonably well alongside its Ford cousin, but did not fit in with Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” fun-to-drive philosophy. Conveniently, the Tribute went end-of-life as Ford was shedding its ownership in Mazda. This allowed the engineers to build something completely in-house, injecting some much needed fun into the crowded compact crossover SUV (CUV) segment. I tested a us a 2014 Mazda CX-5 GT AWD, painted in a bright Soul Red.
The 2014 Mazda CX-5 GT AWD is Mazda’s version of the me-too compact CUVs that nearly all the larger automakers offer. Some of them focus on value, some focus on functionality, some focus on technology. Mazda has traditionally been quite good at focusing on driving dynamics, from their diminutive Mazda2 up through the mainstream Mazda6, and the always-good Miata roadster. The CX-5 starts at a relatively affordable $22,995 for the stripped-out base GX FWD model. Checking various option boxes quickly sees the price rise towards the $30,000 mark. Our tester was the loaded GT AWD model, with an as-tested subtotal of $37,240. For that kind of money, you get the larger 2.5L four-cylinder motor, all-wheel-drive, six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, satellite navigation, sunroof, blind spot monitoring notification, HID headlights (with swivel feature) as well as fog lights, larger 19” aluminum wheels, upgraded Bose audio, leather seating surfaces (heated for front occupants), among other small items. In short: very well equipped.
A lot of thought, design, and engineering have gone into the new 2014 Mazda CX-5 GT AWD (and all new Mazdas, from 2011 onward) through a program called SKYACTIV. This is a set of technologies that increase overall efficiency while maintaining the usual Mazda fun-to-drive factor. Starting with the up-level 2.5L four-cylinder SKYACTIV motor: it features a high compression ratio, direct injection, high-flow exhaust manifold and reduced friction, all coming together to help improve both power output and efficiency. In the case of our GT AWD tester, the motor produces a respectable 184hp @ 5700rpm, and 185lb-ft @ 4000rpm. While not class leading, it’s in-line with what the competition offers. The next portion of the SKYACTIV equation is the transmission. An interesting design, because it combines a traditional torque converter (featured in “old-school” automatic transmissions) and a modern dual-clutch configuration. The torque converter is only in operation from 0-8km/h to ensure a smooth launch, and then the dual-clutch portion of the transmission takes over to improve efficiency and performance. Many dual-clutch automatic transmissions can be clunky at low speeds, so this is a creative solution. Unfortunately, if you desire a manual transmission, you are limited to the smaller 2.0L SKYACTIV four-cylinder motor and front-wheel-drive. The last part of what makes up SKYACTIV is the chassis design. Better, high-strength steel is strategically used to simultaneously improve rigidity and decrease weight. Weight is the enemy of all automotive engineers. When you can reduce weight, everything gets better. Performance, efficiency, environmental impact, cost to manufacture, the list goes on. With less weight, the suspension isn’t as stressed and can be more effective in both ride comfort and performance tuning.
A stylish vehicle matters to a lot of people, and I think Mazda did a good job with the CX-5. The overhangs are short, wheel arches are very pronounced, and the front/rear lighting configuration is not too overstyled. The 19” aluminum wheels featured on the GT model do a great job of filling up the wheelwells and look great. The interior, again, is not overstyled with a simple layout, enough buttons for intuitive use, and a generous helping of soft-touch plastics everywhere. The seats are attractive and surprisingly well-bolstered for a CUV. While it is not quite as spacious as the Forester, space in all dimensions was more than adequate. The Forester, however, can provide an available panoramic sunroof – much larger than what the CX-5 offers.
Living with the 2014 Mazda CX-5 GT AWD for a week, I was able to note down the following: the electric lumber support adjustment makes a huge difference during long trips. Only the driver’s window has an auto up/down function. Also, the navigation (provided by TomTom), while nicely integrated into the centre console, is quite slow to operate in practice. The keyless entry is not quite as graceful as with other automakers. Instead of detecting your fingertips on the door handle, you must push a button (while having the key fob on your person) on the door handle itself in order for anything to happen. A small detail, but a detail nonetheless. Mazda also lines the wheelwells with a hard cloth material. This is likely for soundproofing purposes, but in our harsh Canadian winters, I can see these fender liners being a good home for corrosive salt water and snow. Long-term durability remains to be seen. The soundproofing, however, doesn’t keep out the clatter of the direct-injection system while the motor is still cold and idling high. Lastly, Toronto has been in the midst of a heatwave – more than three days in a row where temperatures average about 30°C. I feel the CX-5’s air conditioning system to be barely adequate at cooling the interior. There are no vents dedicated to the rear passengers, so you need to run the temperature fairly low before everybody can get comfortable.
As with many modern cars and trucks, visibility can be an issue. The sills are fairly high and continue climbing as you go towards the back of the CX-5. Overall rearward visibility isn’t as bad as the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport I tested in the winter, but nowhere near as good as the new Subaru Forester. The side-effect of reduced visibility through glass is that the side mirrors need to be bigger – actually no – massive! Commuting downtown constantly had me worried if they would get taken off by an errant cyclist. Thankfully, they can be folded in to stay out of the way when you’re parked.
On the road, the 2014 Mazda CX-5 GT AWD impresses with good manners and surprises with excellent dynamics. Acceleration is not breathtaking, but the trick SKYACTIV transmission does a good job keeping the motor in its powerband, accompanied with quick, crisp shifts. Steering feel and weighting is good – probably the best in the class. On the way home from a short road-trip, a loose tractor-trailer tire carcass was kicked up by the car up ahead. Luckily, I spotted it in time and was able to swerve out of the way to avoid it. The good steering response meant the difference between eating a jagged piece of hard rubber and keeping the CX-5 clean. I don’t think this kind of athletic response would have been possible in competitor CUVs.
What I like about the CX-5 is that there is no fancy Eco mode or annoying stop-start systems to provide marketers and PR-types with ammo to wow the public with. Cars should be efficient all the time – you shouldn’t need to have to press a big green button to get the most out a litre of fuel. Most of the big automakers have fallen for this trap as it helps them achieve slightly higher fuel efficiency ratings at the expense of driving dynamics. After all, it is driving habits that affect fuel efficiency the most, not a dull throttle response and lethargic transmission shift points. In my experiences, most of the time, “Eco” modes are mostly gimmicks that are tried once and forgotten about. Rated at 8.5L/100km in the city and 6.6L/100km on the highway, the CX-5 is competitive with the rest of them. I averaged about 9.0L/100km in mostly city commuting.
At the end of the week, I came away from testing the CX-5 in a positive light. For driving enthusiasts such as ourselves, the CX-5 satisfies the segment that cares a bit more than just the A-to-B commute. The CX-5 does things that one does not expect a CUV to do well: be fun to drive. Mazda has stayed true to the zoom-zoom philosophy, and in the case of the CX-5, mixed it with their SKYACTIV technology to make for a pretty well-rounded CUV that both mom and dad can enjoy.
2014 Mazda CX-5 GT Gallery