The all-new 2013 Mazda CX-5 may be our favorite crossover, wrapping remarkable fuel economy and some of the most fun driving we've experienced in any utility vehicle into a single, fairly affordable package. It should prove a strong competitor in the second tier of crossovers, following the perennial best-sellers: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4.
While the compact crossover CX-5 technically replaces the discontinued Mazda Tribute--an old-style Ford Escape with some unique trim and sheetmetal--that car never sold in volume. The CX-5 also likely replaces the older, heavier, and less fuel efficient CX-7, though for now both vehicles coexist in the Mazda lineup.
On a road test that covered 260 miles, split about two-thirds highway and one-third local, a 2013 Mazda CX-5 we tested earlier this year returned a remarkable 33.1 miles per gallon. The version we drove, with automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, carries an EPA combined rating of 28 mpg, but Mazda had said it thought real-world drivers would beat the ratings--and we did.
The efficiency comes from a completely new 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder direct-injected, matched to either a six-speed manual gearbox (unusual for a crossover, but limited to front-wheel drive) or a six-speed automatic transmission that comes with two or four driven wheels. Every component of the CX-5 has been redesigned to work together for maximum efficiency; Mazda calls this its SkyActiv technology.
There's also likely a SkyActiv diesel version of the CX-5 coming next year or the year after. If Mazda's new diesel four-cylinder engine is proportionally as efficient as its gasoline engine is, we wonder if that might not be the first 40-mpg compact crossover on the market.
The CX-5 is the first full demonstration of SkyActiv, designed from the ground up around the new powertrain--and proportioned to accommodate a lengthy tangle of carefully shaped and tuned exhaust headers. That's one of several contributors to its efficiency, though the same engine fitted to a revised compact Mazda3 doesn't have the same exhaust because there's not enough room in the engine compartment--indicating how carefully Mazda had to plan.
If there's a drawback to the CX-5, it's that the fuel efficiency comes at the expense of some performance. In limited circumstances--those curved uphill freeway on-ramps, for instance--you may find your foot to the floor and your mind wishing there were another 30 or 40 horses under the hood. But if there were, we wouldn't have gotten that 33-mpg figure, would we?
We also found the transmission to be heavily biased toward low engine speeds, meaning that to get spirited performance, we had to accelerate hard enough that the transmission had to downshift not one but two gears.
The lines of the CX-5 include large wheel arches, an upswept window line, and a new trapezoidal grille shape that will be the future face of Mazda (the rictus-like "grin" of previous generations is being phased out). Inside, Mazda's new compact crossover is simple and restrained, with silver accents setting off a basic black design. It has few flourishes and no swoopy lines in dashboard, just a businesslike array of gauges and switches. In the high-level leather seats, however, there's sporty red piping to add a dash of color--but you'll pay extra for that.
Behind the wheel, though, drivers will enjoy every single minute of their time in the CX-5. The front seats are well-bolstered and comfortable, and the fun begins when the "Start" button is pressed. Mazda was sufficiently confident in the CX-5's roadholding and handling, in fact, that it invited journalists to take the CX-5 around the notorious Laguna Seca racetrack during the press launch. The crossover acquitted itself admirably, with neutral, predictable handling, not that much body roll, and remarkably good electric power steering that offers all the feedback you need to drive the car energetically.
The CX-5 is easy to place moving forward, with visible corners and slim windshield pillars. But it gets a demerit for lousy visibility out the rear quarters. That upswept window line leaves a huge blind spot that makes parallel parking an exercise in guesswork and prayer. The rear-vision camera helps, but it's an option only on higher trim levels.
There's room front and rear for 6-foot adults, and the load bay has a long, flat load floor with a clever folding rear seat, split 40/20/40. The cabin is mostly quiet, though when pressed hard, the engine revs--and with it comes some performance noise. We think that's a small price to pay for the everyday driving fun of such a well-handling crossover. Buyers who need crossover room and capability should be able to move up from a hot hatch or sport sedan without feeling like they've sold their soul for baby-seat space and cargo capacity.
Three trim levels are offered on the CX-5: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. Including delivery, the base Sport starts at $21,490, with the highest-level version of the Grand Touring--including navigation and other options--going just north of $30,000. That's very competitive pricing for an all-new vehicle that makes your daily driving more fun and delivers some of the highest fuel efficiency of any compact crossover, even including the late lamented Ford Escape Hybrid.
We think that's a pretty compelling package. Well done, Mazda.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Mazda CX-5 range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.
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