My first thoughts when I took delivery of Mazda’s CX-5 where rather stark; Can a mainstream SUV really be fun to drive? Mazda thinks so, and so it tore up the rule book and started from scratch with their CX-5. The crossover-SUV was the one to debut Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology when it launched back in 2013, a combination of weight reduction, efficiency improvement and design rethinking that, the company promises us, makes it a credible alternative to today’s hybrid and all-electric cars, despite using petrol or diesel powerplants. But can they really back up their word? We borrowed the 2.2 litre twin-turbo diesel model to find out.
First impressions count
Distinctive is one way to describe the CX-5. Mazda’s traditional beak-lip grill has been enlarged until it’s a gaping jaws at the snub-front of the SUV, making for a car that’s certainly noticeable in your rear-view mirror. Sharp hood creases dip down over hawkish headlamps, joined by muscular front arches that cut under driver and front-passenger windows that have an almost teardrop cut to them, bowing down to the wing mirrors.
In profile, that arch line is joined by a more relaxed crease down from the rear of the car, leaving the CX-5 with a high waistline. Combined with the dip of the roof at the back, it gives the Mazda a pinched tail that helps disguise some of its heft. Plastic cladding, around the lower front chin, underneath the doors and at the rear of the CX-5, is kept to a happy minimum, this we love, though there’s still enough to probably save you too much damage from a kerb ding or road hump. Darker colors, like navy blue or grey, disguise it even more, but lighter options such as the metallic blue and red, show off the Mazda “Soul of Motion Design”. White, which we had for review, contrasts everything perfectly well.
Those that follow Mazda and its offerings might have noticed its interior quality hasn’t been up to scratch in previous models, and so there’s been a distinct and deliberate attempt to improve the CX-5’s accommodation. Thankfully Mazda hasn’t taken the easier route out and simply thrown a bag of gadgets at the same old plastics: instead, you get a decent haul of kit as standard together with dash materials that hold up to more than a casual prod.
For starters, the driver’s seat is adjustable in all the usual ways, including for height and lumbar support, and the Sport model make all of those adjustments motorized. Dual-zone air conditioning is standard, automatically turning on if you twiddle the chunky passenger-side dial to a different setting from the driver’s, and with a straightforward “Dual” button to link them back up again.
Front and rear windows are electric, as you’d expect, and the Sport models have three-stage heated front seats too, which warm up quickly. The rear-view mirror is auto-dimming, with an easily-stabbed manual override button, and there’s cruise control – though not the clever speed-adapting system in Mercedes and other cars – as standard too.
There are several advantages inside our test (akera) model, not least the leather seats – available in black or stone, with contrasting stitching – replacing the standard sturdy black cloth trim, the reversing camera complete with useful on-screen guidance lines, and keyless entry. You also get an audio system upgrade, with the standard CD/radio six-speaker setup replaced with a Bose audio system with nine speakers. Both have a 5.8-inch LCD display which, if you opt for the “Nav” variants of this spec model, throws in a touchscreen and TomTom guidance.
Bluetooth connectivity for pairing your phone is included, and we found it far simpler to hook up a phone and sync across our phonebook than with some rival systems. After that, we could dial a number either by tapping it out on the touchscreen (or choosing a contact), scrolling to it with the Multimedia Commander dial down by the parking brake, or hitting the voice-command button on the steering wheel and attempting to navigate by speech. The latter proved a mixed bag, and we had more consistent results using the touchscreen. Audio quality proved surprisingly good, filling the cabin even when driving at speed, and without undue distortion. Shout out to Bose. I am a perfectionist when it comes to sound, the Bose kit definitely made me smile.
Our test car also came fitted with the optional safety pack, an upgrade that includes rear vehicle monitoring and a lane departure warning system, the latter of which sounds an intrusive and unmissable noise when its lasers spot you’ve wandered over the road lines on either side of the car. It demands decent quality markings, however: on some of the more poorly maintained roads, where the lines were faded, the LDWS system didn’t spot our offhand lane discipline.
Moving back through the car, the rear seats lose visibility because of waistline, though headroom is good. That could be an issue if you have younger children who want to see where the CX-5 is going, as they could well struggle to see out of the rear windows. The seats themselves support a 40/20/40 split, folding down flat to extend what’s already a capacious rear load space into a frankly vast one. This came handy over the weekend as one was assisting with funeral arrangements back home.
Mazda has a choice of three engines for the CX-5, kicking off with a 2-litre and 2.5 litre petrol mustering 162 horsepower and then one twin turbocharged 2.2-liter diesel. Both petrol’s can be paired with either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a new SKACTIV-Drive automatic that pulls in elements of step-auto, CVT and dual-clutch systems for smoother, more responsive shifting and better fuel economy; they also have a choice of 2-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Petrol cars only get the 2-wheel drive.
There’s a huge bag of safety and performance technology that’s thrown in too, including ABS, emergency brake assist, traction control, hill-hold assist and a tire pressure monitoring system, but the three stand-outs are Mazda’s freshly-branded SKYACTIV, Smart City Brake Support, and i-Stop.
Smart City Brake Support uses the front-mounted lasers to track vehicles and obstacles in front and, as long as you’re traveling at under 30/kmh, automatically stop the CX-5 if you’re about to crash into the back of it. We tested it out and, though there’s quite a jolt as the ABS-based system kicks in, it worked just as Mazda promised.
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i-Stop, meanwhile, automatically shuts down the engine when you draw to a complete holt, such as when waiting for lights or in stop/start traffic. It’s not a new concept, but Mazda implements it particularly well: it’s so smooth as to be almost unnoticeable in action, and the diesel engine is sufficiently quiet at low speeds that it’s only really the lack of vibration that gives away the transition. Restart is also incredibly slick, with less engine rattle and shake than we’ve found in a Mercedes E-Class. That’s no small achievement.
In contrast, the 2.2 diesel has 420Nm of torque, and with peak power coming in at around 2,200 rpm. That means less shifting – though Mazda’s foreshortened gearbox is indeed a treat – and, coupled with a chassis that does an excellent job of clinging to twisting roads without wallowing or bouncing, it makes for a far more usable car.
Kicking off at R319 500 for the 2.0L FWD petrol the CX-5 is well priced against its SUV rivals. With five seats versus the six or seven of some alternatives, it’s perhaps not the choice for larger families, but its advantage is a more car-like driving experience that is arguably the closest the mainstream SUV has come to pairing an elevated driving position and decent road skills.
So far so good, but the CX-5 promised to be the first of many new models with the SKYACTIV ethos back then and its definitely living up to that.
**Review model is the 2.2L DE Akera AWD Automatic MY15 – R465,400 provided by Mazda SA.