Driver's Seat: Mazda's crossover to get excited about

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 SkyActiv is spirited on turns, offers ample space for riders and cargo, is fun to drive, and gets 31 miles per gallon in real-world testing.
The 2013 Mazda CX-5 SkyActiv is spirited on turns, offers ample space for riders and cargo, is fun to drive, and gets 31 miles per gallon in real-world testing.
Posted: June 28, 2012

2013 Mazda CX-5 Sports FWD SkyActiv: Now here's a small crossover to get excited about.

Price: $21,490 as tested (no options).

Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com cited it for "very good fuel economy" and "agile driving dynamics." Consumer Reports praised the handling as "Taut and agile."

Marketer's pitch: "It's like science fiction, without the fiction."

Reality: It's not all Mazda says, but I'm with the folks from Edmunds and CR.

The SkyActiv's the limit: Mazda's much-ballyhooed SkyActiv technology is designed to boost gas mileage without sacrificing performance.

I first tried it in the Mazda3 and it squeezed 36 m.p.g. out of a little car that used to get in the high 20s with the previous engine. A nice improvement, but the car itself was not a hands-down winner, to me. In fact, as an owner of two aging Mazdas, I've been disappointed by Mazda's recent offerings.

But it took a CX-5 to make me believe again. Here's a small crossover with plenty of room for four people and their stuff, and a slight squeeze for five, that got 31 m.p.g. in my real-world test.

Zoom-zoom: From the start, the CX-5 just feels so much more spirited on turns than the others I've driven in its category — and that list includes the Honda CR-V, the Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, and Volkswagen Tiguan. The steering is tight, and the CX-5 feels like a sporty car on windy roads.

Of course, it is still a tall vehicle, so there's some lean when things get really twisty. But for its category, it's sharp.

Power: The SkyActiv engine does sacrifice a bit in acceleration, though.

The 2.0-liter four makes just 155 horsepower, which compares to 185 in a CR-V or 176 in a Sportage. The CR-V weighs 200 pounds more than a CX-5, but the Sportage's weight is almost identical.

Thus, the acceleration difference is noticeable, and it's probably part of the reason the tester came with a six-speed manual transmission. Mazda knows that if it doesn't give guys like me something to do, we'll be bored by the CX-5's lethargy.

Shifty: To that end, I'd encourage anyone who has ever considered trying a stick to give the CX-5 a shot. Its clutch is extremely forgiving — I never stalled it once, and I'm usually good for at least one dippy driver move like that during a test week — and it offers strong rollback resistance when pulling out on hills.

And as a service to you, dear reader, I headed straight for a June Friday afternoon traffic jam on the Schuylkill and never got clutch leg or shifter's elbow.

Up to the task? Driving the hills west of New York City, I found the CX-5 had plenty of climbing ability. Sixth gear is even OK for somewhat leisurely passing. But it's best left for the limited-access highways.

Friends and stuff: We put full-size Sturgis Kids 1.0 and 2.0 and 11-year-old 4.0 in the back and there was adequate room across for people to move. Legroom was generous and the seat comfortable. The console kind of gets in the way of the vict — er, passenger — in the middle of the backseat.

The luggage space behind the rear seat is large enough for a giant box or several bags. At 34 cubic feet, cargo capacity is much more than the Sportage (26) and close to the CR-V (37).

And the seat splits 60-40 to allow a mix of passengers and cargo.

A big CD holder in the armrest features a smaller tray, as well, and both CDs and the tray fit in together.

Comfy: The base seats offer support and some cushioning, but the black cloth picks up everything except money.

Tuning in: The base model stereo offered good-quality sound. No screen meant Mazda's less-than-appealing red-letter readout, but it's functional.

Keeping cool: The simple heater controls feature three dials, and operate smoothly. I'll take these over temperature settings and buttons almost any day.

"Thar she blows!" I long for a temperature gauge. The CX-5 features just a blue light when it's cold and (one hopes) a red light when the engine is too hot. But I find I can learn a lot about a car by gauging changes in its operating temperature.

Fuel economy: I observed 31.5 miles per gallon during the week I tested it, which included an even mix of highway and stop-and-go driving, and even some tall hills in North Jersey.

Where it's built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it's built: Mazda's vehicles run the gamut in J.D. Power and Associates surveys; its other crossovers tend to be middling in reliability. The CX-5 has not yet been rated.

In the end: Fun to drive, gets good mileage, and isn't a giant compromise? Sounds like a winner.

Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

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