Building a car is a big, expensive process, one that's tough even for industry giants like GM and Toyota. The CX-5 is a completely new vehicle on an all-new platform with a technologically advanced approach to efficiency, and it's not built by one of the industry giants. In fact, Mazda is one of the smallest non-premium automakers in existence.
Competing in the crowded crossover segment, Mazda had to hit a home run with the CX-5, and they did. The sporty, lifted wagon runs with the best of the competition — the new Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the new Ford Escape — gets great gas mileage for its class, and is remarkably fun to drive. Best of all, packed to the gills with options, it's right around $32k. You can also buy a bare-bones version for a little under $22k.
The ideal car? Well, not quite: The interior feels dated and lacks connectivity, and the four-cylinder engine feels sluggish when accelerating at higher speeds. But we appreciate that Mazda added some agility to an already appealing mix of utility and value. If acceleration is appealing to you, we recommend waiting for the 2014 model which promises more horsepower.
The loaded CX-5 we drove featured a navigation system that Mazda sourced from TomTom. It's simple, works well, and won't frustrate drivers. Mazda was smart to partner with an existing navigation powerhouse, rather than wasting precious resources on a proprietary system that undoubtedly wouldn't work as well. There aren't yet any ways to stream music or run apps off a smartphone, but Mazda says Pandora is coming for 2014.
We're glad Mazda saved their pennies, since it allowed the company to spend more research and development dollars developing a new lightweight vehicle structure and efficient engine and transmission combination that it calls Skyactiv. The CX-5 is made out of high-strength steel that increases rigidity (good for handling, good for safety) while decreasing weight (bad for handling, bad for fuel economy.) The engine has an extremely high compression ratio — meaning that it extracts every last bit of power from the fuel it uses.
As for the automatic transmission, it's quite an interesting design that combines two different kinds of transmission designs for smooth operation at lower speeds and accurate shifting when pressed for power. You can also get the CX-5 with a stick shift, although only on the front-wheel drive base Sport model.
Few automakers invite the public to view their design process as openly as Mazda, going so far as to create and name an overarching design language every few years. The CX-5 is the first vehicle to feature the "Kodo" design language, with the new Mazda6 following close behind. Mazda says that Kodo demonstrates speed, tension and allure. We say it's certainly striking, and it helps set the Mazda apart from more conservative designs from the competition.
Inside, materials and fit are a bit of a disappointment. The CX-5's dash and seats are certainly better than any Mazda we've tested in the past, and the center stack looks great, but elsewhere there are large gaps and shiny black plastic just waiting for a scratch. It looks dated — especially in a car with such a modern exterior.
One extremely cool feature: the rear seats fold down individually, including the middle seat. If you're carrying lumber or skis, you can still seat four passengers with a pass-through in the center of the rear seat.
The CX-5 is unique in that feels lighter than it is, which makes it quite fun to drive. That's rare in a crossover, a vehicle type that's inherently heavier and higher off the ground than a sedan or coupe. Lightheadedness may persist when you glance at the gas gauge, as we got nearly 26 mpg in a combination of highway and city driving. On long trips, 28 mpg was no problem.
There's only one tradeoff: The four-cylinder Skyactiv engine only makes 155 horsepower. That's enough for around-town driving, but merging onto a highway or passing seems to take ages. Floor it above 35 mph and the CX-5 just won't move — which is a jarring experience in a vehicle that feels so nimble at lower speeds.
Take heed, however: Mazda's coming out with a more powerful Skyactiv engine for the 2014 model. If you held back on buying a CX-5 because you found it too sluggish, just you wait.
The Mazda CX-5 is really a one-of-a-kind: a sporty crossover from a little automaker with a chassis and powertrain unlike any other vehicle out there. That it's selling quite well in a crowded segment is a testament to Mazda, and the company's ability to increase fuel economy and add technology without making a car interminably boring. It's not perfect, but the price is certainly right. If you're shopping for a crossover, we recommend you give it a test drive.
There are three trim levels available on the CX-5: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. For 2013, the main difference is that Sport can come with a stick shift and can't have navigation added, while Touring and Grand Touring pile on the options.
For 2014, the "Sport" nomenclature seems a bit misguided, as it comes with the puny 155 hp engine we found so sluggish in the 2013. The Touring and Grand Touring get bumped up to the more powerful 185 hp mill.
All trims come with the choice of all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. In the Sport trim, a manual transmission can be paired only with the front-wheel drive option. For 2014, Grand Touring and Touring trims get a more powerful four-cylinder engine, while Sport continues with the 155 hp four-cylinder engine.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the 2013 and 2014 CX-5 a Top Safety Pick, and it got a top "Good" score on all tests. IIHS did not test the CX-5 in the new small overlap front test, which simulates hitting a tree or pole.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the CX-5 four out of five stars overall. Both the AWD and FWD models get four stars for frontal collision, five stars for a side impact and four stars for rollover avoidance.
Equipped with all-wheel drive and an automatic transmission, like our tester, the EPA rates the 2013 CX-5 at 25 city, 31 highway — in line with what we witnessed in our tests. A front-wheel drive Sport model with a stick shift is rated at 26 city, 35 highway, while a front-wheel drive automatic is rated at 26 city, 32 highway.
Meet the tester
Former Editor in Chief, Reviewed Home@itskeithbarry
Keith was the Editor in Chief of Reviewed's appliance and automotive sites. His work has appeared in publications such as Wired, Car & Driver, and CityLab.
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