Mazda's CX-5 sets a new standard in the market for Crossovers and compact 4x4s, reckons Jonathan Crouch. For proof, check out the entry-level 2.0-litre 163PS 2WD model
Ten Second Review
With the CX-5, Mazda has suddenly transformed the compact 4x4 class from a deafening cacophony of competing attractions to something incredibly straightforward. If you want to buy the best car in the class, look no further. It's got the most space, it's the most economical, it drives the best, it's packed with safety gear, the petrol and diesel engines are both brilliant and the pricing and equipment levels are spot-on. Yes, even in the least expensive 2.0-litre petrol front-driven model we're looking at here. What more do you need me to say? It makes my job easy.
Even the most ardent Mazda fan would have to admit that the company has hardly taken the market by storm when it comes to compact 4x4s. Whereas most of Mazda's rivals leapt in with both feet and scored some huge profits, the Japanese company has been a bit more circumspect. Its tie-in with Ford resulted in the Tribute, Mazda's take on the Ford Maverick. This was sold between 2001 and 2004 and it wasn't a bad car but its chances in this country were crippled from the outset by Mazda's decision not to offer it with a diesel engine. Since 2004, Mazda has spent eight years watching Nissan and Toyota clean up with cars like the X-Trail and the RAV4. Its response has been a very long time coming so it's entirely understandable if you expect something rather special. It would need to be as well. In that time, the market has exploded and new rivals like Hyundai's ix35, the Ford Kuga, the Kia Sportage and the Volkswagen Tiguan have all muscled in. Premium Germans brands like Audi and BMW have also started to get a decent share of the action with their Q3 and X1 models respectively. So where does that leave Mazda? The advantage of sitting back and biding its time is learning from the mistakes of others. So many of these compact 4x4s have failed because they got the pricing wrong, weren't good enough to drive or focused on off-road ability at the expense of on-road economy and emissions. The CX-5 might just come up late on the rails and take its rivals by surprise. Let's take a closer look at the wheel of the entry-level 163PS 2.0-litre front-driven petrol model.
The entry-level petrol CX-5 weighs just 1,350kg and that is remarkable. An entry-level Honda CR-V tips the scales at over 1,600kg which means that you could sit two average sized adults and a pair of kids in a Mazda CX-5 and it would still weigh less than an empty CR-V. You'll feel that the CX-5 is light on its feet as soon as you pull away. Mazda has worked hard at reducing friction in the drivetrain and the gearbox feels light, the pedals perfectly spaced and the steering responsive. Like so many other things about the CX-5, the driving experience doesn't grab you by the short and curlies at first. It's only when you spend some time with it that you appreciate what it can do. I can't think of any other compact 4x4 that covers ground quite so effortlessly. The entry-level petrol variant we're looking at here (only offered with 2WD) is possibly even a sweeter drive than the diesels, thanks to its lightweight engine. That'll take just 9.2 seconds to get to 62mph and run onto a top speed of 124mph, so you won't feel as if you've scrimped and landed yourself with a duffer of an engine. The steering is one of the better electromechanical installations, offering accuracy albeit without bags of feel. It only takes a couple of miles to get used to it and then you can place the car through a corner with real precision. I must admit I laughed to myself when Mazda claimed they were trying to bring the spirit of the MX-5 sports car into the CX-5 but although you can still feel that this is a fairly big and tall vehicle, I can see what they mean.
Design and Build
All of the CX-5's excellent driving dynamics will be wasted if Mazda can't get bums on seats for test drives and getting people through the door of dealerships usually falls to styling. That's where I think the CX-5 could be up against it. It's certainly not a bad-looking car. It's just a little generic in its basic profile and the bluff front end is a thing of no great beauty. It's hard to knock the ergonomics though. This is a spectacularly easy vehicle to operate and in making complex operations seem very simple, Mazda's designers should be applauded. There's no seven seat option, but there's space in the back for proper-sized people with generous head and legroom and rear space is aided by the fact that back seat occupants can get their feet under the front seats. Up front the driver is faced by a hooded binnacle which houses three circular dials, ahead of a chunky three-spoke multi-function leather-trimmed wheel. The 5.8inch infotainment touch screen is fairly easy to figure out, with the menus able to be accessed by the Mazda Multimedia Commander located between the front seats. The luggage bay is a huge, measuring 503 litres, extending to 1,620 litres when you drop the Karakuri rear seats. This is a three-piece independent 40:20:40 remote controlled fold-down system. The tonneau cover that opens and closes together with the tailgate is another very neat touch. The seats fold virtually flat and although there is a little intrusion from the rear suspension, it's still a hefty load bay.
Market and Model
If you've stuck with us so far, you'll have realised that we rate the CX-5 pretty highly. All that good work can be undone in a minute if Mazda gets a bit excitable with the pricing but with prices opening at just over £21,000 for the 2.0-litre petrol car it doesn't seem as if they've got too far ahead of themselves. Yes, something like a Hyundai ix35 or a Kia Sportage can be had for less but then you get less. The petrol-powered front-wheel drive Kia fronts up with just 135PS compared to the 165PS engine in the Mazda. Compared to a Honda CR-V, the Mazda would appear to offer more power, a better drive and more equipment for less money so it looks like the value proposition is right where it needs to be. So prices are competitive, but is Mazda getting an attention-grabbing sticker price by paring back the amount of equipment in the cars? Not in the least. Even the entry-level models seem pretty well stuffed. Count on 17-inch alloy wheels, dusk-sensing lights & rain-sensing wipers, dual zone climate controlled air con, Bluetooth, cruise control, ipod connection, USB and AUX in for the stereo, a leather trimmed steering wheel with audio controls and this 5.8 inch touch screen. Smart City Brake Support helps a driver to avoid a low speed (up to 19mph) frontal collision by activating the brakes and reducing the engine output, if the system detects a frontal collision is likely.
Cost of Ownership
Forecasted residual values for the petrol engine range actually lead the way against rival brands. For example, the entry-level 2.0-litre petrol engine has a forecasted residual value of 39 percent, beating competitors including the Honda CR-V, Nissan Qashqai, Volkswagen Tiguan and Toyota RAV4. That's impressive enough. When you pause to consider that it equals the Audi Q3 and, thanks to its superior economy figures, puts a lick on the Audi when it comes to full three-year cost of ownership figures, you begin to realise quite what a step forward this SKYACTIV technology is. The petrol engine can produce the sort of economy that wouldn't shame a mid-sized diesel SUV, delivering 47.1mpg and CO2 emissions of just 139g/km. Even when we drove it in quite a spirited fashion, we still saw figures of over 40mpg. The usual advice to go for the diesel if you do anything over average annual mileages doesn't hold true here. The petrol CX-5 scores so well in terms of fuel economy that we'd recommend it to anyone.
It's rare that we get to test a vehicle like the Mazda CX-5. Most cars are good in one or two areas and leave a bit to be desired in others. The CX-5 is excellent right across the board, with the possible exception of its rather identikit styling. Were you to drive past a Mazda dealer, I'd doubt the CX-5's bluff front end would scream BUY ME at you. If you were armed with the knowledge that this was the most cost-effective car in its class, that drove better than all of its key rivals, offered better value, strong equipment levels and more interior space than any of them, you'd be crazy to do anything other than search for a dotted line to sign on. The CX-5 really is that good. It's a car we can recommend without reservation, petrol or diesel, manual or automatic, front-wheel drive or with all-wheel traction. Whether British buyers will twig that this is now the clear best in class will remain to be seen. Mazda has, in the past, been afflicted by that curiously British trait of being reticent to toot its own trumpet. The CX-5 is far from the obvious choice in a market stuffed with big budget rivals and premium badges. To buy one is to acknowledge a quietly excellent product. Next time you're shopping for a compact 4x4, you know what to do.