Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mazda CX-5 - Part Crossover, Part Sports Car

The CX-5 on a racetrack--nice.
Mazda may be best known for its now iconic Miata two-seater sports car. Fashioned like a highly efficient and reliable version of the British sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s, it has sold almost a  million units since its debut nearly 25 years ago.

What Mazda hasn't done effectively is sell lots of its other cars, despite a good showing from its compact Mazda3. The company now is planning to increase sales in the U.S. through a thorough upgrade of its model line, and the CX-5, along with the all-new midsize Mazda6 sedan, are showing the way.

Why not use the Miata/MX-5 as at least a style inspiration for all your cars? The CX-5, as a compact crossover (SUV), could have gone the way of vehicles such as the popular Ford Escape, Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. All of these models are new in the last couple of years, as well, and boast up-to-the-minute looks with lots of curves and angles inside and out.

The CX-5, though, goes a more subtle way, using something called Kodo design. Mazda likes to create a theme and spread it over its cars,and Kodo, which is said to mean "Soul in Motion," uses gently rounded surfaces from which edges extend gradually. A sharp line on, say, the hood or the dashboard may resolve into a flat surface. This means that overall the shapes are relaxing and substantial, but have surface interest to keep them from being plain vanilla.

The CX-5 exists at all because Mazda is no longer part of Ford, for whom it contributed its Tribute small crossover, with a slight restyle, as Ford's Escape for years. The current Excape now is based on one of Ford of Europe's models, the Kuga, and is very different from the Mazda design. The CX-5 is, unlike many Japanese brand vehicles sold in the U.S., actually built in Japan.

In any case, this new CX-5 is a crossover with true sport and utility. Based on car, not a truck platform, it sits high, seats five, and will carry nearly 65 cubic feet of cargo with the second seat folded. It's long enough back there to fit an upright bass--without placing the long fingerboard between the front seats. The seats drop with the pull of a handy lever at the tailgate, so you don't have to go around to the side of the car when loading.

The sport part of the proposition is in how the car borrows Miata features such as the three-gauge instrument panel tucked behind the three-spoke steering wheel, the center stack and console, and the handsome, deeply bolstered seats.

You can order up two engines in the CX-5, depending on which level you order. The base car, called the Sport, has the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that the car debuted with for 2013. It puts out 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft. of torque, which is OK but hardly exciting.

With the early 2014 models such as my tester, you can step up to Touring or Grand Touring level and get the 2.5-liter four that also lives under the hood of the brand new Mazda6 sedan. This new engine offers 184 horsepower and 185 lb.-ft. of torque--a big boost--and makes the car feel much more responsive on the road. EPA ratings are 25 City, 32 Highway, 27 Combined. I got 26.2 mpg. Amazingly, the smaller 2.0-liter engine's numbers are nearly identical. The EPA Green Vehicle numbers are 7 for Greenhouse Gas and a mid-range 5 for Smog.

You can't choose your transmission with the upper models--a six-speed automatic is it--but the Sport offers a manual as well, more in the spirit of the Miata/MX-5. You can add all-wheel drive to any CX-5.

I would welcome the chance to sample the Sport with the manual sometime, as it would most approximate the driving experience of the much smaller Miata, which has a slightly more powerful 2.0-liter four under its rakish hood.

My Soul Red Grand Touring tester had the full boat treatment, which included dramatic 19-inch wheels on the outside and perforated leather seats inside, along with a full complement of entertainment and performance features. The audio system had the first Pandora tab I've seen. If my iPhone was set up with it, I would be able to use it in the car.

Mazda is proud if its SkyActiv technology. In brief, the name implies that the company took many steps to make its current engines, transmissions, bodies and chassis as efficient as possible while developing future technologies. This means everything from using more high-tensile steel in the body to a control module to make the automatic transmission more efficient. The CX-5 is the first Mazda to feature the full menu of SkyActive features. See for more details.

You can add the Tech Package to your CX-5 and get "necessities" such as a navigation system, HID headlamps, and the Smart City Brake Support system, which can stop the car for you in a low-speed emergency faster than you can yourself.

The crossover segment is highly competitive, so Mazda offers the three levels and a range of prices. You can opt for the Sport with front-wheel drive and a manual transmission for $21,990. My Grand Touring tester, with two-wheel drive and the Tech package, came to $30,640. Both prices include shipping.

The compact crossover is today's station wagon for small families, and Mazda is doing its utmost to field a very attractive player. If you like the beauty and refinement of the Kodo design, it could be ideal--and fun.

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