If there’s one segment that’s really hot in the auto industry right now, it’s the compact crossover sport utility. Some companies, like Honda, have been selling them for many years. Others have entered the segment more recently, like Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover.
Obviously there’s a breadth of choices and price ranges for those who want something useful but not too big. Honda’s CR-V tends to lead the way in the sales race, but considering that Land Rover dealers can’t keep the $40-60,000 Range Rover Evoque in stock, there’s obviously room for many interpretations.
For the 2013 model year, Mazda has just introduced its CX-5, which slots nicely into the category in terms of size, price, and features. It also has the mission to give Mazda customers something to move up into when their lifestyles dictate trading in their Mazda3 compact or MX-5 Miata sports car.
Of course, Mazda had a compact crossover before, the Tribute. But it was no secret that it was just a rebadged Ford Escape. With the Escape finally changing this year, and Mazda and Ford no longer partners, it’s time for a clean sheet design.
Design was important for Mazda with this one, as they didn’t want to build yet another slab-sided crossover to get lost in the crowd. The CX-5 gets beautifully sculpted panels, and about as much overall style as is possible with packaging and regulatory standards factored in.
But it’s underneath where the CX-5 really shines. The official first-and-foremost company line is that they’re proud of their initial ground-up use of their SkyActive system of engine, transmission, and other enhancements to help improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. The new CX-5 leads the segment with up to 35 miles per gallon on the highway, without a hybrid or other kind of electric motor system.
The 2.0 liter four cylinder puts out a respectable 155 horsepower while sipping fuel, which is acceptable but not mind-blowing. Honda’s CR-V, for example, puffs out 185, though it does weigh a bit more and loses a few mpg on both city and highway test cycles.
For my first experience with the CX-5, I was offered a Sport model after a fully-loaded Grand Touring version fell through. The best thing about the Sport is that you can get it with a 6-speed manual gearbox, in keeping with Mazda’s sporty “Zoom Zoom” theme. They’re committed to the enthusiast driver with manual offerings, even if they don’t actually sell that many compared to the automatics that most buyers want.
Special mention goes to the mechanism for the 6-speed. It actually does feel as though you’re shifting the gears of a finely-tuned sport sedan. Mazda’s Miata has been known for years as having one of the best shifting experiences on the market, and some of that heritage has rubbed off onto this mini family wagon.
I got to play around a bit with the CX-5 Sport on some twisty roads, and while it’s obviously no race car, it would embarrass a few so-called sport sedans in the turns. Sure it sits upright and high, but its relatively light curb weight (just over 3,200 lbs) and dialed-in suspension combine to make it the most fun vehicle in its class. (Price factored in of course. For lots more money, BMW’s X3 will do some fine corner dancing of its own.)
The Sport model is also the price leader in the CX-5 line, with a base sticker of $20,695, or $22,095 if you want the automatic, and $23,345 if you’d like to add all wheel drive. The next rung on the ladder is the Touring at $23,895 for front wheel drive or $25,145 with all wheel drive. The top of the line is the Grand Touring, and that will set you back just under $30,000 if you check all the boxes including all wheel drive and the Technology Package featuring a navigation system.
Mazda wasn’t the first to the party with its own small crossover, but it’s now here and ready to dance. And with the CX-5, they can dance through turns, and dance past the gas pump on the same jaunt.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave.