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Car reviews - Mazda - CX-5 - 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
A roomy, rorty and refined urban SUV that combines Japanese quality and reliability with classy dynamics and class-leading efficiency
Room for improvement
Fine chassis deserves more oomph infuriating GPS dreary dashboard design


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27 Feb 2012

LET’S not mince words – arguably the most eagerly awaited family car release of 2012, the fresh-out-of-the-box CX-5, has the fortunes of its now-independent parent sitting squarely on its sinewy soldiers.

Mazda totally needs this vehicle to be a smash-hit worldwide in order to help pay for the massive new-model renewal program it has undertaken since Ford sold most of its shares in the company.

Anything less may spell disaster for Mazda, particularly as the CX-5’s basic recipe will be reproduced in the next-generation ‘6’ and ‘3’, among others. No pressure there on the little SUV, then!

But rather than a repelling whiff of desperation, this is a Mazda that – even at first acquaintance – underlines succinctly why the brand’s vehicles are so popular and sought-after with private buyers in Australia who actually have to part with their own cash.

Every contemporary Mazda till now, from the ‘2’ to CX-9 via the loveable MX-5, oozes value yet does not look or feel cheap, their styling is contemporary without seeming crass, the driving experience is always above average without compromising comfort and their dependability, reliability and resale make them shrewd purchases.

The CX-5’s new-fangled SkyActiv technology, which has seen squillions spent on an all-new chassis, drivetrain and body, has delivered a new and different type of Mazda, but is it a better type of Mazda?

After precisely 504km of driving the volume-selling Maxx Sport petrol automatic in front-drive guise, from Northern Victoria to the heart of peak-hour Canberra city centre via some of the more exciting roads (and tracks) Australia has to offer, the initial prognosis for this car restoring Mazda back to good health is positive.

Rightly, the Japanese company says the CX-5 hits the sweet spot for styling, size and proportion.

The pert rear, taut lines and lack of flub elevate it above the Subaru Forester and Nissan X-Trail to something approaching an Audi Q3 competitor visually. We think the Mazda looks better than similarly sized SUVs from BMW, Mercedes, Renault, Peugeot and Honda.

Some people say attractive design is the battle half won right there.

Inside, the case isn’t so airtight, despite palpably higher-quality materials than what we’ve seen from this maker previously. The issue is a lack of ‘surprise and delight’ – it’s just a bit Toyota-like in formula, a case of function over form.

Perhaps it is the sober black-on-black trim, but there is a lack of verve and flair that even the previous-generation Mazda3 had in spades. Piano-black gloss horizontal trim aside, there is nothing distinctive in the Maxx Sport’s cabin architecture. Even the instruments – comprehensive and concise as they are – have lost their sporty sheen.

Sure, there were no squeaks and rattles, the seats felt excellent even after five continuous hours of driving, the driving position is superb, every switch and control (barring the infuriating Tom-Tom GPS system that defies logic) works as intended, and there is nothing more anybody could want in terms of specification.

Plus, passenger space is more than adequate front and back, with the deep side windows allowing an airy feeling and good all-round vision, while the rear cargo blind that lifts up with the tailgate and the ease of folding the rear seats to increase the luggage area are ingenious. Smaller families will have little to complain about at all.

But the CX-5’s cabin drabness – in its plasticky layout quite reminiscent of a base model E90 BMW 3 Series – is deflating after its stylish and distinctive CX-7 predecessor. Compared to what the Koreans have come up with lately, it is downright unadventurous.

Yet the Mazda has more than a few aces up its sleeve to help keep you awake.

The direct-injection SkyActiv-G petrol engine is a sweet little thing that will rev to 6700rpm at the drop of a hat it isn’t a belting off-the-block sprinter, which might have some boy racers crying out for more performance, but the power delivery is strong and linear, with the 2.0-litre delivering all the way up to the redline without sounding strained or coarse.

There is a can-do attitude that makes this seemingly small powerplant so appealing – and with an enjoyable exhaust note to boot. Even with the tacho well into the red zone, fuel consumption wasn’t that bad, with the trip computer on our 1100km example boasting an 8.7L/100km average.

The six-speed auto is a big step forward from the old five-speeder and works in unison with the engine to be in the right gear at the right time. Changes are smooth, quick and unassuming, with a quick response available if you decide to use the shifter manually.

If the CX-5 feels like it needs extra oomph, that’s probably because the particularly fine SkyActiv chassis that lurks underneath seems like it can always handle more.

Quite frankly, the Mazda’s handling is quite revelatory for a compact SUV, with none of the lardiness, lurchiness or inertia prevalent in some similar types of vehicles at this price point.

The faithful steering turns into corners cleanly and crisply the tyres just grip and grip for a balanced and controlled attitude. With a bit of pedal play you can even loosen the rear a little for a bit of mild rear-steering at speed, but overall the chassis feels safe and planted, and is a delight to punt around fast or slow.

A blast across loose gravel revealed the stability and traction controls intervened subtly, with the car always feeling like it is on your side.

That we never really noticed the ride quality, even on rugged and rutted country roads, is an indication that Mazda’s engineers have got it right.

If we were to be a bit picky about the dynamics, the steering could use a bit more feedback – there’s a hint of remoteness – but otherwise the CX-5 just shines as a cracking little driver’s car-cum-SUV, bridging the gap between this sort of vehicle and regular small cars – particularly at the price.

If it wasn’t for the obvious high ride height and (well-positioned) oversized door-mounted rear-view mirrors, we might have wondered whether we were actually driving an SUV.

Mazda hasn’t fully licked its road noise issues, though. Some coarse road surfaces do make themselves heard, but overall the CX-5 is sufficiently refined, especially compared to its older drone-prone stablemates.

We cannot wait to sample the upcoming AWD Diesel and elusive base-model Maxx manual that program manager Hideaki Tanaka rates as his favourites for completely different reasons. He was involved with the original MX-5, the RX-8 and helped bring the CX-9 to market, so we’re expecting great things.

Mature, refined and evolved, the CX-5 is a cheerful, practical, spacious and enjoyable compact SUV, and yet another reminder as to why Mazdas are so popular in Australia.

Snoozy dash design apart, we can find practically nothing to complain about, especially after a spirited drive across some of our nation’s best roads.

Maybe a bit more power, a tad more steering feedback, a sassier interior presentation, and slightly less road noise would be nice, but none rate as deal-breakers.

Mincing SUV clone? Not likely. As it stands, the CX-5 Maxx Sport 2.0 SkyActiv-G with SkyActiv-Drive looks, feels and even sounds like the company’s long hoped-for knight in shining armour.

Mazda has good reason to feel confident that its saviour has finally arrived.

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