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Car reviews - Mazda - CX-5 - Grand Touring

Our Opinion

We like
Handsome styling, class-leading grip and steering feel, rear headroom and legroom, plenty of usable cargo space
Room for improvement
Engine torque, hesitant transmission, road noise, uncomfortable front seats, complicated sat-nav menu

28 Sep 2012

THEY may be enormously popular, but compact SUVs are by nature a compromise – rarely capable off the beaten path and seldom as dynamic as a well-sorted passenger car.

Still, buyers continue to flock to these hybrids of a traditional off-road car and regular hatchback, drawn to the commanding road view, ease of entry and egress and perceived greater cargo space.

Knowing this, you get the feeling that Mazda has played its cards right with the CX-5, a flawed car that nevertheless looks the business from the outside and takes care of business inside.

This feeling played out by the sales figures since launch in February, with Mazda consistently outstripping its initial monthly target of 1000 units (65 per cent of which are petrol as tested here) and spanking its key rivals in the process.

It may be helped by the fact that most of these key rivals – and here we are looking at the Nissan X-Trail, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 – are nearing the end of their current product cycle, but the CX-5 is visually a breath of fresh air.

The CX-5’s lines may not be as adventurous as a Kia Sportage, but the proportions (save the skinny tyres) are spot-on, and its contoured body lines expand on the trend set by its top-selling Mazda3 sibling.

Some say that’s half the battle won right there.

Step into the cabin and the showroom appeal remains evident. The rear seats are comfortable and roomy with plenty of space for tall bodies, and the rear cargo area is practical and usable.

It may be one step short of the brilliant Skoda Yeti, which has fully-detachable rear seats, but families will find the pert Mazda a friendly companion on first inspection.

Time behind the wheel revealed a deficiency with the front seats, however, after several testers were unable to get comfortable behind the wheel, complaining about the short and strangely-angled seat base and a lack of knee room for front passengers due to the curvature of the dash.

Some reviews have lambasted the instrument fascia for being bland, and yes, it doesn’t set new paragons for style and form, but it looks classy, everything is ergonomically placed and it generally feels well-made (although our hard-life press evaluation car developed a disconcerting rattle in the one of the windscreen pillars).

Being the flagship model, the Grand Touring has plenty in the way of standard equipment to justify its $43,290 starting price, such as heated leather seats, premium nine-speaker Bose sound system, keyless entry and start, Xenon headlights, a sunroof and a reversing camera.

There is also a satellite navigation system provided by TomTom which, for all its wide range of options and depth of integration, proved a deep source of frustration.

The system has a plethora of options and offers live updates and traffic alerts, but it has a counter-intuitive menu design that takes a deal of familiarity to navigate, and a voice control system that struggles to comprehend basic inputs.

At one point, we asked the system to stop navigating, and instead it directed us to the nearest tennis court!

Our test car also featured the $1900 Tech Package, which adds blind spot monitoring, automatic high beam and lane departure warning – the latter sending a thundering bass note through the speakers when it detects the car straying beyond the white lines.

The blind spot monitoring device, which beeps to prevent the driver merging into non-existent traffic gaps when changing lanes, is a good innovation and usually the province of more high-end vehicles.

Headroom and legroom in the rear is a strong point, outstripping larger rivals like the X-trail, with three big bodies able to be accommodated with comfort. The absence of rear air-conditioning vents is disappointing though.

Likewise, the cargo space in the rear is more than adequate, with a wide loading area and special levers in the back that flip the rear seats downward in the beat of an eyelid. We’ve seen this last feature before (on cars like the Renault Koleos), but its showroom appeal cannot be underestimated.

On the road the CX-5 is a mixture of extremes, excelling in some areas and lagging behind in others.

What is immediately apparent is the sublime handling, with a degree of feedback and quickness of steering on par with an above-average passenger hatchback, and a willingness to be thrown into corners with abandon.

Likewise, Mazda has configured the suspension so well that the typical pitch and roll found in most SUVs is all but absent. Alongside the Volkswagen Tiguan and Ford Kuga, the CX-5 re-writes the book on how an affordable SUV should handle.

Less appealing is the tyre noise, wind roar and stone rattle on the undercarriage, which continues the trend of modern Mazdas featuring inadequate sound-deadening. There are more refined and quiet crossovers out there for the money.

Even more disappointing is the engine and transmission combination. As the first member of Mazda’s range to come replete with its brand new SkyActiv green technology, expectations for the CX-5 were justifiably high.

Unfortunately, the engine is neither particularly dynamic or efficient, and the automatic transmission is unintuitive to the point of frustration.

The problem with the small 2.0-litre powertrain is an absence of mid-range torque, common in naturally-aspirated units of small capacity, which requires the driver to push out to a higher point in the rev band to make swift progress, and thus tax the engine into using more fuel.

Our test car seldom used less than 11.0 litres per 100km on inner-city sojourns – and we can safely presume this will be the natural habitat of most CX-5s.

We don’t doubt, though, that many drivers will likely find the engine adequate for their needs, because it hustles along at lower speeds in a busy enough fashion, and the lack of a turbo makes initial power delivery pleasingly linear.

Our gripe comes more from the fact that the wonderful chassis could easily use more, and such a lacklustre powertrain seems out of place for a brand like Mazda that markets itself as a sporting ‘Zoom Zoom’ kind of car-maker.

Likewise, while many owners won’t be fazed by a hesitant and unintuitive transmission (Mazda’s booming sales prove the point), we grew frustrated with the propensity to change into too-high a gear at the most inopportune moments.

It’s ok for an engine to lack torque if the transmission is programmed to change-down when overtaking or on an incline, but if anything the Mazda unit is more likely to change up!

But let’s be realistic – there is a good reason why the CX-5 has wrestled sales leadership from its established rivals, and it is the same reason why Australia makes up an staggeringly disproportionate amount of Mazda sales globally.

The Japanese company continues to churn out cars with a modicum of cheeky style, dynamic nous par excellence and a knack for interior quality that few others can match.

The CX-5 is far from perfect, but those areas in which it falls down are arguably the areas where it can fall down without alienating its core buyers.

Still, when the new-generation Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail, Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V launch next year, we suspect that may just change.

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