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First drive: New Mazda CX-5 comes alive

Striking: The Mazda CX-5 compact SUV prototype we drove in Iceland wore a light disguise, but it didn't hide the car's impressive credentials.

All-new CX-5 provides a tantalising taste of Mazda’s next-generation Sky models

31 Aug 2011


ARTILLERYMEN call it ‘fire for effect’ and the same big-bang assault strategy has long been employed in the automotive industry to inflict maximum damage on the enemy by taking it by surprise with a shock-and-awe campaign designed to divert vital supplies of new customers.

It is rare, therefore, that a car-maker lays almost all of its cards on the table by releasing key details of an important new model before launching its official media bombardment, and rarer still that motoring journalists are allowed to drive such a model even before its global debut.

But that is precisely what Mazda has done with its all-new CX-5, which will break new ground for the company not only by representing its first bona fide compact SUV but by combining all of its advanced ‘SkyActiv’ powertrain and chassis technologies with Mazda’s new ‘Kodo’ design language for the first time.

Mazda admits the CX-5 will replace the larger CX-7 in Australia’s booming small SUV segment in the first half of next year, but the technology that underpins the all-new CX-5 will form the basis of an entire new family of models that will take Mazda beyond 2020.

GoAuto was among a select group of international media outlets to sample four hand-built prototypes of the new-generation compact crossover in Iceland last week, before it makes its world premiere at the Frankfurt motor show next month.

And if the pre-production CX-5 is any guide, it won’t be just Mazda’s Japanese rivals that will be forced to stand up and take notice.

22 center imageMazda made it clear the cars we drove around a 70km coastal loop were not indicative of the final production CX-5 variants and invited feedback on their development, saying it was not too late to make changes before production commences early next year.

But it was clear that apart from the unfinished interiors – all of which crammed in high-end equipment like lane departure, blind-spot and tyre pressure warning systems, plus adaptive headlights, a rearview camera and colour touch-screen infotainment system – the CX-5s we drove were all but production-ready.

While the door trims, steering wheel boss and A-pillars were clad in plastic, all production surfaces including the entire dashboard were trimmed is classy soft-touch materials, giving the well-presented CX-5 cabin a decidedly upmarket flavour.

Despite the fact Mazda has already released official images of the final production CX-5, which remains almost completely faithful to the striking Minagi concept that previewed it earlier this year, all four left-hand-drive prototypes were ‘disguised’ in black/white chequerboard adhesive tape to keep at least some power dry until the real deal debuts in the metal at Frankfurt on September 13.

Mazda says it chose Iceland because of its relative privacy away from paparazzi cameras, its photogenic scenery and its open, flowing roads with next to no traffic, but the volcanic Atlantic island’s undulating, coarse-chip and often bumpy road surfaces are just like many in Australia, making our first taste of the CX-5 even more relevant.

Side by side with the CX-7, the CX-5 rides on a 50mm-shorter (2700mm) wheelbase and does not look significantly smaller overall, measuring 4540mm long, 1840mm wide and 1670mm high.

Despite shorter overhangs and a more compact stance, however, it is far better packaged inside than the CX-7, offering plenty of head- and elbow-room up front along with a more spacious rear seat offering far more legroom.

Like most cars, the centre rear seating position is higher and harder, but the driving position offers a huge amount of steering wheel and seat adjustment – the latter including both manual and, on premium models, electric seat height adjustment.

The CX-5’s sizeable rear cargo space is augmented by Mazda’s familiar quick-release rear seat folding system, via three pull-handles in the load space – one for each of the three rear seat sections.

Vision in all directions is good, despite the fitment of three adjustable rear head restraints, and although the pedals in both manual and automatic vehicles are slightly offset to the right, large door-mounted wing mirrors add to the CX-5’s user-friendliness.

They also generated a fair amount of wind noise at 100km/h, but engineers insisted that was due to the stickering. It could also have been because otherwise – in both petrol and diesel guise – the CX-5 is so quiet.

Indeed, overall refinement was the most striking first impression of all four CX-5s we drove, despite the truckloads of torque on offer from Mazda’s new 2.2-litre turbo-diesel, which pumps out 129kW at 4500rpm and some 420Nm of torque at just 2000rpm.

We’d already sampled the two-stage turbocharged diesel in a Sky chassis-based next-generation Mazda6 mule that weighed about 100kg lighter than the current model. But in the CX-5, which will weigh up to 250kg less than the CX-7 (1589kg kerb in base 2WD form), it delivers even more muscular performance anywhere between idle and its 5500rpm cut-out, at which point it is still so smooth it feels and sounds more like a petrol engine.

The new SkyActiv-D engine is an unequivocal highlight of the CX-5 because it produces more bottom and top-end torque than its MZR-CD predecessor (which offers 136kW/400Nm in the current CX-7 and Mazda6, and 110kW/360Nm in the Mazda3), while being vastly more refined and more efficient.

Mazda says the new 2.2 diesel not only meets strict upcoming Euro 6 emissions regulations without the need for expensive NOx after-treatment, but consumes 20 per cent less fuel than before.

The CX-5’s exact fuel consumption figures remain under wraps, but Mazda claims it will offer a 10 per cent advantage over its nearest European rival, Volkswagen’s upgraded MY11 Tiguan 2.0 TDI, which officially returns 6.0 litres per 100km and emits 157 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

‘Actual’ fuel consumption figures seen by GoAuto show that in Mazda tests where the Tiguan returned 9.4L/100km, the CX-5 AWD 2.2 – which will be produced in both 2WD and AWD configuration and will also be offered in some European markets in lower-output 110kW/380Nm form – returned just 8.45L/100km and 130g/km.

While the diesel-powered CX-5 is a hard act to follow, Mazda’s new SkyActiv-G 2.0-litre petrol engine brings a different charm to the CX-5, providing a valuable insight to the 113kW/194Nm engine that will power the Mazda3 SP20 here from October, when Australia will get its first taste of Sky technology in the facelifted Mazda3.

Exceptionally smooth and responsive all the way to 6500rpm, the crisp and punchy new direct-injection petrol four delivers impressive torque and refinement at all stages but requires an extra downshift to keep up with the muscular CX-5 diesel on the same inclines.

Australia’s CX-5 range will likely open with a 2WD petrol manual and extend to an AWD diesel auto, but our lower-octane (91 RON) standard unleaded petrol means our SkyActiv-G petrol engines will come with a 13.0:1 compression ratio instead of the sky-high 14.0:1 compression seen in the European engine, which requires 95 RON.

We drove both a Euro-spec 2WD manual with 121kW (at 6000rpm) and 210Nm (at 4000rpm), and a Russian-spec AWD auto with 110kW and 208Nm. The latter is indicative of what Australians will be offered (and, unlike the Mazda3 SP20, also features a motorcycle-style 4-2-1 exhaust system), but we couldn’t detect any discernible difference in performance to the Euro-spec version.

Again, official consumption figures remain secret, but along with 15 per cent more torque, Mazda claims the Euro 5-compliant 2.0-litre Sky-G engine lowers both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 15 per cent compared to its existing 2.0-litre petrol four, which delivers 108kW/182Nm in the current Mazda3.

According to official Mazda documents, the 2WD petrol CX-5 returns actual fuel consumption of 10.3L/100km and CO2 emissions of 140g/km, while its nearest European competitor – the 90kW 1.4 TSI 2WD version of Skoda’s upcoming Yeti – returns 11.9L/100km and 159g/km in the same usage.

Both SkyActiv engines are matched with either Mazda’s upgraded six-speed manual transmission, which offers shorter (45mm) throws to be almost as slick-shifting as the MX-5, or the company’s new six-speed SkyActiv-Drive automatic, which obviously comes with an extra ratio but also features a wider torque converter lock-up range to lower fuel consumption by up to seven per cent and provide a more direct feel.

No, it still doesn’t feel like a manual in the same way as a dual-clutch auto – and it will not offer the convenience of steering wheel paddle shifters – but it does deliver super-quick and seamless gearshifts and feels smoother both at launch and at low speeds.

Like the manual, the new auto comes with Mazda’s clever new ‘i-stop’ automatic idle-stop system that reduces fuel consumption by a further five per cent in the city. It works seamlessly in both petrol and diesel models by stopping the engine at standstill in neutral, then restarting immediately the clutch is depressed in the manual or the brake is released in the auto, but for some reason the diesel auto didn’t restart as quickly.

As slick as both Sky engines and transmissions are, however, the undoubted star of the CX-5 is its astonishingly well sorted ride and handling package.

Riding on an all-new SkyActiv chassis that is 14 per cent lighter than the platform it replaces, the CX-5 body is claimed to be some 30 per cent stiffer than the CX-7’s despite also being eight per cent lighter.

Those are serious claims, but one drive of the CX-5 is enough to believe it. We’d already experienced the sharp, rigid SkyActiv chassis underneath the 2013 Mazda6 mule (with 75mm-longer wheelbase) we drove in Germany and Australia earlier this year, but the higher-riding CX-5 was even more of a revelation in Iceland.

The CX-7 was already one of the best handling models in its class but the CX-5 feels much lighter on its feet and possesses a willingness to change direction we haven’t experienced in a Mazda this side of an MX-5 or RX-8.

The highlight is responsive, communicative electric power steering that is completely free of the kickback, rack rattle, torque steer and disconnected feel that blights many of its Japanese compact SUV competitors, and presents less at-the-limit understeer than VW’s taut Tiguan.

Superbly weighted at all speeds, the CX-5 tiller is a delight to behold in both carpark manoeuvres and on the open road, where it provides a sportscar-like connection between you and a chassis that remains unexpectedly composed and almost bodyroll-free – even over the most violent of mid-corner dips and bumps.

Despite offering a new level of confidence-inspiring, BMW X1-like handling, the CX-5’s ride quality remained first-class even on broken surfaces, although the base model we drove with 17-inch tyres was far quieter on rough roads than the AWD models shod with optional 19-inch wheels, with no apparent reduction in steering precision.

There is no departure from the CX-7’s conventional MacPherson strut front and trailing-arm suspension configuration, but upgrades at the front end and a redesigned three-link IRS combine with a higher proportion of high-tensile steels and optimised bonding methods in the body to produce outstanding results.

Australia’s CX-5 will be tuned almost identically to the European model, which comes with firmer dampers and sharper electric power steering than the US version.

Quite simply, if the production CX-5 is as good as the prototypes we drove in Iceland last week, it will set a new ride/handling standard for any compact SUV, let alone one that should be priced from under $30,000 when it arrives here in a little over six months.

Throw in cutting-edge petrol and diesel engine performance and efficiency, a host of hi-tech driver aids and a smaller, smarter Kodo-styled five-door body with class-leading packaging and refinement, and there is no reason the Euro-sharp CX-5 won’t make Mazda as successful in the small SUV segment as it is in the small-car class.

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