2017 Mazda CX-5 test drive: A very sporty utility vehicle

The all-new Mazda CX-5 is a hero car.

It’s a driving machine in a segment where they’re not supposed to exist: compact crossovers. Like the model it replaces, it has that unique Mazda groove that’s missing from many mainstream vehicles today. Not everyone is looking for that, but for those struggling to give in to the need for a utility vehicle, it’s like finding a hot bath and a fresh pizza at the end of a solo expedition to the South Pole.

The difference this time around is that it’s wrapped in a warm blanket of refinement that’s matched by few, if any, of its competitors. The old CX-5 was so focused on lightness and driver involvement that it was a little rough around the edges, with a noisy cabin trimmed in so-so materials. The automaker is now on a “Mazda Premium” kick that was launched with the larger CX-9 to carve out a niche in a tight market. And it’s walking the walk, the way it always has with Zoom-Zoom.

Fusion TIFF File

 (Mazda)

A top-of-the-line $30,355 CX-5 Grand Touring comes furnished as nicely as many mid-level luxury vehicles, including ones from Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Buick and some of the low-hanging fruit from the European brands. The upholstery on the dashboard, doors and seats looks and feels as high-end as the sleek and chic exterior styling, and the controls operate with the precision and quality of a Seiko. The doors even deliver a satisfying “thunk” when you close them. The entry-level CX-5, at a starting price of $25,985, is just as impressive relative to its peers.

It also has all the latest technology anyone expects, short of a robo-chauffeur. You can get it with everything from automatic emergency brakes and radar cruise control to lane departure warning and a head-up display. Mazda’s infotainment system doesn’t have the best user interface — and its touchscreen is disabled when the car is moving, forcing you to use one of those even more distracting knob controls — but it is equipped with the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration systems, which make everything they’re loaded into a lot better.

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 (Mazda)

All CX-5s come with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 187 hp to the front wheels, or to all four for an extra $1,300. It’s not as potent or efficient as some of the turbocharged motors out there today, but its 29 mpg (AWD) to 31 mpg (FWD) highway fuel economy rating is acceptable and honest.

The engine is also a revvy delight and comes with a simple, unfussy, six-speed automatic transmission that suits the CX-5 well. It may be as comfortable as the best of the CUV breed, but it’s happiest when you ask it to play.

The thin-rimmed steering wheel, which feels a lot like the one in a Miata, elicits quick responses. Perhaps too quick for some. My family complained a couple of times about how the CX-5 darted into turns on a winding road, but it felt great from where I was sitting.

The handling is enhanced by a feature called G-Vectoring, which uses the throttle to help get the car through curves neutrally. When you start to turn, it imperceptibly eases off the power to shift the weight forward and give the front tires more grip (imagine what it feels like when you slam on the brakes), and then increases it as you go through the curve to help balance the car. You can’t turn it off, so a back-to-back comparison of its effectiveness isn’t possible, but it sure doesn’t seem to hurt.

The CX-5’s main competitive shortcoming is that it’s not very long. The back seat and cargo space are smaller than the Honda CR-V’s, Chevy Equinox’s and Toyota Rav4’s, to name a few, but that’s probably why it’s so much more fun to drive.

Mazda’s a small company that realizes it needs to make vehicles that stand out from the crowd, and the CX-5 is truly outstanding.

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2017 Mazda CX-5

Base price: $25,985

As tested: $34,085

Type: All-wheel-drive 5-passenger SUV

Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder

Power: 187 hp, 185 lb-ft

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 23 city, 29 hwy

Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.