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Test Drive: 2013 Mazda CX-5

 

The 2013 CX-5 is the future of Mazda wrapped in a compact crossover.

As the replacement for both the Tribute and CX-7, it is the physical manifestation of the qualities that the Japanese automaker plans to instill in all of its cars in the coming years.

After driving it I can’t wait to do the same to the rest of them.

The CX-5 is the first vehicle developed independently by Mazda since it left the Ford family fold a few years ago. The goal was to create a vehicle that was economical on all fronts, while retaining a heavy dose of the company’s signature Zoom Zoom.

Key to this is a suite of technologies that goes by the high-minded, but painfully undiscriptive name of Skyactiv. It refers to the vehicle’s lightweight construction and a highly-efficient engine and transmission combination that's easy on fuel without going the expensive and heavy hybrid route.

The CX-5 was kept fit and trim through the predominant use of high-strength steel, which offers many of the advantages of aluminum at a lower cost, while also contributing to a stiff chassis that improves ride quality and handling.

The only engine offered is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder fitted with direct fuel injection that operates at a racecar-like 13 to 1 compression ratio, but still manages to run on regular gasoline. Mated to a six-speed manual transmission, it’s good in front-wheel-drive versions for 35 mpg on the highway, 26 mpg in the city and 29 mpg combined. Those are far and away the best numbers in the segment…for now.

No one in the United States will actually buy a stick, however, so Mazda went to the trouble of reinventing the automatic transmission in the Skyactiv mien. The all-new slushbox isn’t a slushy at all. Instead, it uses a very small torque converter -- that’s the bit that allows an automatic to pull away from a stop smoothly, but not very efficiently -- that works only up to 5 mph, after which a larger than usual lockup clutch engages to eliminate wasted energy from there on. Electric-assist power steering also does its best to be frugal with energy.

The result is a small drop in highway fuel economy to 32 mpg for the automatic, while the other figures mentioned above stay the same. Add all-wheel-drive, as most of you likely will, and the numbers take a 1 mpg hit across the board. The next-best in class Honda CR-V comes in at 26 mpg combined with front-wheel-drive. Of course, second place is also the first loser, as Mr. Bobby would say.

So Skyactiv works, but with the inevitable catch. Power is way down on the competition. At just 155 hp, the CX-5 has 30 fewer horses than the CR-V, and 10 less than the smaller Hyundai Tucson.

It’s not slow compared to the 5-year-old CUV you’re replacing it with, just not as quick as some others today. Accelerate from a dead stop onto a highway, or try to pass someone on an uphill stretch, and you might find issue with it. At other times, it’s more than adequate, and the car’s other charms more than make up for any shortcomings in the potency department.

Inside, you get more than you pay for. Between the single-piece, soft-touch dash, piano black trim and chrome bezel gauges with sporty font, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you bought a $21,490 BMW. Copycatting, if not copyright infringement, is in full and very good effect.

The loaded $30,415 AWD Grand Touring trim level of my test car comes with leather upholstery on the seats, shift knob and steering wheel, the last of which could’ve been stolen from a sports coupe and nicely compliments the posture-perfect driving position.

Front and rear passengers are afforded equally generous amounts of room, as is cargo. All but base trim level CX-5s have a 40/20/40 folding rear seat that allows you travel four-up with enough skis, jousting lances or six-foot subs to go around.

There’s not a lot of cutting edge technology on board, but what’s there works well. The optional navigation system is from Tom Tom and has an excellent voice interface, while a nine-speaker Bose audio setup delivers the sort of crystal clear sound you expect from the brand. A blind spot monitoring system is uncommon for the class, and a welcome feature. I don’t care how good of a driver you think you are, these things come in handy.

Besides, you can prove your skills on the road.

Painful cliché alert: The CX-5 is the Miata of crossovers.

It had to be.

Driving dynamics are the franchise for Mazda. If it is going to survive on its own, every car it makes has to deliver in this department. Settle into a curvy two-lane and the CX-5 melds with the road, creating an out of five-door body experience for the driver. I took it on a route that I usually reserve for jaunts in high performance sports cars and ran its length more times than I’d than planned to.

As the Miata has ably proven over the years, a power deficit means very little if you don’t have to slow down for the turns. With the balanced handling on tap in the CX-5 the brake pedal is often an afterthought.

That trick transmission cracks off crisp shifts with or without activating manual mode -- the gear selector situated exactly where your hand falls from the wheel for when you do -- while the little engine that could sings a song through the exhaust pipes that is evidence that someone actually went to the trouble making it sound good.

For driving enthusiasts in a family way, the CX-5 is bliss with room for the kids.

Mazda may have lost its deep-pocketed stepparent, but it still has its touch. In fact, it may actually be better at making cars on its own.

Here’s hoping it knows how to sell them, too.

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2013 Mazda CX-5

Base Price: $21,490

As Tested: $30,415

Type: 5-passenger, all-wheel-drive 5-door crossover

Engine: 2.0-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 155 hp, 150 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 25 city/31 hwy