Driving Impressions

By March 13, 2012

We've spent time in all the Mazda CX-5 models, from the base model with 6-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive to a top-of-the line version with all-wheel drive and 6-speed automatic. All come with the same 2.0-liter engine.

The CX-5 delivered better-than-expected acceleration (though far from head-snapping). The engine works particularly well for driving briskly along winding roads or cruising on the freeway. The 2.0-liter Skyactive engine uses a 13:1 compression ratio, which Mazda says is the highest in the world for any production engine. A high compression ratio results in high efficiency and high power but is difficult to attain with regular gas without knocking. Mazda has achieved this feat by carefully designing the pistons, high-pressure fuel injection, and a fancy exhaust manifold. The result is a broad torque band that delivers decent performance over a wide range of engine speeds.

The new Skyactiv 6-speed automatic is exceptionally smooth, delivering almost imperceptible up and downshifts as load conditions demand. As a set-and-forget device, slip the shifter into D and simply drive, it's hard to fault. But it is not a piece of equipment that invites engagement from those who view driving as more than just transportation. Although exceptionally compact in size, this is otherwise a conventional automatic. A semi-manual feature allows the driver to shift down by pushing the shift lever forward or upshift by pulling it back. We preferred to put it in D and let it do all the shifting, even when turning laps at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The automatic downshifted a lot on winding roads with elevation changes due to the lack of power; using the manual feature at times can reduce this.

The manual transmission is a pleasure to operate with crisp shift gates and positive engagements, arguably the best do-it-yourself gearbox in this class. We found the front-wheel-drive model with the manual gearbox to be the quickest. We clocked our fastest time on an autocross circuit with the manual (beating all the other automotive journalists present), in spite of running on a cool, damp circuit with standing water in places.

We think best-in-class also applies to the new electric power rack-and-pinion steering system. A relatively recent development, electric systems are more efficient than conventional hydraulic units, but tend to be deficient in tactile information, better known as road feel. The CX-5 system is very good in this respect, with a quick ratio and excellent path accuracy. Mazda North American Operations explained its engineers worked hard to tune the system for the proper balance between road feel at high speed and assist at parking lot speed. It felt precise, intuitive. Few corrections are needed while driving down a bumpy road. The CX-5 felt more stable than the Honda CR-V.

The suspension design is typical of this class: MacPherson struts at the front, and a multi-link arrangement at the rear to accommodate all-wheel drive hardware. The suspension tuning tends toward sporty, with minimal body roll by the standards for this class, and that, combined with the exceptional steering, gives the CX-5 prompt responses and a sporty feel, a plus for accident avoidance, as well as driving pleasure. Mazda also gets high marks for achieving the foregoing without sacrificing ride quality. The feel is firm but compliant, and could be characterized as European in character. There is some head toss on bumpy roads, however. The CX-5 felt firmly planted and secure when driving down wet, bumpy, curvy back roads at speed.

We didn't sense a big difference between the 17- and 19-inch wheels. In theory, the taller sidewalls that come with 17-inch wheels should yield a more compliant ride while the 19-inch wheels with short-sidewall tires should offer sharper handling. Handling was responsive with the P225/65R17 Yokohama tires on 17-inch wheels, while the P225/55R19 Toyo tires on the 19-inch wheels felt no worse in terms of ride quality.

The all-wheel drive system automatically apportions power front-to-rear depending on traction conditions. In normal driving the power all goes to the front wheels, but this can vary as much as 50 percent. Like almost all compact crossovers, the CX-5's all-wheel drive function is designed to enhance traction in wet or slushy conditions. Although ground clearance is substantial at 8.5 inches, serious off-roading isn't part of its repertoire. We appreciated the grip and sure-footedness of the all-wheel drive while driving through the rain down a winding valley road. The all-wheel-drive versions felt more stable while driving at speed around a wet Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. We recommend springing for all-wheel drive for its improved traction in slippery conditions. If you live in a particularly dry climate, however, you could save a little on the purchase price, get slightly better fuel economy and possibly a somewhat livelier handling feel with front-wheel drive.