Although it might seem pointless to be writing a review of a 2016 model just before the all-new 2017 vehicle is introduced, there are plenty of good reasons to do so. Case in point: the 2016 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover. First, it’s important to know what the previous model drove like in order to compare it to the next generation. Second, for those shopping for a vehicle, the price of the previous model will be a better bargain than the all-new shiny one in the spotlight on the showroom floor. Because the CX-5 is still relatively new in its life (it began in 2012 as a 2013 model), making a drastic change just to change it may not be the best move, especially if the older model is still quite good. Which is true for the 2016 CX-5. We’ll discuss what’s coming for 2017 later, but let’s finish what we started right now.
The Mazda CX-5 was the company’s answer to the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Sure, there are a dozen other players in the segment, but the aforementioned three models have owned the compact SUV segment for years, and won’t be loosening their grip anytime soon. But this segment is one of the fastest growing in the industry, which means there’s plenty of opportunity for others to come along and grab a slice of the pie, no matter how small. After all, a small piece of lemon meringue is better than none at all. And we know that Mazda knows how to build small vehicles that are fun to drive. The CX-5 may not be able to compete with the big boys when it comes to sales (CX-5 accounts for about a third of what the CR-V does), but it is more than competitive when it comes to ride and handling.
Because SUV design usually is dictated by a boxy shape, differentiating one from another is a tough job. Especially as a vehicle gets to the later part of its lifecycle. However, to judge if a design is or has been successful, it only takes public opinion to make that call. During my week-long test drive of the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD, I overheard more than a few people take notice of it. One lady who passed by it in a parking lot said, “That’s cute. What is it?” Good news for the design team; not so much for the marketing boys. The CX-5, despite all the positive press it’s received, may be one of the best kept secrets in the segment. And that’s a real shame because we know if more people gave it a chance, more would buy one.
How can we make this claim? Let’s start with the styling. Mazda refers to it as a KODO design language, wherein the vehicle has a forward-leaning stance, a strong hood, slightly pronounced wheel arches, and LED (Technology Package on Touring models only) taillamps. While the base model comes with 17-inch wheels and tires, our GT AWD top-of-the-line model was fitted with 19s, which really gives the CX-5 that aggressive look for which the designers were aiming.
Inside, the CX-5 looks basic, but that’s good in a functional way. All black with bright trim accent pieces, the CX-5 had all the amenities needed as standard items. The Sport with front-wheel drive is the entry model, and comes with Bluetooth, cruise control, USB input, air conditioning, pushbutton start, cloth seats, ambient temperature readout and more. Our Touring GT interior features were welcomed, but if you were pinching pennies, you easily could do without. For example, our test model had heated, power leather seats, Bose audio, heated sideview mirrors, leather shift knob, etc. You get the picture. It’s refreshing that Mazda understands that even those who opt for necessity over luxury aren’t punished because of it. Although the Mazda is classified as a compact, we felt there was plenty of room in the front row for driver and passenger. The armrest was a little narrow, but that’s a minor inconvenience. The steering wheel was thick and comfortable, the seats were supportive, and at cruising speed, the cabin was quiet. We have high expectations when we get in a test vehicle, and more often than not are disappointed rather than pleased. The CX-5 was just the opposite. The more we drove it, the more impressed we were with it overall. The crossover segment’s popularity has more to do with its ability to carry cargo than almost any other reason. A trip to the grocery store with the resulting bags wasn’t a problem for the CX-5; 34 cubic feet of cargo volume with the seats up and over 65 cubic feet with all seats folded meant the eggs stayed uncracked and the bread still looked like bread instead of pancakes when we arrived home.
There is one area that continues to bug us in Mazda vehicles, and that would be the controls for the infotainment/connectivity systems. For 2016, the screen is tucked nicely in the dash, creating a smooth line for the instrument center console. Overall ergonomics are good, and this is how we prefer the look. For 2017, Mazda is going to the “stuck-on-the-dash” screen, which we more than mildly despise. We know that the line of sight supposedly is better, and many manufacturers are adopting this technique, but as far as design aesthetic, it’s hideous. Which might be another reason to choose the 2016 model over the 2017; design is subjective, so you make the choice which looks better and which one you can live with every day. Aesthetics aside, our bigger gripe has to do with the controls and ease of use of the system. A center console is where the controls reside for the audio/navigation and other functions on the screen. Yes, it’s also a touchscreen, and many features can be controlled by voice, but in order to set a favorite radio station, it takes multiple steps, which to us takes your concentration from the road and puts it on the screen. We’ve had numerous discussions with Mazda’s connectivity guru about the functionality behind it. Mazda defends it by saying they have research and studies that show it is safer to operate the system set up as it is, but for this real-world tester, it still isn’t our favorite. Is it enough to not buy the vehicle? Depends on how often you use it.
What matters more to people is drivability. In this category, there will be strong agreement that Mazda definitely knows what it’s doing here. The CX-5 features Mazda’s SKYACTIV engines, a 2.0-liter inline four that produces 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, or a 2.5-liter as in our Touring GT that makes 184 horses and 185 lb-ft of torque. There’s a six-speed manual available (how nice that Mazda gets people who enjoy driving still like a manual shifter), or a six-speed automatic, as in our test vehicle. EPA estimates for fuel economy are 24 city, 30 highway. Our observed test miles was 25 mpg combined. Neither of these engines is going to deliver blistering acceleration, but when we jumped on it at onramps and stoplights, it was enough to move the 3,500-pound AWD crossover down the road in decent time. Under load, the 2.5 engine makes a considerable amount of noise, but once at steady state, it almost disappears. For Mazda drivers, however, it’s not so much the raw power that attracts, but rather how the vehicle puts that power to use. This is where Mazda CX-5 shines brighter than freshly polished chrome.
The MacPherson front suspension and multilink rear setup have been tuned by engineers who understand vehicle handling dynamics. Regular highway cruising delivers a smooth ride that makes you feel as if you’re in a luxury brand. Get out on the curvy roads, however, and the CX-5 grips better than a bear’s claw into a spawning salmon. The steering provides excellent feedback, and has none of that soft, over-boosted feel that seems to be more the norm than the exception these days. The chassis is solid, turn in is precise, and even the feel of the brake and throttle are linear and responsive. The large, 19-inch tires provided complementary grip to match the Mazda’s impressive handing characteristics. Although many say that AWD is only for snow and low-traction situations, truth is AWD helps improve handling no matter what the surface. Combined with the suspension setup and sticky tires, the AWD was buttercream frosting on the cupcake. Forget the MX-5, there should be a racing series dedicated to this little beast. Just imagine how much more fun it would be with another 50 horsepower and equal lb-ft of torque. As much fun as this 2016 is to drive, the 2017 apparently will double that due to a slew of new SKY-ACTIV features that will focus on the chassis, vehicle dynamics, and body rigidity.
If you think of the CX-5 as a MX-5, but with more room, you’d be on the right track. The pros outweigh the cons, and if you can’t wait to check out the next-gen model, you’d be perfectly happy with this purchase. Speaking of purchasing, the Mazda CX-5 starts at a reasonable $22,625 including destination for a Sport front-drive model with the manual transmission. For our top-end Touring GT AWD test model with automatic transmission, pricing starts at a little less reasonable $30,370. Our vehicle had a few options, including the pearl exterior paint (really pretty) for $200, a rear bumper guard for $100, retractable cargo cover for $200, roof rack side rails for $275, door sill trim plates for $125, and the tech package for $1,155. Grand total as tested was $32,885. Again, all nice features, but all items you don’t need to enjoy the drive.
With a few minor tweaks, the Mazda CX-5 can be the vehicle of your dreams. Can’t wait to drive the 2017 version. As soon as we do, we’ll let you know if it continues the Mazda tradition of improving the zoom-zoom.
Photography © Team Killeen, Inc, and courtesy Mazda North America