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2013 Mazda CX-5 First Drive

Modern Small Utility, the 2013 Mazda CX-5 is Fit to Play

What It Is

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 is an all-new small utility vehicle, aimed at working pros early in their careers and young families looking for efficient versatility.

Best Thing

The Mazda CX-5 is all-new, and it looks and feels that way, too. Plus, anyway you slice it, you're going to get good gas mileage.

Worst Thing

The automatic models feel underpowered, especially on the lower end. An imminent diesel-powered Mazda CX-5 scheduled for next year can't come soon enough.

Snap Judgment

In a segment defined by utility and efficiency, the 2013 Mazda CX-5 adds a little cheekiness, fun, and style to spar with the competition.

Volkswagen might be the people's car, but Mazda has long fashioned itself the driver's car, and generally, it has delivered. In recent years, shifting attitudes and expectations have presented a new challenge: Drivers want everything, and aren't willing to pay much for it. Top-shelf for happy-hour prices. And the small SUV market is no exception. Filled with efficient runabouts packing a lot of utility into petite frames, this is no easy segment. Luckily for the Japanese automaker, the 2013 Mazda CX-5 is fit and up for a challenge.

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To get some time behind the CX-5 wheel, Mazda sent us out to Monterey Bay. Nestled among cypress trees and gentle, rolling hills, we were also a skip and a jump away from "Camp Zoom Zoom," the famed Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Or rather, a creaky-squeaky 20-minute shuttle ride away.

Finicky clouds chose to relieve themselves onto the track shortly before we even got a chance to step inside the CX-5, but really, that was okay with us. If we wanted to see what Mazda's newest could handle, a little inclement weather might even be handy (good attitudes and vibes permeate the Automotive.com offices, it's as contagious as it is sickening).

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 is not without an abundance of competition. Stalwarts such as the Honda CR-V have been providing a family friendly, reliable and affordable compact crossover for years, as has Toyota with its RAV4. Domestically there is no shortage of options, either. If you want to get yourself a honey-I-shrunk-the-SUV made in America, a Chevy Equinox or Ford Escape are worth taking a look at. Where Mazda's compact crossover can differentiate itself is in appeal. Even in staid segments, Mazda's cars are generally light-hearted and perky. Given the chance, the CX-5 might be able to out-charm the bunch. With the lion's share of a day to toss around Mazda's little big guy, we had a wet track, autocross, and narrow winding country roads of the kind that make our insides coo with delight. We got to hop in several models, which really helped to give us a good first impression of what the range encompasses.

Walkaround

No car in the compact SUV class dazzles the eyes; it might be the dimensions that constrain and present designers with such a challenge, but there sure are a lot of bland choices here. The CX-5 is actually a pretty good looker. Stylish and sporty, designers here seemed to create a car that will actually look good in five years, too. A new five-point grille in front is sure to be more popular than the one it replaces. Large alloy wheels, 17-inches as standard and 19-inches as an option, look good and keep things sporty. There's enough sculpting to avoid that boxy outdated look, and the appearance is engaging.

Getting Inside

What you get on the inside depends on what you get inside of; the entry-level Sport model--sans navigation and with cloth seats--will run you less than $22,000. A more premium Grand Touring will run nearer $30,000, but gives you the media screen, nice leather seats with attractive cross-stitching, and a few other options. Regardless of which model you end up with, the driver-centric CX-5 has a pleasant, simple, and streamlined interior. Both leg and headroom are sufficient and feel appropriate for the class. There are some nice accents: a piano black panel; some metal finished pieces; a sporty steering wheel; and attractive, "time-piece inspired" instrument cluster. The shift knob on the manual transmission models, like in other Mazdas, is engaging, fits the car well, and makes you want to drive. Push-button-start is a standard on the CX-5, unique in the class.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Driving

In one day we ran the gamut: autocross driving that helped us get a sense of turning, cornering and handling ability; track time on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (Mazda gets pleased when we use the full name, and as they were good hosts, we shall); and a two-lane winding highway that with real traffic that gave us a sense of real-world driving.

For all drives we sampled manual and automatic transmissions, front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive cars, all of which featured Mazda's new 2.0-liter, four-cylinder Skyactiv engine. The CX-5 is the first car to fully embrace the breadth of Mazda's Skyactiv technology, a collection of measures designed to help the car run more efficiently. And it works, too. On our highway drive we were averaging about 34 miles per gallon, just one shy of EPA estimates, and suffice to say we were not driving in any special manner to see just how fuel efficient we could be.

The downside is most easily recognized on the automatic transmissions. The Skyactiv automatic transmission consistently opts for a higher gear than you would likely put it in yourself, certainly as a measure to achieve better fuel economy. The result is a ride that feels underpowered, a casualty of the good gas mileage. But this is largely rectified with the manual transmission, where you can keep the car in lower gears when extra power is desired. It is widely expected that Mazda will bring the Skyactiv-D diesel engine -- already in the CX-5 in Japan -- to the U.S. in the not-too-distant-future. This would give shoppers in the segment the best of both worlds -- a fuel efficient compact crossover, and one with abundant low-end power that the current model lacks.

Still, the CX-5 is a true Mazda. It's fun to drive, it handles well, and at times, it was easy to forget you were in a crossover. It was the higher seating position and roomier cabin, not the driving dynamics that alerted you otherwise. We should also mention the fact that we were driving a crossover on a track. While some journalists in the industry have a great deal of track experience, none of us are professional racers. Mazda was so confident that we'd not only be safe, but would also have a great deal of fun, that they could comfortably and confidently let us do things with this car that no one would do on regular streets or in daily driving. And, despite the conditions, we emerged unscathed, and with large grins on our faces.

Summary

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 enters a competitive segment filled with efficient, reliable, and generally good compact crossovers. But Mazda's offering can hold its own. The CX-5 adds a fun-to-drive nature to pair with its stylish interior and modern, fresh aesthetic. We found it competitively priced, especially the entry-level sport models that offered a lot of car for comparatively little money. Pricier models are competitive too, but the value gets diluted at higher costs. Overall the CX-5 is a fun, stylish, fuel efficient crossover, and should certainly be a consideration if you're shopping the segment.

We're anxious to get behind the wheel again on our familiar roads where we can really gauge road noise, tinker around with the stereo, and see what real-world driving in the 2013 Mazda CX-5 is like. Driving on a track or two-lane road is undoubtedly fun, but what kind of mileage will we average in our Southern California commute? We're also curious to see if the new styling will turn many heads around car-conscious Los Angeles.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter four-cylinder six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive, 155-hp, starting $21,490, 26 mpg city/35 mpg hwy
2.0-liter four-cylinder six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive, 155-hp, starting $22,890 26 mpg city/35 hwy
2.0-liter four-cylinder six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, 155-hp, starting $27,840 25 mpg city/31 hwy

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view
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