2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD Road Test

The Miata of crossovers

What It Is
Mazda's first completely in-house-designed zoom-zoom crossover.
Best Thing
Mazda did its homework to make it fun, engaging, practical, and fuel-efficient.
Worst Thing
It's a bit more pokey than we'd prefer.
Snap Judgment
Our gripes are minimal; our praise for the CX-5 isn't.


When Mazda invited associate editor Matthew Askari to drive the 2013 Mazda CX-5 for its press introduction, I was perhaps the most skeptical guy on our team. On the trip, the automaker let him and other journalists loose on its Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca track outside Monterey, California, in the 155-horsepower crossovers. I had been there several weeks earlier for the new BMW 3 Series; why on earth would Mazda waste putting a tall-roof wagon on that track, I wondered.

That's what I thought at the time, at least. Having now driven the Mazda CX-5, it makes complete sense.

Mazda has never been on a mission to make cars with the biggest horsepower numbers; it's more concerned with low weight and nitpicking details. Even going back to the 1980s, following through during the 1990s with the Miata, and building the razor-sharp Mazda RX-8 in the 2000s, Mazda demonstrated that it has always cared more about how a vehicle felt to drive than what sort of magazine racer numbers it could produce to woo fanboys.

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Up until recently, Mazda was owned predominantly by Ford. It showed. The Mazda Tribute--the vehicle the CX-5 replaces -- was a rebadged Ford Escape. It was pudgy, dated, and crude. But now that Mazda is on its own again, the automaker has been left to its own devices to reinvent itself. It's bringing that Mazda sharpness back in all its vehicles with a diet plan known as "SkyActiv," and new "Kodo" design, which replaces the overstyled smiling guppy look from 2000s cars.

Going head to head with vehicles like the new Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Kia Sportage, Mazda invites a little sharper, more performance-oriented experience than its competition. It's betting the company's livelihood on it. The collective automotive press has gushed about its looks and driving feel, but how does it do as a genuine, practical family runabout when not being subjected to race-car duties?

What We Drove

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 starts at $21,790, including $995 for destination and handling. But that's for a basic, front-wheel-drive Sport model equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, the only model with an available manual. Elsewhere, a six-speed automatic is standard. Mazda also offers a mid-range Touring model before getting to our loaded CX-5 Grand Touring ($28,140), which came equipped with all-wheel drive ($1,250 extra).

On top of our loaded model, we had the Grant Touring Tech package ($1,325) that equips the CX-5 with a navigation system, adaptive high-intensity xenon headlights, keyless entry, a Homelink garage door opener, and auto-dimming mirrors, bringing our grand total to $30,415. Sure, it's possible to pick at a few more dealer-installed accessories, but that's all the higher a Mazda CX-5 comes priced.

Because our CX-5 was loaded up with leather and the works, it also came with blindspot monitoring in addition to its standard front and side airbags for front-row passengers and curtain airbags for the front and rear outboard passengers. Our CX-5 also came equipped with a backup camera and LATCH points for two child seats. The CX-5 scored an overall four-star safety rating in NHTSA testing and did well in IIHS crash testing.

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The Commute

As refined as the CX-5 is over the road, you can tell it's definitely from an engineers' company.

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 rides firmly, but comfortably. When it hits a rut in the road, it doesn't make passengers pay for it. The bump doesn't shutter throughout the interior. The CX-5 just pockets the road's imperfections and moves on without any backtalk. The ride is helped out by comfortable seats and responsive, controlled steering, making it one of the better-driving vehicles we've encountered in this class.

The only weak point in commuting with the Mazda is with its lack of power. With a small 2.0-liter four-cylinder, you hear it loudly scrambling to life like an old Singer sewing machine with a press of the engine start button, clattering until the engine warms up. From there, power delivery is adequate; passing on a highway makes the engine drop two gears, rev up to a loud and buzzy 5,000 rpm, and still not provide too much force. It's a high-revving engine, not too much unlike the engine found in the Miata sports car. But that vehicle is a lot lighter than the CX-5's 3,278 pounds. If it's any consolation, it's hard to complain about its ridiculously good fuel economy. Being dragged through our usual gauntlet of driving, our average of 25 mpg with it proved exceptional for a vehicle of this size.

As vehicles go, none of the materials in the 2013 Mazda CX-5 felt particularly outstanding, but we thought Mazda did a commendable job with build quality, evidenced by our 10,000-mile crossover -- a lot of miles for the abuse fleet vehicles receive--still going strongly without so much as a rattle or a squeak.

The Grocery Run

The Mazda CX-5's quick steering rack and light electric power steering make parking lot maneuverability beyond easy. Rear window visibility is tight, but managing with it is easy otherwise with the help of large mirrors, a backup camera with a high-res display on the far-too-small 5.8-inch monitor, and blindspot warning sensors.

And as small as the Mazda CX-5 is, it still has plenty of cargo room -- a large 34.1 cubic feet with the seats up and 65.4 cubic feet with them down. Or if you just have skis or a long item, the rear bench can fold 40/20/40, allowing two passengers to still sit in back comfortably. And besides, sitting in the middle in this narrow vehicle isn't all that fun anyway. By comparison, the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape both offer marginally more cargo room, but not by as much as you'd think given how much larger they are. The Mazda has more leg room for both front and rear passengers than either of them. While rear legroom was ample for even the taller passengers due to the CX-5's deep footwell cavity, we found mounting a rear-facing child seat to be a little tight.

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The Weekend Fun

Tinkering around with the CX-5's TomTom navigation system through the tiny monitor, we've come to one conclusion: It's too small and not really legible enough for us to recommend. Still, it did come with features like Bluetooth phone pairing, which we found easy and intuitive to use.

The tactile quality of the buttons in the CX-5's interior aren't special, but they're all large and clearly marked, easy to use without taking your eyes off the road too long. Like climate control systems of yore, Mazda has an updated take on the three-dial system seemed like a good idea until flush buttons and form over function took over late last decade. The look is completed by a digital clock in the middle of the dash and lighted icons that also add to the kitsch of a few years ago, if not last century. But who are we to care? It all works pretty well.

As much as the 2013 Mazda CX-5 feels like a staid but high-quality piece of engineering from a controls standpoint, serving pretty well for passengers, too, this one's primary forte is the driving experience, which, in a word, is fantastic. Forget the CX-5's lack of power, it's easy to drive around with the feel of the road at your fingertips while your bum remains isolated from it. That's what BMW used to be known for before its cars got bigger and softer, and it makes the CX-5 as fun to drive at low speeds just as much it's a pleasant highway driver. It's not the quietest of most refined vehicle out there, but it's class-competitive; a reminder that picking out a crossover for the family doesn't mean you have to sacrifice enjoying what you drive for your family's sake.

Summary

Most crossovers look a little beefy with a tall stance and blocky styling, styled to look like they might be able to attack the Rubicon Trail. Most are no more capable at off-roading than your average family sedan, despite their rough and tumble looks. The 2013 Mazda CX-5 makes none of these pretenses, and it defies the clumsy handling that often comes with a tall-riding vehicle. It's a thoroughly new breed of compact crossover, a better breed for most people.

While the Mazda CX-5 has some glaring flaws, like its underpowered engine and lackluster rear visibility, it makes up for them with its well-built, well-thought-out cabin, great fuel economy, and accessible price.

As versions of the Mazda CX-5 go, we'd probably opt for the mid-level Touring model if it were our money, which starts at $26,240 for an all-wheel drive model. While the former Easterners and Midwesterner of our group liked the heated leather seats, we could do without them just fine, given the extra expense. We're not fans of how Mazda bundles its options; more should be available a la carte.

But overall, our complaints are few. The Mazda CX-5 is a whole new design, finally divested of its Ford handicaps. And you know what? I'd take one of these over a 2013 Escape hands-down. It's lighter, more fuel-efficient than the complex turbocharged engines Ford is shilling, better looking in my mind, and cheaper -- among the better vehicles in its class. As the first of a new generation of Mazdas, we can only hope the encore with the upcoming 2014 Mazda6 midsize sedan will be just as good.

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Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $30,415
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 25 mpg
EPA Highway: 31 mpg
EPA Combined: 28 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 414 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not yet rated

Notebook Quotes "Steering felt incredibly light for a vehicle this size. I had zero trouble parking it on the street, too, and that backup camera is one of the sharpest we've seen yet. The steering wheel itself felt good and is one of the nicest ones we've had in in a while. Every button on the steering wheel had a purpose and it didn't feel overloaded with buttons just for the sake of having them there." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"Rear room is great, but I LOVED the 40/20/40 folding rear seats, with a damn near flat center pass-through in case you need to carry Andre the Giant's skis. And I loved the door-handle seat-flippers in the cargo area, which worked brilliantly and should be practically required by law on all hatchbacks. You need to take the headrest out to fold the other two cushions down flat, but it's possible to do so." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"As a vehicle owner, I'm perfectly happy to give up some power for better fuel economy (although, of course I want both), and the 25-ish mpg this was getting is pretty good. Still, I have to wonder if a CR-V or Escape wouldn't make the same fuel economy numbers with more horsepower. Is Mazda's whole "SkyActiv" technology just a code for old-school low-power engines? Hm." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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evadtheslayer
evadtheslayer

I test drove the Sport model with the 6 speed manual transmission : I don't like automatics.  I prefer to be involved with my driving and shifting is part of that experience.  Each of the models has the exact same engine.  It is definitely underpowered, but I understand that Mazda may finally import their diesel version (which was Car of the Year in Japan)but only (ugh) with only one transmission - an auto.  Second, rumors are ripe that a 185 +/- engine may arrive later in 2013.  I noticed a distinct hesitation when accelerating in first gear.  Must have been due to the particular one I drove and perhaps goes away with break-in miles.  The manual shift was absolutely the best I have ever driven in 46 year of driving manual trannys.  Very precise, short throw,  modeled on the Miata.  Brakes were very good and handling bordered on excellent.  BMW could learn much about how to improve the steering in its current models -a lot of folks complain about how vague it is in many models.  My other complaint is the Sport model does not come with leather wrapped shift knob and steering wheel....can't even get it as an option.  But I was very surprised that the new 6 model will have BOTH those features in its base model, which sells for almost exactly for what the CX-5 Sport does.  Why have they included those in one base model and not in another.  Next gripe is that the Sport model only comes in 3 colors and excludes white, red, blue colors.  A dark silver, black and a dark gray are the only colors supplied.  UGH.  The CX-5 looks GREAT in white...white is THE most popular color on the planet and Mazda for some strange reason won't give us white..  I really want to buy one today.  But I know the minute I do they will finally offer more HP or in white or make leather steering wheels and shift knobs.  Of course the biggest problem is even getting a manual shift model into a dealer.  They are being produced in very small numbers and selling out here in SoCal very quickly indeed.  Dealers are piled up with the other models, but not the manual Sport. Just proves there are a few purists left.

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