Driving Excitement in a Crossover? 2017 Mazda CX-5 Achieves It Affordably

Between the time gremlins delivered a 2017 Mazda CX-5 and the moment I began banging the keyboard keys, the small crossover qualified for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest award: Top Safety Pick+.

That’s not really a surprise to the automaker whose North American headquarters are in Irvine. With the CX-5 selection, every 2017 model year Mazda vehicle tested by IIHS has now been rated a Top Safety Pick+ (when equipped with optional front crash-prevention and specific headlights). Mazda boasts of being the only full-line automaker that can make that claim.

I had a couple instances during my test-drive period where I could see and feel some of those safety features kicking in. In relatively light morning surface street traffic, I gunned the four-door, five-passenger Grand Touring model the couple blocks to the next red light. The 2.5-liter, inline-four SKYACTIV-G engine puts out 187 horsepower at 6,000 rpm—the same power plant found in the Mazda6 sedan. For this test, the acceleration of the 6-speed automatic was noticeably and overwhelmingly smooth without any of the jerkiness that can happen when other vehicles switch between gears.

Waiting longer than usual to begin pushing the brake pedal, I started gently and did not so much feel the car suddenly braking but smoothly decelerating. As I’d pushed the pedal half way, this deceleration increased (Oxymoron?) but, again, without the ride getting swervy or coming to anything resembling a skid. Right at the end, I purposely pressed hard to the floor, and it was as if I was in a self-driving vehicle given the measured deceleration to zero mph with only the slightest bounce backward at the full stop—and only because I’d driven in a fashion no one should. Throughout the exercise, there ride felt firm; there was no wiggle as the CX-5 seemed to magically keep this unpredictable driver in line. Keep in mind I was in a front-wheel drive CX-5, which to me felt adequately, well, grabby. Mazda has an optional all-wheel drive version.

I don’t have driving experience with the original version of the CX-5 to compare, but the 2017 second iteration that has been on sale since March reportedly features a reengineered and redesigned chassis, body, interior and exterior that makes it all-new rather than made over. Among the changes were slightly more power coming out of the four-cylinder to achieve 185 pounds of torque. My loaded test CX-5 included sophisticated braking assist features. I’ve loved, loved, loved driving Mazda’s various Miatas the past few years, and I can report that enjoyment extends to the CX-5, proving there is truth in the carmaker’s “Driving Matters” advertising campaign.

Zooming up curves next to a hospital, ignoring the fact that traffic fines are doubled there, the steering was sharp and the tires gripped the road like a bug in a roach motel. Farther up the way, exceeding the speed limit on a notorious, rising S curve, my shaky hands on the wheel did not deter the automatic suspension system from keeping the CX-5 on the right line.

It was not until I got home that I realized I had forgotten to engage the Sport driving mode, which would have enhanced that experience even more by adjusting the transmission shift and engine throttle controls to essentially drop the six-speed to a four. I did engage Sport for the drive to work today, and the added fuel consumption at higher engine speeds allowed me to zip around the slow pokes and, hitting an exit curve hard, the CX-5 dropped gears more quickly and gave an even greater, uh, grabby feel. In Sport or not, the crossover relies on G-Vectoring Control, which was only introduced by Mazda this year. It causes the engine, throttle, steering and suspension to make slight adjustments based on the way the car is being driven, whether you are cruising, experiencing stop-and-go or taking a curve next to a hospital way too fast. Other safety features on my premium test model included lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring.

The cabin is roomy, everything I needed seemed to be well within reach from the driver’s seat and I really dug the look of the 19-inch alloy wheels against the exterior’s machine gray metallic paint job (a $300 extra). Convenience changes Mazda made to the CX-5 include rear doors that open wider for easier passenger loading and two stages of recline adjustability to the back seats, which can also now be folded forward to create a flat load floor all the way back to the liftgate.

You can open and close the power liftgate with the push of buttons, one on the instrumental panel, one on the liftgate and one on the remote for keyless entry. (Oh yeah, there is push-button ignition, so you never need to take that remote out of your pocket or purse.) A cool feature I appreciated was the mesh divider between the back seats and cargo area that folds down when the liftgate raises up. Even with the rear seats up, there is a decent amount of room behind them, certainly enough to handle a major Costco run. There are expanded door pockets and storage cubbies throughout the vehicle.

My test model had four USB ports, a steering wheel and front and rear seats that can be heated. Like the systems in other newer cars, the speed limit and warning icons are projected low on the windshield in front of the driver, but the Grand Touring model also includes an image of the traffic sign you are approaching. The name of the street you are about to cross or turn onto also pops up on the 7-inch display screen that shows navigation information, details about the radio station (or satellite radio channel) you are listening to and the rear-camera view when you put the crossover in reverse.

The rear-view camera is standard on all CX-5 models and, without the traffic sign recognition, so is the heads-up display for the driver. The Grand Touring model includes the adaptive Radar Cruise Control system.

So, how much does all this set you back? Not much compared to most same-class crossovers. An entry-level CX-5 goes for as little as $24,985. Without the premium extras, the Grand Touring model I drove would have been $29,395. With the premiums: $32,785. I’ve test driven crossovers from other carmakers, with about the same extras, that run $34,000+ to $70,000+.

My CX-5 was relatively inexpensive to drive as well, with an EPA fuel economy rating of 24 miles per gallon city, 31 mpg highway and 27 mpg combined. The EPA greenhouse gas rating is a 6 (10 being best) and smog is an 8.

I’d be remiss not to mention this anecdote. Pulling into a driveway to pick up a foreign student for a ride to school, her classmate who was already in the car remarked how he loved the looks of this Grand Touring model’s two-tone, black and off white leather interior—but he feared the lighter shade would quickly get dirty and dingy. As the other student climbed into the back seat, the first thing out of her mouth was, “Nice car, but I’d be afraid of the white leather getting dirty.” Maybe the grime-to-light-color factor is of grave importance in their native Basque region, caused perhaps by bad experiences with grimy Catalan car borrowers. But given we were in a crossover—the go-to vehicle for parents weening themselves from full-size SUVs and minivans and desiring driving excitement while no doubt spilling coffee from behind the wheel—interior color consideration is valid.

Get all black and let the Catalans call Uber.

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