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2017 Mazda CX-5 First Drive Review – Less is More

2017 Mazda CX-5, Image: © 2017 Seth Parks

Mazda wants you to know its 2017 CX-5 is more than just another compact crossover. Not in terms of size, power, or price, but in its transcendent experience. Media introductions are often an exploration into the esoterica of automotive design, and this launch is no different — except for a refreshing dose of substance sprinkled over a focused, if understated, redesign.

Compact crossovers recently eclipsed full-size trucks as the largest automotive segment. And right on cue, CX-5 is Mazda’s best-selling vehicle, accounting for 38 percent of its U.S. sales last year. Not only that, but it was Mazda’s fastest nameplate to earn one million sales worldwide. It’s thus no shock that as important as this little ute has become to Mazda, its first generation lasted just five years. Nor is it a surprise that its well received first generation is followed by an evolutionary and not a revolutionary second gen, with a diesel on the way to further extend its reach.

If it ain’t broke, tweak it.

The all-new 2017 Mazda CX-5 does not present a radical departure from the outgoing first generation. And in true Mazda form, the new model may be an inch wider, but it sits atop the same 106-inch wheelbase as the first generation. Its proportions and rear-leaning stance are amplified by revised A-pillars, which are pulled rearward 35 mm. The exterior styling is beyond familial, but more complex surfaces, narrow LED headlights, and a forward leaning, concave, three-dimensional grille provide a sharper, more self-assured presence.

2017 Mazda CX-5 Interior Trim, Image: Mazda

The interior is more thoroughly revised to the eye than the exterior, but previous-generation CX-5 owners will feel right at home — controls are where you left them. However, materials and execution have moved from segment competitive to near luxury. This CX-5 interior, with its high-quality soft touch materials is on par with Volkswagen Tiguan and head and shoulders above the hard plastic obsessed Mercedes GLA. Interior styling is mature and effectively represents Mazda Premium, the company’s new motto for quality engineering, superb craftsmanship, and eye-catching style. It may not quite feel like an Audi inside, but its mainstream competition will undoubtedly take note.

Not only does the interior look and feel good, it’s rich with content. Apparently, that’s the way Mazda customers like it. The range topping Grand Touring (GT) trim accounts for almost 50 percent of CX-5 sales. And although trim inflation is an industry-wide phenomenon, the CX-5’s $27,000 average transaction price places it among the highest transacting compact crossovers in a segment thick with competition.

The GT includes Full-speed Mazda Radar Cruise Control, with is capable of bringing the vehicle to a complete stop. Both front perches get power and heat. There’s driver’s side memory, a heated steering wheel, and an unobtrusive head up display (known as Active Driving Display) with Traffic Sign Recognition, blind spot monitor, lane departure warning, and more. The rear seats recline, split 40/20/40, and the outboard positions get heat. A power liftgate and rearview camera are also available. And a 7-inch touch screen with 10-speaker Bose sound round out CX-5’s class stretching interior.

2017 Mazda CX-5 Interior, Image: Mazda

We got about 60 miles of mixed San Diego city, freeway, and back country driving to experience Mazda’s middle child. But the CX-5, positioned between the CX-3 and CX-9 in Mazda’s lineup, is neither neglected nor lacking ambition. It provides predictable, refined comfort. Acceleration is adequate, but one would not complain if an optional engine delivering more power were available. All U.S. market CX-5s presently get Mazda’s 2.5 liter SKYACTIV-G four-cylinder delivering 187 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm for front-wheel-drive models and at 4,000 rpm for all-wheel-drive CX-5s. In front-wheel drive, the CX-5 is rated at 24 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg highway. AWD notches economy down to 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. A diesel will be available later this year.

Engines and fuel economy are remarkably similar to the segment leading CR-V, RAV4, and Rogue. Both the Toyota and the Nissan offer 2.5-liter normally aspirated four-cylinders, while Honda offers both a 2.4 liter four and a 1.5-liter turbocharged four. The CR-V earns the best fuel economy with its 190 horsepower 1.5-liter turbo at 27 mpg city, 33 mpg highway with all-wheel drive. The transmissions in these products may be their most significant powertrain differentiators. The Honda and Nissan have continuously variable transmission, while the Toyota and Mazda both use conventional six-speed automatics. If you need a racier setup than any of these, try the turbocharged 2.0-liter Ford Escape with 245 horsepower.

2017 Mazda CX-5, Image: © 2017 Seth Parks

All U.S. bound CX-5’s get Mazda’s SKYACTIV-DRIVE six-speed automatic transmission. Refreshingly, not only is it a conventional automatic with six real forward gears, but it’s tuned to hold each one longer in spirited driving. Sport mode is even more reluctant to up- and down-shift. It’s an aggressive tune for a crossover, but it makes for more confidence-inspiring passing on twisty two-lane highways and suits this little CUV’s exuberant character.

Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD is available across the three-trim range. This is a fully autonomous AWD system designed to deliver traction in all road conditions while protecting fuel economy. It operates almost exclusively in front-wheel drive, but transfers power where needed when variations in wheel speed are detected. We encountered neither snow nor ice during the San Diego launch. On loose dirt and gravel, its operation was invisible. There are no traction modes, nor is there a low range, but the CX-5 would almost certainly be a capable winter companion with the right tires.

Then there is Mazda’ new G-Vectoring Control (GVC), which is standard across all CX-5s. When combined with the extreme lengths Mazda went to quiet the cabin, as well as its 15 percent stiffer chassis, GVC adds a confident, refined dynamic to the driving experience. G-Vectoring is software that monitors a variety of systems and inputs, such as throttle and steering angle. Based on some algorithmic magic, G-Vectoring then manipulates ignition spark and other operating parameters to deliver a smooth, predictable driving experience. It’s all part of Mazda’s quest for Jinba Ittai, or horse and rider as one.

2017 Mazda CX-5 Driving, Image: Mazda

Does it work? Yes, but identifying the impact of GVC is like wine tasting. Listen to the sommelier, read the tasting notes, thoughtfully sip, then strain to identify the details. Can I find the burnt almond and dew soaked rye? You should be able to, but the key is in the totality of your encounter. By all means, look for the linear throttle response, feel the detail in the intuitive correction-free steering, and absorb the naturally progressive braking. It’s all there and the refinement stacks up well versus up-market competitors.

When you test drive the CX-5, you should relax, turn off the stereo, roll up the windows, and let the yammering salesman know you just want to drive. The most effective way to underline the subtleties of GVC is to drive CX-5 back to back against any of its 15 or so rivals and learn by differentiation.

The CX-5 is easy to drive. Of course it is. It offers an elevated ride height, instinctive controls, decent visibility, and an automatic transmission. But it’s more than that. The driving position is centered directly behind the steering wheel and the seating is comfortable. It tracks straight and true on the freeway and gear changes arrive when anticipated. On back roads, its 3,600-pound girth is evident as it leans through corners, yet it remains predictable and compliant, communicating to its driver as the limit approaches. Accelerating out of corners, the 2.5-liter four tells you it’s working hard and its tune is not exactly sporting. A four-door Miata it is not, but it is a more willing back road companion compared to other compact crossovers.

2017 Mazda CX-5, Image: © 2017 Seth Parks

CX-5 comes in three appellations, starting at $24,045 for a Sport, extending to the Touring, then Grand Touring. A GT with Premium Package will set you back $32,525, plus $940 destination fee. Mazda’s compact crossover is now better positioned to compete in a segment in transition from double-digit growth to maturity. The new CX-5 may be a dimensional doppelgänger for the outgoing model, but the automaker made 698 improvements, according to Mazda, enabling it to label this an all-new product and not a midlife refresh.

Whatever you call it, the 2017 Mazda CX-5 is a material and emotional improvement over 2016, and worthy of your consideration.

[Images: © 2017 Seth Parks, Mazda]

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