Crossovers have become the white bread of the automotive market both for their ubiquity -- more than one out of every five vehicles sold last year -- and for the fact that they're more convenient than they are interesting or enjoyable.
The Mazda CX-5 may, at last, be a crossover with some crust to it. The all-new vehicle replaces two aging products -- the CX-7 and the Tribute -- with a clean sheet design that completely cuts ties with Ford. The result is a great-looking vehicle that nets a segment best combined fuel economy rating of 29 mpg in front-wheel-drive form. It's also as fun to drive as we've come to expect of the company that's been building Miatas for two decades. Although no one will confuse the CX-5 with the MX-5, our early tests have found the trucklet steers and handles better than some sporty cars. The typical crossover features -- 8.5 inches of ground clearance and 65.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded -- are present and much appreciated, but don't define its character.
We thus did not hesitate in making the CX-5 the fifth (!) crossover in our four seasons fleet. We did, however, hesitate over how to equip it. We were sorely tempted by Mazda's inclusion of a six-speed manual transmission -- a very good one, at that. Alas, it's only available on the most basic model in three colors (black, gray, or silver). Our sky blue CX-5 Grand Touring instead has a six-speed automatic and all the trimmings, including nineteen-inch wheels, leather seats, a sunroof, a backup camera, and a nine-speaker Bose audio system. We also opted for a $1325 technology package that adds a navigation system, HID headlights, and keyless ignition. Just about the only extra we skipped was all-wheel drive. That measure of restraint (barely) kept the window sticker under $30,000.
The CX-5 is quickly establishing itself as more than just another crossover in our parking garage, earning early praise for its well-weighted steering and its refined, premium-looking interior. A journey to Boston within a week of arriving indicates the CX-5 is a comfortable road-trip vehicle, as well, though the 155-hp four-cylinder sometimes struggles to keep up with faster highway traffic.
The CX-5 is more than just another crossover for Mazda, too. It represents the first fruit of a huge product investment for a small automaker that just reported its worst annual financial performance in more than a decade. It can little afford for another of its products to fall to the margins of a competitive segment (see: Mazda 6). Only time will tell if the CX-5 can continue to stand out, especially as we get more seat time in the likes of the redesigned Ford Escape.