In recent years, Mazda has earned a strong reputation for fun-to-drive vehicles by spicing up staid segments with products like the compact 3, the mid-size 6, and the CX-7 crossover. The Mazda Tribute, however, was not one of those vehicles. Ironically, the vehicle that launched the brand's Zoom-Zoom campaign was Mazda's least charismatic and least exciting offering. The Tribute was a rebadged Ford Escape, and just as Ford's utilitarian compact crossover languished on the market for far too many years, so did the Tribute.
Mazda hopes to redeem itself with the new CX-5, a vehicle designed to reflect the brand's values in style and driving character. Whereas most "new" cars use either an old powertrain or chassis from their predecessor, Mazda says the CX-5 is truly a clean-sheet design. The CX-5 is host to a range of new components that will make their way into future Mazdas including two engines, two transmissions, and a platform for compact and mid-size vehicles. The cars we drove were European-spec prototypes, so the CX-5 that will arrive in dealerships in February 2012 will have slight changes to the engine calibration, suspension tuning, steering character, and interior finishes.
An all-new design for an all-new crossover
Along with introducing new hardware for Mazda, the CX-5 is the first production interpretation of the brand's new design language called Kodo, which means the soul of motion. While our test cars were wrapped in camouflage, Mazda has already released a few pictures of an undisguised CX-5 ahead of the crossover's formal debut at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show in September. It isn't nearly as stylish or dynamic as the eye-catching Shinari and Minagi concepts, but the CX-5 is handsome and athletic-looking. A touch of brightwork on the grille would go a long way toward dressing up the exterior for a more premium feel, but we generally like the CX-5's lines and we're grateful that Kodo has rescued the rest of the lineup from the troubled Nagare sculpting that's been foisted on the new Mazda 5.
A rotary knob on the center console of the CX-5 controls the audio and navigation systems, much like BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI. But unlike those luxury players, Mazda offers redundant control of the system with a touch screen that is flanked by two knobs and six physical buttons. Whether you use the rotary dial or tap the screen, completing tasks is intuitive but the unfinished graphics were underwhelming and the display screen is small. The prototype interiors were far from finished, yet it appears that Mazda is continuing with its recent tradition of using premium materials. Assuming Mazda USA picks up all of the features available in Europe, CX-5 buyers will be able to get adaptive headlights, blind-spot monitoring, and wheels as large as 19 inches.
Small but not weak
Nineteen-inch wheels are big for this segment, but the 2.0-liter four-cylinder is small even in the era of downsizing. Fortified with direct injection and a high 13:1 compression ratio, the gas engine delivers 163 hp and 155 lb-ft in European spec. Those numbers can't top competitors' 2.4- and 2.5-liter units, but they are reasonably close. The small-displacement engine is backed by a modest curb weight estimated at 3400 pounds and a very good six-speed automatic. The gearbox's quick, seamless, and well-timed shifts perfectly complement the 2.0-liter's light and free-revving character. There isn't a ton of low-end torque or a spike of high-end power, but the Skyactiv 2.0-liter is confident at any rpm. Left to its own devices, the transmission picks the right gear to motor up hills or overtake dawdling cars; control freaks can move the gear selector to the left to call the shots with the manual shift gate.
If you're really into choosing your own gears, Mazda will sell you a CX-5 with a six-speed manual, though that option will likely only be available on lower trim levels. Mazda says its goal with the Skyactiv manual transmission was to lighten the shift effort and shorten the throws. Eventually, this gearbox is set to replace the manuals throughout the lineup and in a more agile car like the Mazda 3 we'd hope for a bit more resistance and damping effort. In the CX-5, the stubby stick has nice action but the low-effort throws feel a bit cheap and notchy. That's nitpicking, though, because the transmission is far more precise and quicker than any manual I've driven in a crossover and Mazda deserves kudos for merely offering a stick shift in this segment.
With the small engine and a relatively low weight, the CX-5 has a shot at claiming the best fuel economy in the class. EPA numbers aren't yet available, but expect city fuel economy in the mid 20s and highway fuel economy near 32 mpg. Mazda has no intentions of dropping a six-cylinder into the CX-5 and a hybrid was never discussed, but North American president and CEO Jim O'Sullivan believes a single optional engine could cover both bases.
The duality of diesel
That engine is a 2.2-liter diesel four-cylinder with two sequential turbochargers. Producing a massive 310 lb-ft of torque and 173 hp, the responsive and assertive diesel should placate six-cylinder buyers. While it's not quite as enthusiastic as a V-6 at 6500 rpm, the diesel revs with surprising vigor up to an impressive 5150 rpm. Torque peaks around 1800 rpm, but the engine never feels choked or weak on its way to redline. These qualities make the powerplant feel more spry and more flexible than Volkswagen's very good (but less powerful) 2.0-liter diesel.
While Mazda engineers won't talk about fuel economy, we saw 36 mpg on a short drive loop with speeds around 55 mph, lending the diesel credibility to be both the powerful option and the fuel-efficient choice. A low compression ratio of 14:1 minimizes peak cylinder pressures and reduces emissions, enabling the engine to meet regulations without the use of a urea after-treatment system.
Mazda executives haven't publicly confirmed the diesel CX-5 for the U.S. market just yet, but the company has promised to start selling diesels in the States in early 2013. The CX-5 and the next-generation 6 mid-size sedan are the likely and worthy recipients. In either car, the diesel will be a smart choice for buyers and a fitting complement to Mazda's sporty soul.
The soul of a sports car
The Zoom-Zoom campaign that launched with the Tribute in 2000 was accompanied by the tagline "soul of a sports car." While it's debatable that the Tribute delivered, that sporty soul is readily apparent in the CX-5's chassis. The suspension arrangement is a typical strut configuration up front with a multilink layout in the rear. Iceland's roads proved to be a challenging dynamic test. Although the surfaces appear to be smoothly paved, they ride as if the land underneath was never graded. Seemingly uneventful pavement has a tendency to pitch the car side-to-side without much warning. Over these imperfections, the CX-5 remains poised with buttoned-down body control and a ride that is never harsh. The diesel CX-5 carries about 200 pounds of additional weight compared to the gas-powered model and is characterized by heavier steering and a more planted body. While we wouldn't gripe about the gas-fed CX-5, the diesel vehicle is more connected to the road through its chassis. Buyers will have a choice of front-wheel drive or a four-wheel-drive system that can send up to fifty percent of the torque to the rear wheels.
The electric power steering in both models provides a natural effort and reacts predictably and quickly to deliberate on-center movements. The engineering team intentionally filtered small on-center adjustments to enhance the feeling of stability, but they haven't compromised responsiveness. The connection between driver and vehicle is enhanced by superb ergonomics; there is a nicely bolstered driver's seat, great pedal spacing, natural shifter placement, and a wonderfully contoured steering wheel.
Without a doubt, the CX-5 is a Mazda. Without knowing the price tag or driving the final production car, it appears to check the right boxes for the pragmatic shoppers while hitting a more meaningful target. Whether or not it achieves superlatives as the quickest, the most fuel efficient, or the roomiest in its class, the CX-5 is among the most fun-to-drive compact crossovers on the market. Mazda has perfectly captured the Zoom-Zoom ethos in a practical, efficient, and stylish crossover. Mazda isn't simply making an apology for the Tribute, it is making things right.