A brand-new Mazda is always accompanied by a shot of extra electricity in the air. The little company from the hinterlands of Hiroshima has always had our best interests in heart. Zoom-zoom, and all that Jinba Ittai (oneness between horse and rider) stuff. Kodo (soul of motion) to you, too, brothers in performance.
So it is with Mazda’s new compact crossover, the CX-5. Out with the Tribute it borrowed from Ford, and in with its own very sporting little ute more in keeping with the award-winning CX-9. That is, the CX-5 is a flexible, thoughtful, sharp-looking vehicle that has been crafted from the ground up to give its all in the service of those who love to drive.
In order to follow the plot of this story, you’ll have to learn the word SKYACTIV -- all caps, no E. SKYACTIV is not an acronym. It means nothing, except that every important part of the CX-5 is brand-new, designed from a clean sheet of paper, and in synch with each other. This allowed Mazda engineers and designers to work together to achieve uncompromised engineering solutions not possible with carryover platforms and power trains. “The sky’s the limit!” someone in the company apparently said, and, well, your guess is as good as ours as to how that became SKYACTIV. These powertrain and chassis solutions, as well as the basic design cues of the CX-5 now form the bones of every new Mazda coming down the pike in the foreseeable future. The main components are broken down like this:
SKYACTIV-G is the 155-hp, direct-injected, normally aspirated 2.0-liter gas engine powering the CX-5. This engine -- a clean-sheet four-cylinder -- has already debuted in the Mazda 3. According to powertrain program manager Susumu Niinai, though, the CX-5 has the “final stage” Skyactiv-G, with redesigned pistons helping to improve torque (150 lb-ft at 4000 rpm) and a new exhaust 4-2-1 that helps optimize mid-level torque from 2500 to 4000 rpm. In general, SKYACTIV-G produces 15 percent more torque, and delivers 15 percent better fuel economy and emissions than Mazda’s current 2.0-liter. It’s also 10 percent lighter, with 30 percent reduced friction. The high-tech 2.0-liter boasts a 13:1 compression ratio -- unthinkable for a small SUV and higher than that of an F1 racing car -- and runs on 87 octane gas.
SKYACTIV-D, the bigger news, is an optional 2.2-liter twin-turbocharged diesel engine sporting the lowest compression ratio -- 14:1 -- of any diesel engine, with about 300 pound-feet of torque. No Asian manufacturer is selling a diesel in the United States at this time, so this is significant news. There was promise that the super-clean (50-state without urea injection), efficient, lightweight (aluminum block) wonder diesel would arrive in 2013, but no confirmation that it would appear first in the CX-5. Fine, then. Just bring it.
SKYACTIV-Drive refers to the two available transmissions -- a six-speed manumatic and six-speed manual. Both are compact, lightweight, and designed to “deliver a linear response to the driver’s input exactly as anticipated,” according to Mr. Niinai; precise, quick, and with virtually imperceptible up- and downshifts.
SKYACTIV-Body and SKYACTIV-Chassis describe the massive reduction of body weight through extensive use of high-tensile strength steel and the industry’s first use of 1800MPa in the bumpers (which also reduces polar moment front and rear). It means that every part of the CX-5 structure was optimized to split crash loads from any angle along as many paths as possible, with frame rails that carry more load and can fine-tune where collapses occur under crash. And SKYACTIV means that the chassis is stiffer, high speed steering and stability has been improved, suspension pieces have been redesigned and repositioned, the electric power steering ratio is now 15.5:1, and so on and so forth, and every possible improvement that could be made at the same time the engines and transmissions were being designed.
It’s a lot to digest, but goes a long way to explain why the CX-5 feels so darn good to drive on our 150-mile loop of the serpentine Angeles Forest roads north of Los Angeles. It would also be the very best real-world test roads in the state if not for the cops being so thick on the ground around there. Never mind. After admiring the tastefully restrained sheetmetal, commodious shoulder and leg room front and back, the wide windows, supportive seats, vast amount of cargo space, and driver’s command position, off we went in a bright blue CX-5 with a manual transmission, with a modest curb weight of 3208 pounds. The ten miles of Big Tujunga Canyon Road leading to Angeles Forest Highway are twisty, terribly pocked and patched, and the CX-5 took it like a freshly paved piece of asphalt. Who is mocking SKYACTIV-Chassis now? Not us. We next tried a series of huge stops, only because Mazda was bragging about the lack of dive under braking. True enough, though breakfast was trying to have something to say for itself.
The manual shifter is exquisite, if a tad light, with pedals positioned for easy heel-and-toe downshifts. The engine feels great, and as promised, torque comes on in direct proportion to throttle tip-in, building perfectly through the mid-range. Sadly, it hits a wall at about 4000 rpm, which is when you remind yourself that you’re in a small crossover, not the latest rotary-engine roadster. And that’s not bad at all.
The automatic can be flipped left to enter the manual mode, but that does little to channel the manual’s sportiness. Leaving it in auto will reward you with creamy up-and downshifts -- quick, clean, and a bit more visceral than those delivered by a CVT. Still, it’s a tad less fulfilling than the manual’s more involving relationship. But ordering a CX-5 with a manual curtails the luxury options available.
There will be plenty of those options otherwise, as well as a much more desirable level of standard content. Mazda has brought “class-above” features down a level so you can really deck out the already attractive CX-5 when it arrives in showrooms sometime around the end of February or early March.
Where no official numbers exist, there are Mazda targets:
-- EPA mpg city/highway estimates include 26/33 for the manual, 26/32 for the automatic, and 25/30 for the all-wheel-drive CX-5
-- Mazda believes that the CX-5 will get a “top pick” safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
-- Base price for CX-5 Sport (there are also Touring and GT trims) will fall between the industry’s average of $22,000 to $28,000
The CX-5 enters a very hot category -- expected to grow 1.6 million units by 2015. As marketing guy Tim Barnes says it, this is “a category of compromise,” not known for innovation, style, or performance. Consumers have had low expectations, wanting mainly a small, economical, flexible vehicle that is not a minivan. Archrival is the mighty Honda CR-V, known mainly for its reliability. A new CR-V was revealed at the Los Angeles Show a day after we drove the CX-5, and it will be on sale by mid-December. Although not pushing any design envelopes or as finely detailed as the CX-5, the Honda has a 2.4-liter engine with thirty more horsepower than the Mazda’s and is expecting 23 city/30 hwy for front-drive and 22/30 for its all-wheel-drive CR-V.
It will be a few months before we can indulge in a little head-to-head competition, which will also include the Toyota RAV-4 and the Kia Sportage. In the end, though, it may come down to just how important Jinba ittai and Kodo is to you.