It's unfortunate that Mazda only offers the manual transmission on the most basic variant of the CX-5, though I suppose we should be happy it's available at all. Having driven this stick-shift model back-to-back with a fully-loaded automatic variant, I can say there are only two goodies I'd really miss: nineteen-inch wheels and leather. The larger wheels and, more important, the accompanying low-profile tires, translate to better-weighted and more communicative steering than the tall, seventeen-inch tires on this model. The leather also relates to steering- the cheap plastic rim on the base model ruins a perfectly shaped steering wheel.
The other options? The extra-cost navigation system is quite awful, so I wouldn't mind skipping it. OK, I'd probably miss Bluetooth and a touch screen to display all my iPod's songs (USB input is standard). But I would happily give them up for this manual transmission, and it's not just a matter of principle. It's actually an excellent transmission, complete with proper pedal placement and a slick, tight gearbox. Dear Chevrolet Corvette engineers: this is how a manual gearbox is supposed to feel.
Regardless of the transmission, the CX-5 is a solid new choice in the compact crossover segment and really the only choice at the moment if you happen to like driving. The excellent steering and smooth four-cylinder engine make for a more rewarding experience than you'd ever expect from an underpowered vehicle with 8.5-inches of ground clearance. It succeeds on other merits, as well, namely an excellent interior and best-in-class fuel economy with either transmission (the manual enjoys a 3-mpg edge in the highway).
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Yes, David, the CX-5 is certainly the strongest choice in this segment for people who enjoy driving. I disagree that it's underpowered, though. I will happily take this level of power for a 35 mpg rating on the highway and an involving six-speed manual transmission. I suppose there will only be dozens of buyers for the base CX-5 with a manual transmission, but the sort of person who can appreciate the goodness of this package shouldn't mind sixth-to-third downshifts to pass slower traffic. The 17-inch wheels help strike a favorable balance between acceleration and grip. Perhaps I'd be less happy with the CX-5's power if I had sampled an automatic equipped with the massive 19-inch wheels.
It's amazing how well the CX-5 embodies the Zoom-Zoom personality that's missing from so many other Mazda products. In no way is the CX-5 as satisfying as a Miata or even a Mazda3, but it has the same mix of better than expected grip, adequate power, and a willingness to change direction that makes the other two Mazdas so much fun. Although acceleration is only adequate, I found myself entering highways at much higher speeds than I expected because the CX-5 handles corners so well at speeds up to 80 mph. After 80 there's not a whole lot of acceleration left but that's not an issue in my book. I suspect it would be very possible for a skilled driver in a CX-5 Sport to embarrass quite a few more powerful vehicles on a canyon road because it handles curves so well.
If your life dictates the purchase of a smallish crossover with a decent amount of cargo capacity, the CX-5 is the best choice on the market. It manages to be more involving to drive than some C-segment sedans and offers 35 mpg on the highway with the ability to haul a lot more stuff at the same time. Very impressive.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Yep, the CX-5 is as good as my colleagues have described. In terms of driving enjoyment, it's more akin to its sibling the Mazda3 hatchback, than to the uninspiring vehicle it replaces, the Tribute. The manual transmission in this tester only reinforces the similarities to the 3: It's enjoyable to work, and more importantly, it allows the driver to wring every bit of power out of the smooth but gutless SkyActiv four-cylinder.
Based on driving dynamics alone, I'd say the CX-5 has easily moved to the top of the crossover class; at least for a moment, anyway. The Ford Escape is also all-new and, according to the few Automobile editors who have driven it, it's good enough to challenge the CX-5 for the title of most engaging entry in the small crossover segment.
If the contest is just a straightforward beauty pageant though, the CX-5 is likely to come out on top. The Mazda's upright grill makes for a somewhat blunt nose, but it looks pleasingly modern and to my eyes it just works. Regardless, it's undeniable that the CX-5's exterior design stands out in the crowded crossover segment far more than the generic Escape or even the Honda CR-V.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
I agree with everyone else here that the Mazda CX-5 sits at the head of the class in terms of driving dynamics. Its composed ride, controlled body motions, and responsive steering make it one of the first affordable crossovers that truly drives like a car. More importantly, though, the CX-5 delivers driving joy without compromising the more practical concerns of owning a crossover. It offers spacious rear head- and legroom and a generous cargo hold. Fuel economy, at 26/35 mpg with the manual, rivals that of some compact cars. The price of entry is thousands of dollars below the competition (thanks again to the availability of a manual transmission).
While the CX-5 boasts excellent outward visibility and a raised perspective compared to a car, the seating position reminds me of the Volkswagen Golf/GTI. You sit low relative to the dashboard with tons of open space between the top of your head and the roof. It gives the driver a sense of connectedness to the chassis that perfectly complements the CX-5's abilities. As good as the CX-5 is, though, I'm holding out for something even better.
Since Mazda made the irrational commitment to build and (try to) sell a manual-transmission crossover, I have to imagine the diesel engine can't be far behind. The company already has a powerful, efficient four-cylinder diesel in its portfolio and has done everything shy of announcing its intention to install it in U.S.-bound CX-5s. Doing just that will be one more feather in the cap of Mazda's fun-to-drive crossover. The diesel would offer a torquier alternative for buyers concerned about the casual acceleration of the gas-engine version, while providing comparable or better fuel economy.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
I took the keys to the CX-5 Sport promising myself one thing: that I wouldn't mention the iconic MX-5 Miata anywhere in my review of the CX-5 on account of it being a horrendous cliche. I broke my promise almost immediately.
Automotive journalists mention the Miata because it's a really easy way to say that a car is moderately slow and handles almost uncommonly well, and that describes the CX-5 exactly. Like the MX-5, it also has a proper manual transmission, but this Skyactiv-MT model is slicker than any non-sports-car stick shift we've previously seen from Mazda.
There's one more thing: this tester, the one you see in photos above, is a stripper -- you could theoretically go out and buy this car for a shade under $22k. Instead of feeling like a stripped-out, dumbed-down family hatchback, the CX-5 delights in its simplicity. Mazda engineers boiled down the CUV into a package that's simple and affordable. The CX-5 handles well, holds lots of stuff, and looks good. It only has the features you'll use every day.
Despite my best efforts, I'll admit that the CX-5 is like the MX-5, for all the reasons above, and one more: I'd quite like to own one.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor