By Derek Price
Driving on the country roads that zigzag around plots of farmland in rural East Texas, one thing is clear about the new Mazda CX-5.
It still carries some sports-car DNA.
That’s long been the chief selling point for the CX-5, a family-friendly vehicle that has reasonable space for baby seats in back yet still feels light, nimble and enjoyable when you flick the steering wheel and zoom by cow pastures. It’s perfect for drivers who need practicality but also want a hint of the MX-5 Miata’s smile-making personality.
For people who know Mazda, that’s no surprise. This brand has built its reputation around sparkling handling and Japanese reliability, sort of like a BMW of the Far East but without the luxury price tag.
To me, though, the surprising thing about the new CX-5 isn’t that it has the best handling in its class.
It’s that it has the nicest cabin, too.
I’ve never driven a reasonably priced crossover that was fitted with as much rich, supple, soft-touch material as this one. The leather feels fantastic. All the touch points are padded and smooth. Everything is stitched together and neatly styled like a fine Italian handbag.
To be fair, my tester was a loaded Grand Touring model that rang up at $32,765. The base model’s cabin comes across as Bulgarian, not Italian, but still a nice-try knockoff of the Lexus, Audi and Mercedes interiors that command big bucks.
It’s a cabin that’s trying harder, and reaching farther, than the CX-5 has attempted before. That’s important if Mazda will ever be able to expand its core buyers beyond a niche that cares religiously about brake feel and body roll.
(Both those are spectacular, by the way, so car geeks like me can rejoice.)
From a styling standpoint, the CX-5 seems to follow the same formula as many refreshed CUV competitors: a bigger grille, more body creases and a higher belt line. Nearly every crossover today is following that pattern, so this one ends up looking contemporary but not particularly wild.
It also recently joined the rest of the Mazda lineup in being named a “Top Safety Pick+” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Its driver assistance package, called i-ACTIVSENSE, includes all kinds of sensors and warnings to help you monitor blind spots and keep you safely in your lane.
It also comes with Smart City Brake Support, which can automatically prime and then apply the brakes if a radar sensor predicts a collision when you’re driving under 20 mph.
I particularly enjoyed the heads-up display on my tester that recognizes traffic signs and projects that information up near the windshield. It’s got a space-age feel to it, sure, but it’s also surprisingly useful for those times you’re driving along and can’t remember the current speed limit. The CX-5 can read the signs and let you know.
Power comes from a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 187 horsepower. It’s tuned for a very fast throttle response that makes it seem more powerful than it really is, something that’s become a Mazda hallmark in recent years. It’s rated for 31 mpg on the highway even though it drives and sounds like something that ought to be more of a gas-guzzler.
Other additions for 2017 include G-Vectoring Control to enhance the handling, available radar cruise control, a reclining rear seat and rear A/C vents with two rear USB ports. That brings the total USB count to four — an important number for digital-dependent families.
Pricing starts at $24,045 for the base Sport trim, $25,915 for the more well-equipped Touring, and $29,395 for the luxury-oriented Grand Touring.
At A Glance
What was tested?
2017 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring FWD ($29,395). Options: Cargo mat ($70), machine gray paint ($300), retractable cargo cover ($250), premium package ($1,830). Price as tested (including $940 destination charge): $32,785
Wheelbase: 106.2 in.
Length: 179.1 in.
Width: 72.5 in.
Height: 66.1 in.
Power: 2.5-liter four cylinder (187 hp, 185 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 24 city, 31 highway
Why buy it?
Crisp handling, prompt acceleration and good fuel economy make the CX-5 a strong choice. A surprisingly luxurious cabin in the Grand Touring trim is a nice bonus.