By Derek Price
Since its debut in 2017, the current-generation Mazda CX-5 has consistently been ranked at or near the top of its class.
Considering its mid-size crossover competitors are no slouches — including perennial stalwarts such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 — winning top praise is no easy feat for a comparatively small manufacturer like Mazda.
How does the CX-5 sand out? By outperforming expectations.
Like all the two-row crossovers it competes with, the CX-5 gets the basics right, including gas mileage, safety features and one of the best infotainment systems ever fitted to a car. It does all the boring, haul-your-family tasks brilliantly, right down to the perfectly located cup holders and storage spaces in the cabin.
What makes it different is something virtually every competitor lacks: emotion.
The CX-5 is actually engaging to drive, offering a feel for the road that’s sorely lacking from most crossovers. Just like its spiritual cousin, the Miata sports car, it feels much faster than it actually is thanks to careful tuning of its engine, suspension and steering.
It also leaves a more upscale impression than you typically find in cars priced from around $25,000, both in how it looks and how it feels. The cabin’s elegant, modern design seems like it could come from a luxury brand, while the clean lines and eye-catching creases on its body make it one of the prettiest crossovers for sale today, at least to my eyes.
To stay on top of a hotly competitive class, Mazda gave the CX-5 an exhaustive list of updates for 2020.
A quieter, more refined cabin adds to its upscale driving feel. Engineers massaged the chassis and suspension tuning to reduce noise, vibration and harshness to create a more relaxing experience at highway speed.
Mazda also makes the i-Activsense safety package standard on every CX-5 this year, including the base Sport trim. It includes radar cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keep assist.
While it’s still not necessarily designed as an off-road vehicle, the 2020 CX-5 does come with a new feature that can help in a pinch: off-road traction assist. If you’re driving on uneven terrain, the vehicle will sense when a tire lifts off the ground, then shift power to the tires that still have traction.
Most CX-5s will come with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine that makes 187 horsepower, enough to be competitive with other vehicles in its class.
Again, it outperforms expectations with an optional turbocharged engine — available on the upper Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trims — which makes 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque using premium fuel. If you want to save money and buy regular 87-octane gas, the power output is reduced to a still robust 227 horsepower.
The turbocharged engine makes slightly more torque than before, and it also sounds noticeably better. It has a new harmonics enhancer to give it a deeper, more satisfying growl than four-cylinder engines typically deliver.
With the base engine, the CX-5 is rated for 25 mpg in the city and a thrifty 31 mpg on the highway. Opting for all-wheel drive knocks those numbers down by 1.
The turbo engine, only available with all-wheel drive, is rated for 22 mpg in city driving and 27 on the highway.
Buyers who want a true luxury experience should look at the Signature trim. With ventilated front seats, a display projected onto the windshield, an 8-inch touchscreen and folding door mirrors, it’s a legitimate alternative to high-end brands. I thought the gorgeous brown Nappa leather and real wood trim in my Signature tester would be a perfect fit in a much more expensive Mercedes-Benz or Lexus.
Pricing starts at $25,190 for the Sport model or $26,830 for the Touring, which adds Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The Grand Touring with leather seats and a power lift gate is priced at $30,310, while the dramatically more powerful Grand Touring Reserve is priced at $35,135.
The Signature tops the lineup at $37,155.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2020 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD ($37,055). Options: Premium paint ($595), rear bumper guard ($125), roof rack ($400). Price as tested (including $1,045 destination charge): $39,220
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 179.1 in.
Width: 72.5 in.
Height: 66.2 in.
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder (250 hp, 320 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Estimated fuel economy: 22 city, 27 highway
Why buy it?
Already a top pick for the past three years, the CX-5 gets even better for 2020 with new standard safety features and more refinement. It has a premium feel without the bloated pricing of a luxury brand.