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Mazda's latest SUV: The devil's in the details

The automaker should fix the little stuff in this CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

Jeff Rundles //July 27, 2016//

Mazda's latest SUV: The devil's in the details

The automaker should fix the little stuff in this CX-5 Grand Touring AWD

Jeff Rundles //July 27, 2016//



Mazda to me is an enigma. The Japanese car company has sold automobiles in the U.S. since 1970 – a pretty good track record – but it has always remained the No. 4 Japanese car seller here, behind perennial leaders Toyota and Honda, and also behind upstart Nissan.

And when Mazda first came here, it did so with the newfangled rotary engine, called the Wankel after its creator Felix Wankel, a German engineer, an effort by Mazda to differentiate itself from the pack. Mazda occasionally still toys with a rotary engine, but it has long since driven its Zoom-Zoom brand with its own regular piston-driven engines.

Today, you see a ton of Mazdas on the road, especially here in Colorado, and I hear from my young car-enthusiast friends that such vehicles as the Mazda3, in some configurations, are performance demons. But the offerings from Mazda these days have been trimmed to a scant few: On the Mazda USA website these days are the Mazda3 4-door and 5-door, and the Mazda6 in the sedan lineup; the CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9 in the SUV/crossover lineup; and, the iconic MX-5 Miata two-seat roadster that is probably the carmaker’s most famous vehicle.

A quick look back a few years (2012) reveals that Mazda had variations of these vehicles, plus the smaller Mazda2 hatchback, the odd mini-minivan called the Mazda5, and the CX-7 SUV; all of these, apparently, have been discontinued, at least here in the U.S. market. My guess is that they keep messing with the fringes of their lineup not only to stay competitive, but to focus on just the top sellers, a tactic often employed by the wannabe brands.

Having said that, my personal experience with Mazda – as slight as it is – is very good. My daughter used to have a CX-7 (she and her husband sold it to downsize to one car), and they – and me – really liked it. Good price, great performance, nice for their dogs. And a couple of years ago on a trip to Michigan, I was given a Mazda3 5-door for a test drive and I found it to be well made, speedy, roomy and with handling on the highway and city streets that matched any of the competitors. I was pleased.

So the truth is, I was looking forward to driving the CX-5, the mid-size SUV/crossover in the line, especially since during the week I had it I had planned a drive to Alamosa to visit another daughter and such a vehicle seemed like the best thing possible for a longish drive.

The CX-5 proved to be that: a great traveling vehicle – three people with gear – that not only negotiated mountain highways with ease, but also a very bumpy, rocky road to the amazing Zapata Falls near the Great Sand Dunes where the All-Wheel-Drive came in quite handy. I found on the highway – and in the city for that matter – that this 2.5-liter 4 cylinder engine with 184 horsepower was zippy and more than adequate for the job, even on steep mountain roads, although I will say that it had to downshift often to maintain speed going uphill.

Still, there was plenty of power. Mazda calls the engine and transmission technologies SkyActiv, for some reason, and the whole idea, introduced in 2011, is to boost fuel efficiency and engine output and all I can say is that it works. This All-Wheel Drive Grand Touring trim of the Mazda CX-5 is rated a 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway, and that is impressive given the performance.

But I wasn’t a complete fan. Compared to other mid-sized SUVs I have driven, this one felt a little light and tinny – but it was also much less expensive, so I suppose that is to be expected. It wasn’t a huge drawback, and I wouldn’t count it out of the mix on that account.

Where the CX-5 really falls short is in the technology. It has all the modern bells and whistles: back-up camera, push-button keyless entry, blind-spot monitoring (that worked great), rear cross traffic alert, and hill launch assist. And, of course, all the modern Bluetooth hookups, apps, navigation, etc. The company calls its central access system Mazda Connect Infotainment, and it says on its website to “just use the multifunction Commander control on the center console to navigate the multitude of functions displayed on the full-color touch-screen display.”

Easier said than done. You dial it up and push the commander to get into what you want, but it is, well, clumsy. To change radio stations, for instance, you have to dial and push all over the place, and the settings for “tune,” “scan,” “favorites,” and “sound” were in different places along the menu bar for FM, AM and XM radio. I figured it out, but it’s clumsy and somewhat of a distraction when you’re driving.

Then – and this really bugged me – the CX-5 has the modern USB hookups like almost all of the new cars in a little cubby in the front of the console, but no power outlet (what we used to call the cigarette lighter). My son was able to plug in his iPhone for a travelling recharge, but my wife and I were unable to charge our android phones with the car charger because there was no power outlet. We looked everywhere, even in the owner’s manual; it’s not there.

Then my son, a back-seat passenger on one leg of the trip, said the rear seats were odd. He said they were kind of flat, with little “butt” definition, so when we took some of the mountain curves he slid all over the place on the leather-trimmed seats. The front seats were quite defined and comfortable, but apparently not the back seat.  

The good news is the price. The CX-5 comes in three trims – Sport, Touring and Grand Touring – all with the same engine, and all in Front-Wheel-Drive with available AWD. The base prices start at $23,595 for the Sport, $25,215 for the Touring, and $28,570 for the Grand Touring. Then you add in AWD – so the base price on my AWD version of the Grand Touring was $29,870.

That price included all the stuff I mentioned, and they added a few things: $86 bucks for a cargo mat, $200 for a retractable cargo cover, $128 for door sill trim plates, and a $1,100 Tech Package that included LED headlights, adaptive front lighting, LED daytime running lights, LED fog lamps, LED combination taillights, smart city brake support (I assume it stops the vehicle; I didn’t have to use it), and an auto-dim mirror with Homelink garage door openers built in. Add a little dealer handling and the bottom line is $32,310.

For all you get here – plus it’s a good looking vehicle inside and out – and considering the competition (Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia), this is a very nice, highly competitive vehicle. For some reason they call it the 2016.5 model year (others are already going to 2017), but if I were in the market for a smaller, mid-sized SUV this would definitely be on my shopping list. What bugs me is that Mazda could easily fix the little things wrong for not a lot of money, and they should.