2014 Mazda CX-5, the Thin Mint of SUVs: Motoramic Drives

Neal Pollack

Last week, I was driving down Shoal Creek to pick my son up at Sunday school. A local Girl Scout troop had set up a cookie stand. I decided to get in good with the wife by picking up a box of Thin Mints. That sounds like a pretty badass morning, I know. Try not to be envious.

I pulled over in my just-from-the-factory 2014 Mazda CX-5. It was candy-apple red, gleaming like a freshly polished fingernail. The 2.5-liter engine, new for this model year, hummed nicely. I rolled down the window and placed my order.

“Oh my God, dude,” said one of the Girl Scouts. “I love your car.”

“It’s new!” I said excitedly.

“It is so awesome,” she said. “So cute!”

Until this moment, I’d been having trouble placing the CX-5 into context. The compact sports utility vehicle segment doesn’t get a lot of love from my cohort. They’re not fast or stylish enough, and not really big enough for much more than a family of four. Essentially, they mark the evolution of the monstrous SUV into nothing more than a large hatchback. I like that development, but understand why it’s not exactly the car industry’s glamour shot.

Now, though, I’d discovered the CUV’s true destiny, embodied in this adorable new CX-5. Toyota and Honda, whose RAV4 and CR-V have never been called “cute” by a Girl Scout (as far as I know), could take lessons from Mazda’s quirky off-brand styling here. The only other car I’ve driven over the years that has evinced that kind of reaction was a mint-green Mustang convertible, though most of those squeals were from middle-aged men. But this CX-5 was girly all the way, and in the best way. Mazda has, quite by accident, produced the contemporary version of Barbie’s Dream Car.

This year’s CX-5 differs not much from last year’s. There are some new interactivity doo-ads. (Side note to car companies: Stop trying to impress me with the fact that your car is able to run Pandora via my smart phone. I don’t care how much they paid you. Give me a car that can make toast, and then we’ll talk special features.) But there is one actually significant new feature — a different engine. The 2.5-liter “Skyactiv G” gives the car the touch of zip and vigor that the previous 2.0-liter engine lacked. The CX-5 had been ready for a little boost. It gets 184 hp, and uses it wisely, for the most part.

I’ve been driving it on a variety of roads for several days, and have been pleased with its balanced suspension and its ability to move easily through tough turns. The automatic sport transmission is fine, but the car is especially fun to drive in semi-manual mode, which allows you to at least simulate gear toggling. It revs nicely in the low gears, and gives a nice cruise in the high ones, and the shifting works smoothly. The brakes and steering also feel solid and intuitive. It’s an easy, fun car to drive, and, at 30 mpg on the highway, it also gets above-average gas mileage.

Inside, the seats are leatherette, which, we learned at a press preview, is actual leather on all body contact surfaces and a synthetic “ette”-like substance elsewhere. They’re plenty comfortable with good lumbar support. The dashboard is unfussy, not overcrowded. The CX-5 offers excellent sight lines, and even better safety features. An electronic lane-departure warning saved me from moving into my right-side blind spot, and a potential accident, during a crowded portion of a Sunday drive. It’s really amazing what modern cars can do.

But it’s the exterior that really nails the CX-5’s Barbie Dream Car appeal, sleek but strong, bright and spunky, and modern looking without being weird. What it lacks in stereotypical brawn, it makes up for in stealthy curves. Let’s face it, the CX-5 feels like a Japanese product. It is the one called Sailor Moon.

Of course, the CX-5, with its nifty new 2.5L engine, tops out in its highest “Grand Touring” trim at $31,000-plus, hardly the most expensive car in the market, but enough to limit its appeal to any Girl Scout troop that doesn’t fall into an upper-middle-class zip code. Mazda says it’s having trouble keeping the CX-5 on their lots, which doesn’t surprise me. It plans to sell 50,000 of these in the U.S in the next year. But I bet they’d move a lot more if they made a miniature version.