The CX-5 is everything to Mazda these days. It outsold the rest of the automaker's entire lineup in the United States in 2018-combined-and it has become perhaps the clearest representation of the tiny Japanese company's ambition to become a premium brand.
Ostensibly, this compact crossover competes in a mainstream segment in price and performance. But like many other Mazdas, the CX-5, especially since the second generation debuted for 2017, feels a class above in its execution-one reason why it's been our favorite compact SUV for some time now. It is prettier inside and out, more refined, and more engaging to drive than crossovers such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, despite costing about the same.
But that is not enough for Mazda, which sees the CX-5 as having far greater potential, both in market position and profitability. For 2019, the CX-5 is offered with the same turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four already found in the Mazda 6 sedan and the CX-9 three-row crossover. The engine is paired with all-wheel drive and is found in the top two trim levels, the Grand Touring Reserve and the new Signature (lesser models continue to use the 187-hp naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-banger). The Signature is the version tested here, and it comes with all the available extras, including an interior with brown nappa leather, layered real-wood trim, and newly available ventilated front seats.
This all adds up to a vehicle that can hardly even be considered in the same conversation as Toyotas and Hondas anymore. Frankly, the CX-5 Signature is nicer-to drive, to look at, and to sit in-than some similarly sized crossovers with full-on premium badges (we're looking at you, Cadillac XT4 and Acura RDX).
The turbocharged CX-5's appeal isn't really about scorching performance, although the 250-hp engine does send it to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, nearly two seconds quicker than the base engine. But this engine is more effortless than exciting and is almost diesel-like in the way it doesn't like to rev. To maximize acceleration, the transmission upshifts at 5300 rpm-1000 revs short of redline-because the 2.5T's output tapers off so dramatically at high rpm. The engine doesn't sound like anything special, either, but we love the strong swell of torque low in the rpm range. The crisp six-speed automatic always seems to be in the correct gear and executes snappy, rev-matched downshifts in Sport mode. The extra oomph exacts a toll at the pump, as the turbo's EPA estimates are 2 to 3 mpg lower than the naturally aspirated version's. However, we recorded a strong 30 mpg in our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test-3 mpg better than the EPA estimate-and averaged 22 mpg overall.
The CX-5 is satisfyingly hushed at speed, long a sore spot for Mazdas. A general sense of refinement pervades the primary controls, from the crisp smoothness of the steering to the resolute response of the brake pedal. And yet the chassis is also communicative and fluid, with just the right amount of feedback transmitted to the driver and satisfyingly compliant damper tuning. The CX-5 is sporty not because it is sharp-edged or stiff-although the turbo is tuned to be slightly stiffer than the base model-or because it has lots of grip (an intrusive stability-control system hampered its performance on our skidpad), but because it exudes sophistication in the way that it moves.
Against this backdrop, our only nit to pick is with Mazda's infotainment system, which, with its small screen and somewhat dated-looking menus, no longer feels state of the art. At least it is now offered with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. We'd love to see the turbo engine available beyond the Grand Touring Reserve trim level, which starts at $35,865, and the Signature at $37,885. Our test example was nearly $40,000 with some accessories and the $300 upcharge for Machine Gray paint. That may be approaching premium pricing, but this CX-5 feels like a premium SUV.
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