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2018 Mazda CX-5 Test Drive Review
Mazda wants to move into the same premium product territory currently occupied by Acura, Buick, MINI, Volkswagen and, increasingly, Kia. To support this move, Mazda is launching a new “Feel Alive” marketing campaign, which the company says is a fan-focused effort that describes how the automaker’s cars and SUVs make you feel.
I’m a Mazda owner and fan. And I can attest that Mazdas do make you “feel alive”—if that relates to having a good time while you’re behind the wheel. Does the 2018 CX-5, Mazda’s compact crossover SUV and one of its best-selling models, do that?
Yes, it does. And with a few tweaks, it would be worthy of premium status.
Look and Feel
Before we dig into the details, it’s helpful to get the lay of the Mazda CX-5 land, so to speak. You’ve got three different versions to choose from: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring, each equipped with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD).
Prices start at $24,150 for the Sport. A Touring runs $26,215, and a Grand Touring costs $29,645. And don’t forget to add a destination charge of $975 to each of those prices.
My test vehicle was a Grand Touring version equipped with AWD, which bumps the price up another $1,300. It also had extra-cost Soul Red Crystal paint, a Premium Package, a cargo cover, a rear bumper guard, and illuminated door-sill trim plates. The grand total for this Grand Touring came to $34,685.
That sounds expensive, but when you consider that a base-trim Buick Envision is priced higher than that before you add a single option, it suddenly seems like a bargain.
The CX-5 is also an undeniably stylish little SUV. With chiseled design and upscale detailing that set it apart from the crowd, if the CX-5 were to be mistaken for anything but a Mazda, it would be for a premium or luxury brand. Especially with its lustrous Soul Red Crystal paint, which glows in natural light.
Nevertheless, I think I prefer the first-generation CX-5 design, which ran from 2013 to 2016. Simultaneously bolder yet plainer than the original CX-5, the newest version looks out of balance to my eye. And I am not a fan of the black, machined-surface 19-inch wheels, which look too delicate on an SUV with such striking overall forms and vivid paint.
Inside, however, the CX-5 Grand Touring is a visual and tactile treat, especially when it's decked out in high-contrast Parchment leather over a black base. The upscale cabin oozes sophistication, though for Mazda to truly convince customers that it is legitimately premium, the company will need to up its game in the hard plastic department.
Open the door, and the scent of premium leather wafts out of the SUV. For the most part, the surfaces, materials, and build quality reflect attention to detail, easily convincing a CX-5 Grand Touring’s driver and passengers that it costs more than the actual window sticker asks.
No doubt, from a design and detailing perspective, Mazda demonstrates premium-brand worthiness with the CX-5 Grand Touring.
In a Mazda CX-5, getting where you’re going is just as enjoyable as the destination. Like all Mazdas, this SUV is simply a pleasure to drive.
A single engine is available for the CX-5, a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder generating 187 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 186 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Considering that a CX-5 with AWD weighs almost 3,700 pounds, that’s just enough power.
Fortunately, Mazda gears the standard 6-speed automatic to make best use of it, especially if you switch the CX-5 into its Sport driving mode. Then, it feels more alive in your hands, which is now Mazda’s reason for being. You can manually shift the transmission, too, but I dislike Mazda’s F1 racing-inspired pattern, which is counterintuitive to me. And since the CX-5 has no shift paddles, I just let the automatic do its thing.
This is a talented transmission, making the CX-5 feel zippy in town and holding gears for effortless hill climbs. A satisfying engine note accompanies acceleration, too, and it’s all the more noticeable because the CX-5’s interior is remarkably quiet.
However, despite the addition of a new engine-cylinder deactivation system for 2018, I’m unimpressed by the CX-5's fuel economy. The EPA says the AWD version should get 26 mpg in combined driving. On my test loop, the CX-5 managed 24.7 mpg.
True, I did drive the twisty sections in Sport mode. And my loop does include an elevation change from sea level to nearly 2,000 feet. But more than half of it is comprised of highway driving, so the expectation for any test car is to hit the EPA’s combined number.
Mazda’s G Vectoring Control system is standard for the CX-5. In a nutshell, this technology works imperceptibly behind the scenes to improve steering response and handling. It must work, because the CX-5 is fun to drive down a writhing mountain road.
Body roll is evident but beautifully controlled. The brakes are excellent and successfully resist fade when abused. The steering is responsive and accurate, too. But it does feel a little bit numb on center. This is not an issue on a twisty road. But when you’re droning down the highway, that hint of disconnectedness is the only thing approaching a flaw in an otherwise exceptionally balanced ride and handling equation.
Form and Function
In particular, I am a big fan of the CX-5’s instrumentation. I know that digital displays are all the rage, but Mazda’s simple, legible, easily referenced gauges are nothing short of perfection.
The CX-5’s front seats are on the small side, but they’re deeply sculpted, supportive, and wrapped in high-quality leather. In my test vehicle, the driver’s seat offered 10-way power adjustment, while the front passenger seat had 6-way adjustment. Both front seats were also heated, as was the steering wheel. The CX-5 does not offer a ventilated seat function, which Mazda will need to provide as it moves upmarket.
I like to sit in a tall, vertical position behind the steering wheel, which means I can fit into the CX-5’s back seat without any trouble. Space is tight, but Mazda softly pads the entire front seatback and offers good foot room for my size 13s.
My test vehicle had rear air-conditioning vents, and when the center armrest is folded down, passengers will find controls for the backseat heaters and rear USB ports. Plus, the entire upper rear door panel is softly padded, a definitely upscale approach.
Cargo room is tight for a compact crossover SUV. All the sales leaders in this segment offer more room than the CX-5’s 30.9 cubic feet behind the rear seat and maximum volume of 59.6 cubes. Still, the space is usefully configured. You can easily place four full-size suitcases underneath the cargo cover, and Mazda provides small bins on either side for carrying items such as jugs of milk or bottles of wine.
Folding the 40-20-40-split rear seat is easy, too, thanks to handy levers in the cargo hold. The only misstep here is that the cargo hold needs to be just a few inches deeper in order to accommodate both luggage and a stroller.
Given the CX-5’s price point, design, equipment, and technology, I have no doubt it would be popular with new parents. If only it had room for a stroller. And got better side-impact crash-test ratings.
Mazda remains one of the sole holdouts when it comes to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection capability. That’s not a problem for me, but it might be for some people.
What the company’s Mazda Connect technology does offer is access to Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher Internet radio; text-messaging support; HD Radio; and an E911 emergency notification service. Navigation and a premium Bose sound system are options for the Touring and standard for the Grand Touring. You need Grand Touring trim if you want satellite radio, which is free for the first four months you own the SUV.
Mazda Connect works similarly to the infotainment systems in luxury-brand vehicles. On the dashboard, a freestanding screen conveys information. It works as a touchscreen only when the CX-5 is not moving. While driving, you can operate the system using the controls on the center console, the controls on the steering wheel, or voice commands.
Once you have everything set up the way you want it, interaction with the system is fairly minimal. I got used to adjusting the stereo using the steering-wheel controls, but it would be nice to get volume and tuning knobs on the dashboard, along with some primary function buttons.
What frustrated me was the voice recognition system. For whatever reason, when I tested it to program the navigation system, it would not allow me to request a specific address. Instead, it informed me that function was unavailable (without explaining why). The alternative was to use the rotary controller and screen prompts, which was distracting while driving.
This type of unexplained technology fail is exactly why people want Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in their vehicles, because they typically don’t behave in such fashion.
Although the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring is equipped with adaptive, auto-leveling LED headlights with automatic high-beam operation, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates them Acceptable instead of Good, costing the CX-5 a Top Safety Pick+ rating. Instead, this SUV gets a plain old Top Safety Pick rating.
Y’know what? That’s good enough for me. I drove the CX-5 on a curvy mountain road after dark, and the headlights did a fine job showing me the way.
The federal government is not as impressed with the CX-5’s ability to protect you in a collision. This SUV gets a 4-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) because of a 4-star performance in the rear-seat, side-impact test. As such, if you’ve got kids, there are safer SUVs you can choose. However, your alternatives might not be as adept at avoiding a collision in the first place.
This year, every Mazda CX-5 has a standard blind-spot monitoring system and rear cross-traffic alert. And, starting in 2018, Mazda now includes, as standard or optional equipment depending on the trim level, its i-ActiveSense suite of safety features. Highlights include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist, and more.
Add the E911 emergency notification service that is built into the CX-5’s standard Mazda Connect infotainment system, as well as the standard Smart City Brake Support low-speed automatic emergency braking system, and this is a reasonably safe SUV.
So then, can Mazda credibly move itself upmarket? Based on the design, the quality, the technology, the engineering, and the dynamism of its products, I’d say the answer is yes. And this 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring is a perfect example of why.
On the one hand, my test vehicle's price tag sounds like a big chunk of change for a compact crossover SUV. But when you put it into context, it’s a reasonable ask.
Remember, you’ll want to compare the CX-5 Grand Touring to a Buick Envision, which is more expensive before you add a single option to it. So is the Acura RDX, which is basically a Honda with different styling.
A MINI Countryman is competitively priced and offers a wide range of personalization upgrades. Equipped to roughly the same level as my CX-5 Grand Touring, though, it is thousands of dollars more expensive.
A Volkswagen Tiguan SEL is in the same pricing neighborhood as my test car, as is a Kia Sportage SX. However, it must be pointed out that the VW is much roomier inside, and the turbocharged Kia is significantly more powerful. Neither the VW nor the Kia can match the Mazda’s swanky interior, though.
Ultimately, the public will be the judge. And the public, typically concerned far too much about image and not nearly enough about substance, has not been kind to mainstream brands seeking to move upscale.
In the meantime, while Mazda works through its identity crisis, if you want a compact crossover that looks, feels, and drives like luxury but with a comparatively affordable price, you should definitely test-drive a 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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