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2020 Mazda CX-5 Test Drive Review

The 2020 Mazda CX-5 is the most popular vehicle in the automaker’s lineup, and there are lots of good reasons for that, not the least of which is that the CX-5 is a member of the most popular vehicle segment in America—compact crossovers.

7.7 /10
Overall Score

According to a Harvard Business Review marketing study, there is such a thing as too much choice. And when the marketplace presents consumers with too much choice, there is a chance they won’t buy anything at all.

For the 2020 model year, there are more than 40 small or compact SUVs available, half of them sold by luxury brands. Small and scrappy Mazda offers three of them: the CX-3, the CX-30, and the CX-5. However, in a marketplace awash in Chevys, Fords, Hondas, and Toyotas, Mazda has trouble standing apart from the established crowd.

What’s the solution? Move upscale into “premium” territory.

Premium is where Buick, Fiat, GMC, Jeep, Mini, and Volkswagen play to varying levels of success. Combining the value inherent in a mainstream brand with the design, materials, and technology common to luxury brands, these premium vehicles attempt to provide more than mainstream for less than luxury.

At the same time, less is more. Because the 2020 Mazda CX-5 has but four similarly sized competitors in the premium class, that makes it easier for a consumer to choose, and more likely that a consumer will buy. The trick is convincing people that Mazda is a premium brand, and the automaker is taking a pragmatic approach to this emotionally-charged solution.

Look and Feel

9/ 10

Marketing angles aside, Mazda does a better job executing on the concept of premium than its competitors. At Mazda, going premium is about more than just a claim. Captivating style, compelling substance, and continual product improvement provide evidence of the automaker’s commitment to building better cars and SUVs worthy of higher prices.

For example, this model year, the 2020 Mazda CX-5 has more standard equipment, revised instrumentation and control markings to enhance the appearance of the cabin, and modifications to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. The SUV’s turbocharged engine also sees an increase in torque output, while versions with all-wheel drive (AWD) gain a new off-road traction assistance feature.

Prices run from $25,190 to $37,155, and trim levels include Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, Grand Touring Reserve, and Signature. The test vehicle had Signature trim, extra-cost Machine Gray metallic paint, and a rear bumper guard to protect against scratches from luggage and cargo. The window sticker came to $38,680, including the $1,100 destination charge.

The original Mazda CX-5 put the company on its current design path, and now, nearly a decade later, those “Kodo” styling themes still look terrific. Mazda makes the CX-5 look appealing, distinctive, and upscale all at the same time, a trick that many automakers simply cannot pull off with equal success.

The same goes for the CX-5’s interior, especially in Signature trim, where premium Nappa leather upholstery, real wood, and a black headliner combine to give the SUV a luxurious look and feel. Unfortunately, the Caturra Brown leather is almost indistinguishable from the otherwise black cabin, which lessens the level of contrast that often makes a vehicle seem premium.


7/ 10

A 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque is standard in the CX-5 Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring trim levels. It uses a six-speed automatic transmission with a Sport mode. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard, with all-wheel drive optional.

Upgrade to Grand Touring Reserve or Signature trim, and you get a turbocharged version of that engine. Fuel it with premium, and it will generate 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. Run it on regular, and those figures drop to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft, respectively. The turbo CX-5 uses the same six-speed automatic but comes only with AWD.

That’s a healthy amount of power for a compact crossover SUV, and the Mazda CX-5 Signature accelerates with authority despite a 3,825-pound curb weight. The turbocharged engine is less efficient, though, rated to get 24 mpg in combined driving, compared to 26 mpg combined for the naturally-aspirated engine with all-wheel drive (with front-wheel drive, the non-turbo engine is rated at 28 mpg combined). We averaged 22.1 mpg on the testing loop.

As is true of any Mazda, the CX-5 Signature is more than just quick. It’s genuinely engaging to drive thanks in part to its standard G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC Plus) technology. This system uses the brakes to stabilize the SUV when approaching, rounding, and exiting corners, creating a more enjoyable driving sensation for everyone aboard.

Nevertheless, despite GVC Plus, the upgraded brakes that come with the turbocharged engine, and the 19-inch wheels with 225/55 tires that are standard on all but Sport and Touring trims, the CX-5 doesn’t feel quite as thrilling and confidence-inspiring as most other Mazdas do.

The problem is this SUV’s excessive body motions when you’re hustling it down a favorite back road. Sitting tall on a stubby and narrow wheelbase, the CX-5 has a center of gravity high enough to cause all manner of rocking and rolling when pitching the SUV through curves, and it gets tiresome after a while. An adaptive-damping suspension could work wonders here.

Aside from this, however, the almost telepathic steering and faithful brakes are certainly up to the task of showing the driver a good time. And in typical driving situations, the Mazda CX-5 Signature is a delight. You can easily lead the pack away from an intersection, toss the SUV around corners, and squirt through holes in traffic. You just won’t be inspired to take the long way home, which is an unusual thing to say about a Mazda.

Form and Function

7/ 10

Moving upmarket where there is less competition and where this Mazda might get cross-shopped with the smallest and cheapest luxury SUVs also solves another problem. The CX-5’s interior is more cramped than the sales leaders in the mainstream compact crossover segment, like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, making the Mazda uncompetitive in terms of practicality and utility. By placing focus on the CX-5’s more upscale cabin and a more generous list of standard equipment, Mazda attempts to de-emphasize that demerit.

Every version of the Mazda CX-5 has an interior reflecting style and good taste, from the classy-looking and remarkably clear gauges to the elegant metallic accents around the cabin.

Touring trim steps up the CX-5’s comfort game with dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, and rear air conditioning vents. Grand Touring trim adds a power height-adjustable front passenger’s seat, and Grand Touring Reserve equips the SUV with ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and a heated steering wheel. To this, the Signature adds a dollop of luxury with Nappa leather, genuine wood trim, and more.

Aside from their small size, the CX-5 Signature’s front seats are quite comfortable. Rear passengers might complain about legroom, but the back seat is otherwise accommodating for two adults. On hot summer days, the air conditioning takes a long time to cool off the cabin.

Cargo space behind the rear seat measures 30.9 cubic feet, and if you choose Grand Touring trim or higher, a power liftgate with a programmable height limit is standard. Fold the back seat down, and the maximum cargo volume amounts to 59.6 cubic feet.

Tech Level

6/ 10

Equipped with a Mazda Connect infotainment system that patterns itself after Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, the CX-5’s tech setup immediately conveys an upscale impression. It can also be equally frustrating and require as long a period of acclimation as the technology from those German luxury automakers.

With Sport trim, Mazda Connect has a 7-inch touchscreen display, but it responds to touch only when the vehicle isn’t moving. Bluetooth, HD Radio, text messaging support, integrated internet radio apps, and E911 emergency notification are a part of this system. The Touring trim adds Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The CX-5 Grand Touring installs a color 8-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, and a 10-speaker Bose premium sound system. Signature trim enhances the technology with a navigation system, a surround-view camera system, and a SiriusXM data subscription to traffic, weather, news, sports, and more.

You interact with Mazda Connect by using the touchscreen (if the CX-5 isn’t moving), by using the controls on the center console or the steering wheel, or by using the voice-recognition technology. None of these solutions is ideal.

To reduce frustration, be sure to go through every Mazda Connect feature and function and get things set up the way you want them. After that, maximize your use of the steering controls as much as possible, relying less on the awkwardly placed center console controls and the touchscreen. The voice-recognition technology cannot interpret naturally voiced commands or queries, and frequently fails to provide any feedback explaining its lack of response, so it is best to avoid the push-to-talk button altogether.

For 2021, Mazda is swapping this version of Mazda Connect out in favor of the more recent version of the system. The touchscreen goes away, but the display is wider and more modern in appearance. However, based on experience using this system in the Mazda3 and Mazda CX-30, many of the same operational issues continue to exist.


10/ 10

When you think of automotive brands that deliver big on safety, Mazda probably doesn’t spring to mind. It should. Not only does the automaker make all of its advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) standard equipment on most of its models, it also passes crash-test evaluations like a student with a 4.0 grade-point average.

Collected together under the i-Activsense banner, the standard ADAS package includes adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, and lane-keep assist.

Additionally, the CX-5 has standard LED headlights and rain-sensing wipers. The only optional safety feature is a set of adaptive headlights that help the driver to see around dark curves. They come standard with Grand Touring trim.

As a result of these safety features, the CX-5’s fundamentally sound structural engineering, and its performance in crash tests, this Mazda earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Not only does this SUV earn these overall ratings, but when you look at its performance in individual testing parameters, it gets the highest marks nearly across the board. So, is the 2020 Mazda CX-5 safe? You bet it is.


7/ 10

Perhaps more than any other brand trying to position itself as premium, Mazda has the style and the substance to back up such assertions.

Rather than raise prices and hope the marketing team can convince consumers they’re getting more by paying more, Mazda has instead held the line on base pricing, invested in its products, and added more luxurious models so that its customers actually do get more without paying (much) more.

In turn, Mazda’s design, engineering, and quality are indeed a cut above what mainstream competitors offer. Regardless of the model you choose, you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth instead of getting ripped off. And this is especially true if you cross-shop something like a Mazda CX-5 Signature against any small SUV from any luxury brand.

From this perspective, the Mazda CX-5 is a cost-effective choice among compact SUVs. But if you measure value purely by interior size, cargo utility, extensive warranty plans, free maintenance plans, generous connected service plans, or the cachet that only comes from a luxury marque, there is likely a better choice for you among the 40+ small and compact SUVs for sale today.

Updated by Christian Wardlaw

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