Driven: 2016.5 Mazda CX-5 Farewell Test
Sales are not up to par, sure, but year-over-year growth equates to a steady evolution. Bear in mind that if the CX-5 hadn't sold well, the MX-5 Miata ND wouldn’t have happened. Now that the first-generation CX-5 has bitten the dust to make way for the all-new-for-2017 second generation, it’s imperative to say goodbye to the model that has recently left us with top honors.
When the CX-5 went into production in early 2012, the compact crossover replaced two models that were rather too archaic for what the world wanted from an all-around vehicle such as a crossover: the Tribute and CX-7. Two years after that, the CX-5 was refreshed with a mid-cycle update just in time for the 2016 model year. Continuous improvement of the species brought us the 2016.5 MY, the final iteration of the first-generation CX-5. Our test car is of the latter variety, a European-spec CX-5 with the 2.2-liter SkyActiv-D motor gifted with 150 PS (148 hp), AWD, and a six-speed manual transmission.
It also happens to be the Takumi, the fourth best out of the six trim levels available. It doesn’t come with all the bang and whistles one can have in a CX-5, nor does it come with the original 19-inch wheels wrapped in 225/55 rubber. Due to the sub-zero weather of December/January, our test car was shod in 225/65 17-inch Toyo Open Country W/T winter tires. They’re fantastic in bad weather or when the going gets off-road-ish, but on a dry strip of roadway, they worsen the ride and the tire roar is easily audible from inside.
These, however, are not the sort of deficiencies I’d define as deal-breakers. Especially when weighed against the good points, the flaws become lost like the crackle on a radio or the lines on an old TV. The first thing that makes you go, “Yes, I would like to own a CX-5,” is the exterior styling. Mazda’s first model to feature the Kodo - Soul of Motion design language is also the first Mazda nameplate gifted with the complete suite of SkyActiv technologies.
“How’s the 2.2-liter turbo diesel?” you might ask. As the U.S. market waits for the second-generation CX-5 to introduce the 2.2 SkyActiv-D, I feel obliged to tell you that the diesel engine is the proverbial real cherry. The world’s lowest diesel-engine compression ratio (14.0:1), a two-stage turbocharger, multi-hole piezo injectors, variable valve lift, reciprocating parts designed with low mechanical friction in mind, and an aluminum block help the SkyActiv-D’s cause. The design is so successful, there’s no need for an expensive NOx aftertreatment system. Comparable diesels such as the OM 651, Mercedes’ most-produced engine, needs SCR tech to comply with EU6 legislation.
The moment you push the start button, it’s uncanny how quiet the 2.2 SkyActiv-D is, inside or outside the car, cold or warmed up. Only under heavy acceleration the oil-chugging four-cylinder mill shows its true colors. The motorway is the SkyActiv-D's favorite stomping ground, albeit the engine is good for city driving as well. What’s not so great, however, is the hamfisted i-stop function. In situations when the driver has to press/depress the clutch quickly, the start/stop system might go haywire. I admit that I cussed at the CX-5's i-stop for not doing its job properly on more than one occasion.
Fuel economy is another area with hits and misses. Over 100 km/h (62 mph), the CX-5 morphs from a pipette into a binge drinker. When driven in a relaxed and unhurried manner, like I did in one instance, frugality can improve up to a ridiculous 4.2 l/100 km. That’s 67.2 UK mpg or 56 U.S. mpg, and less than all three official fuel consumption figures. It should be noted that the 4.2 l/100 km I'm talking about was achieved with cruise control, air con, and heated seats on, plus some luggage in the trunk, so it was no hypermiling drudgery.
The transmission, meanwhile, is all sorts of wonderful. I like a harder clutch with an easily detectable grab point. Operating the gear lever is an even nicer experience. If I didn’t know better, I’d confuse it for the heavenly six-speed stick shift in the MX-5 Miata. Surprisingly enough, rowing through the gears in the CX-5 feels a little more satisfying than doing the same job in the Mazda6.
Two years ago I also tested the CX-5 with the more powerful diesel mill and the SkyActiv-Drive six-speed automatic transmission. Yes, the torque converter/single clutch-based box. This combo is pretty damn good as well, but having a manual makes the CX-5 an idea more enjoyable to drive. Don’t get me wrong, though: if it were my money and if I was in the market for a daily driver with good ground clearance, I would take the CX-5 only with a good old automatic. Why's that? For convenience’s sake, of course.
Mazda’s higher-ups always believed that driving is a feast for the senses and that cars are more than just a form of transportation. And it shows. Another thing that makes Mazda (and the CX-5) stand out from the crowd is that the body guys and the chassis guys work together to create a cohesive driving experience without compromising the ride, body roll, and so forth.
Another highlight of the CX-5 is how little brake dive there is. The electric power steering isn’t exactly a paradigm of feel. The turning radius is also a bit meh. To its defense, the moment you give an input to the steering wheel, the front wheels turn in the desired direction with utmost haste. No sluggishness here, I’m happy to report. This eagerness is a redeeming attribute of a car most people buy as the household’s only means of transportation.
And this gets us to life onboard. The simplicity of the layout is enhanced by the robustness of the materials used inside. No odd creaks, no annoying squeaks, buttons that feel just so, a steering wheel that’s neither thick nor too thin, there’s a lot to like about the CX-5. Even a mid-range Takumi model such as the tested vehicle comes with niceties that include faux carbon fiber here and there, two-zone climate control, two USB ports, keyless entry, and a rearview camera. Adaptive LED headlights, LED fog lights, 9-speaker Bose premium audio system, and 7-inch infotainment are also standard.
Compared to the range-topping Revolution Top tested in 2015, the Takumi made me understand something else about how Mazda rolls. The apparently unpretentious trim level and not exactly brawny engine convinced me, to my own surprise, that the automaker hasn’t designed this car on a budget. It’s a cheap car, yet it doesn’t feel cheap at all. Mazda seems to have made this particular CX-5 as nice to drive and as feature-laden as possible for the money it asks for it. And that is a car that meets consumer satisfaction.
In hindsight, the lower and upper echelons of Mazda know what they’re doing. Masahiro Moro, the managing executive officer of the Japanese company, once said that the bombing of Hiroshima has given the people of Hiroshima, Japan the ability to overcome challenges. Considering that Mazda is the only company to successfully put the rotary engine into mass production, his argument stands true. What's more, do remember that Mazda is the only Japanse automaker to win the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The first-generation CX-5 for Mazda is more than just a compact crossover designed to appeal to as many people as possible. It’s not a product stemmed from those blithering pinheads we often refer to as beancounters. It is a simple car that also happens to be very satisfying. And a satisfying ownership is arguably the best reason why it’s worth putting the CX-5 on your shortlist.
Having said these, the first-gen CX-5 stopped production approximately four and 11 months after the first JDM-spec unit rolled off the assembly line. The all-new model may be a bit bigger, sexier, and a little more refined, but the essential bits and bobs are shared with the now-defunct first generation.
Why is that? After testing the CX-5 twice, I am pretty damn sure that Mazda’s recipe for the CX-5 was good from the very start. On that note, here's a good little question for you: if the recipe is still relevant compared to the modern crop of crossovers, then why would Mazda take a risk by changing it?
After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.