2013 Mazda CX-5 First Impressions

2013 Mazda CX-5 First Impressions
November 25, 2011 2013 Mazda CX-5 First Impressions By Lesley Wimbush
LOS ANGELES, California – Our road skirts around the edges of the Tujunga Valley, past modest stucco houses surrounded by scrubby ranch land and twisted orchards. Quiet and unassuming it may seem, the area was once the site of the most famous alien landing of all in Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie, ET the Extraterrestrial.

As we wind our way up into the San Gabriel Mountains, it's hard to believe we're only 14 miles from L.A. The road cuts through striated layers of pre-Cambrian rock, and overlooks remote canyons. Here and there are huge outcroppings of sandstone slabs.

2013 Mazda CX-5 rear 3/4 view
Replacing the aging Tribute, a particularly joyless vehicle that was little more than a rebadged Ford Escape, it introduces "Kodo" – the new design language meaning "soul of motion." (Photo: Lesley Wimbush/Auto123.com)

Surprisingly – we encounter very little traffic on the looping roads that dip and climb and often give way to rough washboard strewn with fallen rock fragments. They're the kind of roads that can either induce driving euphoria – or nausea, depending on the suspension's integrity.

We're happy to report that Mazda has somehow managed to inject its CX-5, a small people-mover, with a little of the essence that has made its MX-5 roadster one of the most joyful driving experiences on the planet. They call it "Jinba Ittai" – horse and rider as one – a term that's been flogged nearly to death, yet remains an apt description of the much-desired connection between driver and vehicle.

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 is an important vehicle for the Japanese brand. Replacing the aging Tribute, a particularly joyless vehicle that was little more than a rebadged Ford Escape, it introduces "Kodo" – the new design language meaning "soul of motion." Dynamically sculpted, Kodo replaces the Nagare theme's demented grin with a tastefully decorated 5-point grille. The sharply raked windscreen pulls the A-pillars back, increasing visibility and lending a coupe-like appearance by its shortened roofline.

It's also the first vehicle designed from scratch that incorporates all of Mazda's SKYACTIV technology. Mazda readily admits that as a small company, it doesn't have the resources to develop alternative fuel technologies. Instead, by creating ultra-efficient powertrains coupled with extremely strong, lightweight chassis, they're hoping to "provide the kind of fuel economy that most companies only get by throwing batteries at it," said Don Romano, Mazda Canada’s President.

2013 Mazda CX-5 front 3/4 view
Dynamically sculpted, Kodo replaces the Nagare theme's demented grin with a tastefully decorated 5-point grille. (Photo: Lesley Wimbush/Auto123.com)


For now, the CX-5 has one powerplant - the SKYACTIV-G. There are rumours of a 2.2L diesel engine to come (the SKYACTIV-D), but the company has yet to confirm whether the CX-5 will receive it in North America, and it will most likely make its appearance in a sedan first.

The standard engine is a 2.0L, 4-cylinder with a modest 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. With its 13.0:1 compression ratio, variable valve timing and 4-2-1 exhaust header, the SKYACTIV-G is 15% more fuel efficient, 10% lighter and produces 15% fewer emissions than the engine it replaces. Fuel economy is a projected 7.8/5.7 L/100km city/highway for the front-drive version with the manual transmission, 7.7/6.1 for FWD with the automatic and 8.0/6.4 for AWD with AT.

2013 Mazda CX-5 chassis
The CX-5's chassis design has fewer bends and straighter, therefore stronger, frame rails. (Photo: Mazda)

Because it was built expressly to house the small SKYACTIV-G powertrain, the CX-5's chassis design has fewer bends and straighter, therefore stronger, frame rails. Using an industry-first, high-tensile steel, the rails are a 12-point rather than boxed shape – reducing straight edges prone to bend or flex. The highly rigid body is very stable at speed, exhibiting little body roll and brake dive – yet the CX-5 is up to 575 lbs lighter than the slightly larger CX-7.

When it came to handling and ensuring that the CX-5 lived up to its fun-to-drive claims, the engineers looked to the Europeans for inspiration. They fine-tuned the front suspension geometry with the 7-degree caster angle favoured by the Germans, rather than the five degrees of most other Japanese cars, resulting in a more front-planted feeling at high-speed.

Instead of the 17- or 18-degree steering ratio found in most crossovers, the CX-5's 15.5:1 is almost as quick as the 15.0:1 ratio of the MX-5 sports car. The rear trailing arm was moved up 7 mm, helping the rear settle faster over bumps since the wheel isn't fighting against the lower angle.

If it sounds surprising that engineers would go to such lengths to ensure that the CX-5 is fun to drive, consider that Product Evaluation Engineer Dave Coleman is a dyed-in-the-wool car nut who competed – and won – in the 24 Hours of Lemons, that fiercely contested parody of the legendary LeMans endurance race in a Miata that was modified to look like the Starship Enterprise.

2013 Mazda CX-5 suspension
The rear trailing arm was moved up 7 mm, helping the rear settle faster over bumps since the wheel isn't fighting against the lower angle. (Photo: Lesley Wimbush/Auto123.com)


He's as approachable as any enthusiast, and happily answers any technical questions without that characteristic air of long-suffering patience affected by most company engineers, generously sharing information in easily digestible terms. Then, he's just as likely to whip out his iPhone to show you pictures of the "Project Miatabusa", a deliciously insane transformation of a mild-mannered Miata into a Suzuki Hayabusa-powered, fire-breathing, pint-sized dragon slayer.

2013 Mazda CX-5 left side view
For the first part of our drive, we chose a pre-production tester equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission. (Photo: Lesley Wimbush/Auto123.com)

With folks like these at the drawing board, it's less surprising that a small people mover can mimic the feel of their much-loved sports car. After one sweeping, downward mountain spiral, my driving partner remarked that he'd forgotten he was driving a crossover, so planted and focussed was its ride.

For the first part of our drive, we chose a pre-production tester equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission. It claims to be more efficient than a dual-clutch transmission, with less friction, rev-matching downshifts and a torque converter that's only active below 5 mph. Although the shifts are indeed smooth and quick, the transmission works hard to keep the engine in its powerband on the steep mountain roads. The result is a fair bit of engine noise at high rpms – those 155 horses need a fair bit of flogging to maintain speed on the inclines.

We're forewarned that our prototype vehicles may exhibit less-than-perfect fit and finish than the final production models. Nonetheless, our first tester was well insulated and comfortable in black cushy leather. According to head designer Derek Jenkins, "years of research revealed that human beings like shiny bits." Thus, the soft-touch materials are complimented by touches of subtle, satin chrome. The rear seats fold down, origami style, in a process called "Karakuri" which loosely translates as "trick". The one-touch mechanism can drop either or both seats to increase cargo space from 966 to 1,852 litres.

2013 Mazda CX-5 interior
The soft-touch materials are complimented by touches of subtle, satin chrome. (Photo: Mazda)


We manage to nab the only manually-equipped vehicle for the second part of the day. Rowing through the gears is effortless thanks to its short, precise strokes – although the clutch take-up isn't as firm as the MX-5's. This model is dressed in a lesser trim than our previous tester, with manually adjusted cloth seats. We notice a lot more vibration and buzzing of interior bits – again, this is a pre-production model with glitches most likely to be corrected by the time it rolls off the line. We're also aware of more wind noise around the A-pillar; we possibly just didn't notice it in the previous vehicle.

The manually equipped transmission provides a most lively and engaging ride – pity that although it will be available in Canada, it's unlikely that many customers will choose it.

2013 Mazda CX-5 front 3/4 view
It will be available in March of 2012, and although there are no prices as yet, they're expected to be announced at the Montreal Auto Show. (Photo: Lesley Wimbush/Auto123.com)

The CX-5 will be offered in three trim levels with nine model codes, with features such as segment-first blind-spot monitoring and rain-sensing wipers in the range-topping GT. It will be available in March of 2012, and although there are no prices as yet, they're expected to be announced at the Montreal Auto Show.

With so many compact crossovers on the market, is there really room for yet another?

Mazda believes there is. The segment has grown 27% over the last two years and their own CX lineup has doubled. Although the CX-5 has a tow rate of 2,000 lbs, this doesn't compare to the new 2013 Ford Escape's 3,500. Those needing extra grunt may want to check out the Blue Oval’s EcoBoost-equipped crossover.

But it does, however, suit the needs of those who want the sort of engaging connection once only found in German cars – and tiny roadsters.


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