First Drive: 2013 Mazda CX-5

Mazda's new compact crossover offers an in-depth look into its new engineering mantra. But can it take on stalwarts like CR-V and RAV4?

With the new CX-5, Mazda has finally released a complete vehicle designed around their Skyactiv philosophy. The result is a small SUV with almost a Miat's worth of racetrack talent and the best mileage numbers in the market - but is anybody really asking for a "performance alternative" to the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V?

The CUV segment is among the hottest in the market right now, fueled by scarcely believable sales numbers from the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V. Unfortunately for Mazda, the company has never had a homegrown vehicle to offer those buyers. The Tribute was a quickie rebadge of the Escape that didn't fool anyone; the CX-7 was a sleek spaceship of a crossover that was always just a little bit too big, too fuel-thirsty, and too expensive to really make any friends.

Although a CR-V clone would pack the showrooms and make some short-term money for Mazda, nobody really expected them to build one. Instead, we have the CX-5, which aims to combine traditional Mazda virtues like light weight, simplicity, and driver-focused design with the new Skyactiv suite of technologies. The result is perhaps the most interesting $21,000 car on the market.

What is Skyactiv? As implemented in the CX-5, it's a complete departure from previous Mazda platforms. The unibody is all-new, designed to maximize space while cutting weight severely. Indeed, the CX-5 is between 220 and 500 lbs. lighter than the equivalent CX-7, depending on trim level, while providing very similar interior space. A completely re-imagined gasoline engine uses special long-tube headers and unique piston design to safely raise compression to 13:1, yielding 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft. of torque. The manual and automatic transmissions - yes, two kinds are on offer for the North American market - both feature six forward gears and are claimed to be significantly lighter than their predecessors.

Time and again during our briefing, the Mazda people hammered home one particular point: This car was engineered as a whole, not as a combination of "platform elements." Two examples: The unibody was destined from the beginning to have a special cut-out for the Skyactiv long-tube headers, and the AWD hardware has been significantly downsized because the CX-5 is so light - and that, in turn, makes it even lighter. In fact, the CX-5 is over 120 lbs. lighter than the equivalent CR-V, the class lightweight up until now, despite offering relatively heavy 17-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment.

Mazd's new "Kodo" design language makes its production debut with the CX-5, but in both detail styling and basic proportions, the CX-5 seems to have more commonality with Audi's Q5 CUV than it does with any outrageous Tokyo Auto Show concept. The inside is more recognizably Mazda, with a combination of matte black plastic, piano-black trim, and faux-aluminum highlights which won't culture-shock anyone who has ever owned an RX-8.

On the road
Our day driving the CX-5 started with an eighty-mile tour through central California in the base six-speed manual Sport model. First impression: Most of the hype is justified. On single-lane backroads, the little CUV is wickedly fast, offering a thoroughbred combination of spring/shock tuning, well-chosen gear ratios, and extremely accurate steering. The four-cylinder never feels strong, not even at redline, but it offers enough thrust to keep the momentum going. Only the brakes, which were smoked after half an hour of hard-stop corner entries, let the package down.

On some of the rougher sections of road, it was easy to imagine the CX-5 walking away from its vaunted Miata sibling. The little CUV can float and glide - but never too much - where a sports car would crash against its bumpstops. It really is the sporting entry in the segment.

An afternoon at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca drove the point home. The manual-transmission FWD and automatic AWD variants were both available. The Skyactiv automatic doesn't use the torque converter above walking pace. A clutch pack handles shifts above that speed, virtually eliminating the traditional autotragic driveline slop. On the track, this is obvious, as is the precision with which rev-matches occur when using the manual mode. A drag race up Laguna Sec's back straight proved the automatic to be only slightly slower than the manual despite the weight penalty involved with the AWD hardware.

Although no CR-V or RAV4 was available for comparison around the famous central California course, it wasn't really necessary to drive the competition to understand just how much more dynamic, and enjoyable, the CX-5 is to drive. Handling is neutral through the famously difficult Turn Nine. It's possible to adjust the little trucklet's attitude with the throttle alone, just like it is in a sports car. Virtually all of the hype seems justified in the cold light of an open trackday. If you want the most driver-focused CUV out there, this is it.

The question becomes: Does anybody really want a driver-focused CUV? This is a segment where middle-class values prevail. Think low purchase cost, low operating costs, plenty of interior space, long-term durability. Mazda has the competition covered on at least the first three of those points. The Touring and Grand Touring models are priced from $24,000 to $28,300 - face-to-face with the class-defining CR-V- while the Sport manual-transmission model offers a full suite of features for about $21,500 with the optional Bluetooth package. If you enjoy driving a manual transmission, the "base" CX-5 is about all the vehicle any small family really needs. Projected EPA fuel economy is higher than any other offering in the class, with the AWD CX-5 likely to have the highest combined mileage of any all-wheel-drive vehicle on the market, period.

Interior space is good as well, although the cargo area suffers slightly in the cause of Kodo Design, with a steeply raked rear window that will annoy the hell out of owners should they have to transport any furniture. On the positive side, the seats fold completely flat, which is rare in a car this size. There's plenty of room for four people and their luggage, all in a package just under 180 inches long.

Only at the final hurdle of the CUV race does the CX-5 fail to clear with authority. Many conservative buyers may feel that the Mazda obsession with lightness and sportiness will pay negative dividends after the hundred-thousand-mile mark. It's fair to say, however, that those buyers would never consider anything other than a CR-V or RAV4 in the first place. Mazda is likely better off providing a genuine alternative in the class, rather than trying to sell a product which can't match the leaders on their home field values.

Leftlane's bottom line
Not everybody expects athletic behavior, light weight, maximum fuel efficiency, and a sporting demeanor from their CUV.

Buyers who do expect those qualities won't have to look any further than the Mazda CX-5, and they won't suffer much of a practicality penalty for doing so.

2013 Mazda CX-5 base price range, $20,685 to $28,295