Mazda has a lot riding on the CX-5. The new crossover replaces the Tribute in the lineup and goes up against a veritable phalanx of competitors from every major car company in the business.
This new Mazda seems up to the task, primarily because it is the company's first vehicle to display the full array of SkyActiv features – chassis, engine and transmission.
SkyActiv, for those who have somehow missed all the coverage afforded it, is a rethink of the way vehicles are developed – an all-inclusive label for an array of fuel and weight-saving developments.
Mazda is a small company without the deep pockets of the majors. It can't afford to dabble in low-volume, money-losing hybrids, electric and plug-in electric vehicles.
So the same engineering department that perfected the rotary and Miller-cycle engines was told to rethink conventional powertrains with the goal of improving fuel economy by 30% across the entire vehicle range by 2016.
This ground-up approach resulted in a pair of innovative new engines (gasoline and diesel), two new transmissions (manual and automatic) and a new ultra-stiff but lighter platform. Some components of SkyActiv have been utilized in the new Mazda3, but only partially. The first vehicle to showcase the full array is the 2103 CX-5.
Three trim levels
The CX-5 comes in the trim levels – GX, GS and GT. Rather than list a wide array of options and a super-low price tag to get you into the store, Mazda equipped even the $22,995 base model with four-wheel discs, brake and hill-hold assist, remote keyless entry, keyless start, power windows, cruise, steering-wheel-mounted cruise and audio controls, tilt & telescope wheel, power locks, air conditioning, power, heated mirrors and auto off headlights.
The GX, at $27,895 adds an automatic transmission, alloy wheels, power moon roof, blind spot monitoring and alarm systems, audio upgrade, rearview camera, heated cloth seats, six-way power driver’s seat and a 40/20/40 split folding rear seat.
My test vehicle was the line-topping GT. At $32,495 it included automatic and all-wheel-drive, 19-in alloy wheels, Bose audio system, dual zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, eight-way power driver’s seat and an auto-dimming rear mirror with HomeLink. Check the competition and you’ll find these prices are more than competitive across all trim levels.
Two innovative new four-cylinder engines are at the heart of the SkyActiv program. The 2.2-litre diesel features the lowest compression ratio of any volume production diesel engine in the world and develops astounding torque numbers. Uber-stingy on fuel, as well as quiet, this engine is a jewel. I’ve sampled its remarkable engine here in North America and on remote roads in Iceland and recommend you visit your local Mazda store and put in word for a CX-5 with this engine when it becomes available here next year.
Mazda recently announced plans to make versions available for a number of race teams and series next year. This is the real deal.
In the meantime we get the SkyActiv gasoline engine in the 2013 CX-5. Here too is evidence of innovation and a refusal to accept the status quo. This 155-horsepower 2.2-litre four has the highest compression ratio of any production gasoline engine in the world at 13:1. Versions destined for North America has been slightly detuned to 12:1 to cope with our lower-quality fuel.
Everything from the pistons to the exhaust system are breakthrough designs, helping the new engine generate 12 additional horsepower and 15 lb-ft more torque – both at lower rpm – while weighing 10% less and using 20% less fuel.
Susumu Ninai, Sky Activ Powertrain Program Manager told me earlier this year that the goal with the new engine was to minimize losses.
"In typical city driving a gasoline engine uses only 10% of the energy available in the fuel, he said. "On the highway that rises to 30% so we lose a minimum of 70% of the energy through heat, pumping or friction. Our goal was to attack those losses."
Niinai-san said he has 1,500 people working on the SkyActiv twin-turbo diesel.
The manual transmission has been heavily redesigned to reduce weight and friction and the automatic has received similar attention.
The biggest departure for the six-speed automatic was to have the torque converter lock up at speeds as low as 1500 rpm to eliminate the losses associated with this device. Others have reverted to dual-shaft or CVT transmissions to achieve the same goal.
Kobo design theme
All of this mechanical wizardry would be wasted if the vehicle was unable to serve as a showcase. The CX-5’s exterior design, embodying the company’s Kodo (soul of motion) design theme, fills that role well.
The big mouth, nee grille, along with bulging fender flares and various aerodynamic details will spread across the rest of the line with each new introduction.
Beneath this new sheet metal is a new platform, an ultra-strong and light unit that will also be found in many future Mazdas, utilizing lots of high- and ultra-high-strength steel.
But you spend most of your time inside and this is where the CX-5 development team’s hard work is evident.
Entry and exit are easily accomplished through wide doors that open almost 90 degrees, and visibility is above average. The interior is light and airy with a low belt-line and plenty of glass. There are soft touch surfaces and low-sheen finishes on most surfaces and leather or two-tone fabric covering the seats.
The front seats are a slimmer and lighter new design, but provide loads of support and allow increased rear legroom. The second row seat on the GS and GT trim levels is split 40/20/40.
Cargo volume is 966-litres with the rear seat in place and 1852 with it folded. The long wheelbase results in more rear seat legroom than normal in this class.
On the road
On the road the CX-5 gasoline engine and six-speed combine to produce competitive if not class-leading performance. There is a fair bit of "clatter" at idle due to the high compression ratio and direct injection system and a little more power would be appreciated but it’s hard to argue with the amazing fuel economy.
The main benefit of all this SkyActiv stuff, aside from fewer trips to the fuel pumps, comes when you turn the wheel.
Lightweight and artful suspension tuning allowed the engineers to bend if not break the laws of physics. The CX-5 handles with an alacrity not normally associated with a tall SUV or crossover.
The new electric power steering unit displays more heft and feedback than most and during repeated hot laps of Laguna Seca raceway in an early-build CX-5, a few months ago, the brakes showed no evidence of fade.
With the CX-5, Mazda has combined its traditional Zoom-Zoom with room for its new entry into the crowded compact SUV/CUV segment.