There have always been automotive brands that bridge the gap between mainstream and luxury, Buick quickly coming to mind. It fills a niche between Chevrolet and Cadillac in General Motors’ car brand hierarchy, but it doesn’t rise up to meet newer luxury marques like Acura and Infiniti in most buyers’ minds. Lately, Mazda has been playing to this audience too, and is arguably doing an even better job of delivering premium cachet in its highest GT and Signature trim lines.
Where brands like Buick, and even the two Japanese upstarts just mentioned, along with Lincoln, Genesis (speaking of upstarts), Lexus, Audi (and all of the VW group luxury brands including Porsche, Lamborghini and Bentley), plus BMW and Alfa Romeo (to a lesser extent) share platform architectures with lesser brands, Mazda is one of the auto industry’s very rare independent automakers, with no ties to any other global group. Amongst volume-production premium brands only Tesla stands independent, while none other than Mazda are independent within the mainstream volume sector.
Yes, even little Subaru is partially owned by Toyota, and Mitsubishi is part of the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance. Whether or not Mazda will be able to stay independent through the uncertain economic climate we find ourselves in now, and is likely before us, is anyone’s guess, but then again it could be the brand’s saving grace if things get ugly out there, and marginally successful brands like Mitsubishi, Infiniti, Chrysler, Buick and who knows what else get axed from our market. Mazda’s unique position in the market gives it a lot of room to grow, while their good design, the quality of their products, and their credible performance DNA give them a certain street cred that other brands can’t match.
Mazda’s move up to premium status starts with really attractive exterior styling that translates well into all segments and body styles, the sporty CX-3 subcompact SUV sharing some of its design cues with the all-new, slightly bigger CX-30 and the even larger compact CX-5 shown in this review, not to mention the biggest crossover SUV of the Mazda bunch, the mid-size three-row CX-9, while all share visual ties with the compact Mazda3 sedan/hatchback and mid-size Mazda6 sedan, plus the brilliant little MX-5 sports car.
Mazda has long dubbed its design language KODO for “art of the car”, but its latest models are inspired by KODO 2.0, which is the second-generation of its clean, elegant design philosophy. W saw a glimpse of KODO 2.0 in the stunning Vision Coupe and Kai concepts from the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, the latter of the two more or less morphing into the newest Mazda3 Sport. KODO 2.0 has also made its impact on the brand’s SUV lineup, the CX-5 showing obvious signs of influence.
Mazda replaced the Ford Escape-based Tribute with the first-generation CX-5 in January of 2012; the Mazda3-based design a much more modern offering that elevated the Japanese automaker’s prestige and sales. The second-generation CX-5 arrived in 2017, and thanks to greater use of the KODO 2.0 design language it transformed into a much ritzier looking compact crossover.
The CX-5’s truly upscale atmosphere is best experienced inside, mind you, with premium features like cloth-wrapped A-pillars and a plush, padded dash top, upper and lower instrument panels, and door uppers front to back, plus they’ve trimmed out the interior with a tasteful dose of anodized aluminum accents, this nicely brushed treatment even highlighting some of the buttons, switches and knobs, some of the latter even getting knurled metal edging. Last but hardly least Mazda includes genuine Abachi hardwood inlays in its top-line Signature trim, but being that my tester was just a GT its inlays were fairly real look faux woodgrain, plus it didn’t include the Signature’s dark chocolate brown Cocoa Nappa leather and trim, the latter covering the door inserts and armrests as well as the seat surfaces, but the GT’s no cost Pure White leather was impressive enough.
Yes, the CX-5’s GT trim is actually nicer than most rivals’ top-tier models, but just to clarify the Signature goes way over the top with features like a satin chrome-plated glove box lever, satin chrome power seat switches, nicer cross-stitching on the steering wheel, richer Nappa leather upholstery, a black roof liner, a frameless auto-dimming rearview mirror in place of the GT’s framed version, LED illumination for the overhead console lighting, the vanity mirrors, the front and rear dome lamps and the cargo area light.
Additionally, Signature trim provides a nice bright 7.0-inch LCD multi-information display at centre, a 1.0-inch bigger 8.0-inch colour centre touchscreen display, an overhead surround parking camera system, front and back parking sonar, gunmetal grey 19-inch alloy wheels instead of the GT’s silver 19s, off-road traction assist, and the fastest Skyactiv-G 2.5 T four-cylinder as standard, this engine getting a Dynamic Pressure Turbo (DPT) resulting in 250 horsepower (with 93 octane premium fuel or 227 with 87 octane regular) and 310 lb-ft of torque (for 2020 it gains 10 lb-ft to 320 when fuelled with 93 octane), plus paddle-shifters on the steering wheel for the standard six-speed automatic gearbox.
That’s a strong engine for this class and optionally available for $2,000 in my as-tested GT (for 2020 the GT with the turbocharged engine also gets paddles, off-road traction assist, and an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen display), but my test model came with the base sans-turbo Skyactiv-G 2.5 four-cylinder mill featuring fuel-sipping cylinder deactivation and zero paddles behind the steering wheel. The entry-level engine makes a total of 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque, which might seem a lot less than the turbocharged upgrade, but is still about the same as provided in top trims by some of the segment sales leaders. Also good, the CX-5 uses a regular automatic with six actual gears rather than most competitors’ CVTs, and I must say that a traditional autobox is much more engaging.
I should also mention that Mazda offers a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine in the CX-5’s Signature trim that makes 168 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque. The Signature starts at $40,950 plus freight and fees, incidentally, and tops out at $45,950 with the diesel upgrade, so you might want to figure out how much you’re going to be driving over the lifetime of your car before anteing up $5k extra for the oil burner. This said, make sure to look around for any available CX-5 Signature Diesels, being that this upgrade was part of the 2019 model year (before writing this review there were quite a few available in each province, but nowhere near as many as those powered by good old gasoline).
I’ve driven the diesel, by the way, and liked it a lot, but its 8.9 L/100km city, 7.9 highway and 8.4 combined fuel economy rating doesn’t improve enough over the quicker turbo-four that manages a reasonably thrifty 10.8, 8.7 and 9.8 respectively, so the only thing that could possibly make more sense than discontinuing it would’ve been not bringing it to market at such a high price at all. My less powerful GT test model, which features standard i-Activ all-wheel drive (AWD) and can be had from $37,450, is capable of a claimed 9.8 L/100km in the city, 7.9 on the highway and 9.0 combined, while the same engine with FWD (standard with the $30,750 GS model) is the most efficient trim of all at just 9.3 city, 7.6 highway and 8.5 combined.
There’s actually a fourth engine available too, another 2.5-litre four-cylinder found in the $27,850 base GX model, albeit this one comes without cylinder deactivation. It offers up the same performance specs, but is good for only 9.7 L/100km city, 7.8 highway and 8.8 combined with FWD, and a respective 10.2, 8.2 and 9.3 with AWD. Power from both axles requires a $2,000 investment in both base GX and mid-range GS trims, incidentally, while AWD comes standard with GT and Signature trims.
The 2019 CX-5’s list of standard and available features is extremely long, but I should itemize the GT model’s standard equipment being that it’s the one I tested. Therefore, items standard to both the GT and Signature (not found in lower trims) include the previously noted 19-inch alloy wheels on 225/55 all-seasons (less models include 17-inch alloys on 225/65s), adaptive cornering headlamps, LED signature elements in the headlamps and tail lamps, LED fog lights, LED combination taillights, power-folding side mirrors, plus piano black B- and C-pillar garnishes, and that’s only on the outside.
Proximity entry gets you inside and pushbutton start/stop brings it to live (the latter item is actually standard across the line), while the gauge cluster is Mazda’s trademark three-dial design with a smallish multi-information display at the right (the 7.0-inch LCD multi-information display comes standard in GT trim for 2020), and just above is a really useful head-up display unit that projects key info right onto the windshield, complete with traffic sign recognition. What’s more, the driver gets a comfortable 10-way powered seat with power lumbar support as well as two-way memory, while the front passenger gets six-way power adjustability. Both front seats are three-way ventilated too, while the two rear outboard window seats get three-way warmers.
A few pampering GT trim details need to be mentioned too, such as its satin-chrome front console knee pad, fabric-lined glove box, and upscale premium stitching on the front centre console, while Mazda also adds a power moonroof, a Homelink garage door opener, a good navigation system that took me where I needed to go (not always the case with some), and a great sounding premium audio system with 10 Bose speakers, an AM/FM/HD radio, a customizable seven-channel equalizer, SurroundStage Signal Processing, Centerpoint 2 surround sound tech, AudioPilot 2 Noise Compensation, and SiriusXM satellite radio with three months of complimentary service. CX-5 GT and Signature buyers also receive SiriusXM Traffic Plus and Travel Link services with a five-year complimentary service contract, plus they get two-zone auto climate control, HVAC vents on the backside of the front console, etcetera.
Features pulled up to GT trim from lesser models include auto headlight levelling, a windshield wiper de-icer, dynamic cruise control with stop and go, a heated steering wheel rim, two additional USB ports within the folding rear centre armrest, plus a host of advanced driver assistance systems like Smart Brake Support (SBS) with forward sensing Pedestrian Detection, Distance Recognition Support System (DRSS), Forward Obstruction Warning (FOW), Lane Departure Warning System (LDWS), Lane-keep Assist System (LAS) and High Beam Control System (HBC) from second-rung GS trim, as well as auto on/off LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, LED turn signal indicators in the door mirror housings, rain-sensing wipers, an electromechanical parking brake, two USB ports and an aux input, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Stitcher and Aha internet radio, SMS text message reading and responding capability, and all the usual active and passive safety features from the base GX. There’s a lot more, but I’ll leave it at that.
The CX-5 is room and plenty comfortable no matter the trim you choose or where you’re seated, while the back row is wide enough for three across in reasonable comfort. Most should find legroom and headroom generous enough, but I need to criticize Mazda for stowing the rear seat heater controls within the folding centre armrest, because they can’t be accessed when someone is seated in the middle. And now that I’m complaining, I’d love it if Mazda offered a panoramic sunroof in its two top-line trims too.
Rather than gripe about what’s not offered, I’d rather sing praises to Mazda for the CX-5’s awesome 40/20/40-split rear seatbacks. This allows longer cargo like skis to be placed down the middle, and by so doing frees the rear window seats for your passengers. As good, Mazda provides helpful release levers on the cargo sidewalls, even including a separate one for the 20-percent centre pass-through. This said, setting off to the ski hill, or even more so, returning when already cold and potentially wet, will make those rear seat heaters all the more welcome, but you’ll need to make sure to turn them on before loading in the skis as the centre pass-through will make that impossible. What’s more, if you stop for gas or a meal along the way, they won’t turn on again without removing the ski gear and lifting the armrest. Mazda should solve this problem for the CX-5’s redesign by positioning the buttons on the door panel instead.
Back to positives, behind the rear seatbacks the CX-5 can be loaded up with 875 litres (30.9 cubic feet) of gear, while it can pack in up to 1,687 litres (59.6 cu ft) when all are lowered, making it one of the more accommodating compact SUVs in its mainstream category.
All this spacious luxury gets topped off with performance that comes very close to premium as well, although as far as my base GT test model goes, it’s more about ride and handling than straight-line power. The CX-5’s feeling of quality begins with well-insulated doors and body panels, making everything feel solid upon closure and nice and quiet when underway, while the ride is firm in a Germanic way, but not harsh. It therefore manoeuvres well around the city and provides good agility when pushed hard on a curving road, but even though it manages corners better than most rivals it uses the same type of independent suspension as the others, consisting of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in the rear, with stabilizer bars at both ends.
As I mentioned before, the CX-5’s base powerplant is equal to some of the segment leaders’ best engines as far as straight-line performance goes, but more importantly it is very smooth and quite efficient, while the six-speed automatic was so smooth, in fact, that it had me wondering whether or not Mazda had swapped the old gearbox out for a CVT. It shifts like a regular automatic when revs climb, however, which is a good thing for enthusiasts, but it’s still smooth when doing so. To be clear, the regular GT doesn’t include paddle shifters, but you can shift it manually via the console-mounted gear lever, and also note that Mazda provides a Sport mode that gives it the powertrain a great deal more performance at takeoff and when passing, but no comfort or eco settings are included.
After a weeklong test, I found the 2019 Mazda CX-5 one of the best compact SUVs in its class, and wholly worthy of anyone’s consideration. Of note, that category is filled with some big-time players, including the Canadian segment leading Toyota RAV4 (with 65,248 sales in calendar year 2019), the Honda CR-V (with 55,859 deliveries during the same 12 months), the Ford Escape (which is totally redesigned for 2020 and sold 39,504 units last year), the Nissan Rogue (at 37,530 units), the Hyundai Tucson (at 30,075), and this CX-5 (at 27,696).
I know, the CX-5 should probably do better than it does, but we need to keep in mind that 14 compact SUV competitors are vying for attention, and none of the other get anywhere near close to the CX-5’s sales numbers. In fact, the next best-selling VW Tiguan only achieved 19,250 deliveries last year, while Chevrolet’s Equinox only found 18,503 new owners. As for Jeep’s Cherokee, just 13,687 buyers took one home during calendar year 2019, while a mere 13,059 bought the Subaru Forester, 12,637 purchased a Kia Sportage, 12,023 drove home in a GMC Terrain, 10,701 chose the Mitsubishi Outlander, and 5,101 decided to buy the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross. Additionally, the CX-5 was one of only six compact crossovers to increase its sales numbers from calendar year 2018 to 2019, the remaining eight having lost ground.
It’s actually a good time to purchase a CX-5, as Mazda is offering up to $2,000 in additional incentives on this 2019 model, while those who’d rather have a 2020 CX-5 can get up to $1,000 off from incentives. Make sure to check the 2019 Mazda CX-5 Canada Prices page or the 2020 Mazda CX-5 Canada Prices page right here on CarCostCanada for details. You’ll find itemized pricing of trims, packages and individual options, the latest manufacturer financing and leasing deals, manufacturer rebate information, and dealer invoice pricing that can save you thousands. The majority of new car retailers will be available by phone or online even during the COVID-19 crisis, and as you might have guessed they’re seriously motivated to make you a deal.
Everything said, I recommend the CX-5 highly, especially in GT or Signature trims, as it gives you a premium experience at a much more affordable price.
Story credit: Trevor Hofmann
Photo credits: Karen Tuggay (exterior) and Trevor Hofmann (interior)