There is no vehicle more important to Mazda right now than the CX-5. The five-seat crossover wagon, which went on sale in February, has been the main beneficiary of the company's research and development efforts over the past three years, making it something of a showcase for Mazda's strategy and intentions.
The CX-5 carries the full complement of a technology package the company calls Skyactiv, an umbrella for the hardware and processes Mazda says will enable it to meet federal fuel economy standards for the coming decade — and do it without hybrid systems or electric powertrains.
Skyactiv is meant to chart a new course for the Zoom-Zoom company, which is angling to increase its share of the U.S. market to a tiny 2.5 percent, from today's minuscule 2 percent. The powertrain portion of Skyactiv was introduced in the 2012 Mazda 3, the company's best seller, helping that car to achieve EPA fuel economy of 40 mpg on the highway.
But the Mazda 3 was not all-new, and Skyactiv is more comprehensive: It is a philosophy that underlies the engineering of new lightweight engines, transmissions, chassis and body structures. The goal is to create performance-oriented vehicles that are also fuel efficient.
Other automakers have been pursuing these goals as well but without formulating a unified approach.
"Where Mazda is different is that there seems to be an integrated approach where Skyactiv covers all the bases," says Mike Omotoso, senior manager for global powertrains at LMC Automotive, a market research firm.
The diet program has worked. The Skyactiv 2-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine in the CX-5 is 10 percent lighter than the 2-liter engine available in the 2012 Mazda 3 and MX-5 Miata. The manual transmission is lighter by 4.4 pounds, a sign of how determined Mazda's engineers were to drop weight. The body structure is 61 percent high-tensile steel, making it lighter and stronger, Mazda says.
The CX-5 replaces the Tribute crossover, which was based on the Ford Escape. It is a completely new vehicle that brings nothing from the Escape.
Typically, even vehicles billed as all-new use major components from a previous generation. But Mazda didn't want what it saw as a "piecemeal approach," says Tim Barnes, the company's product planning and strategy director. Among the benefits that came from making a fresh start were fuel economy bragging rights: At 35 mpg, the CX-5 gets better highway mileage than any competitor in its class sold in North America, including hybrid models.
It is a valid claim, although it glosses over some of the fine print.
First, the 35 mpg figure is for the front-wheel-drive Sport with a manual transmission, which Mazda says would account for about 5 percent of sales.
So the other 95 percent of buyers are looking at either 32 mpg, if they choose an automatic transmission with front-wheel drive (and 26 mpg in the city), or 31 mpg if they choose all-wheel-drive (25 mpg city). The front-wheel-drive 2013 Ford Escape is rated at 33 mpg highway, and the Kia Sportage matches the CX-5 at 32 mpg.
On roads around New England I found the EPA estimates for the CX-5 easy to match or beat. On separate trips to Connecticut and New York City, the all-wheel-drive CX-5 test vehicle averaged 31, 32 and 33 mpg on various highway segments.
But fuel efficiency has been achieved at the expense of power, which could be a problem for a company that promotes its Zoom-Zoom image.
The 4-cylinder engine, which uses direct fuel injection, is rated at 155 horsepower and 150 pound feet of torque, and it struggles to move the all-wheel-drive CX-5's 3,426 pounds. The engine strained coming out of a rest area to merge onto busy Interstate 91. Just before that, it couldn't handle a long, gradual hill at 65 mph without the automatic's shifting down from sixth to fifth gear with only a driver aboard.
In a Motor Trend test comparing the CX-5 with four classmates, it posted the slowest zero-to-60 time, at 9.4 seconds. But it may be unrealistic to expect blazing acceleration from a 155-horsepower engine, especially when automakers have to meet tougher fuel economy rules. Say goodbye to the free lunch.
Yet the lack of spunk is a bit puzzling given that Mazda engineers weren't forced to use a 10-year-old engine or transmission. And the deficiency is all the more puzzling considering the engine's high compression ratio of 13:1 — which Mazda boasts is "on par with the world's highest-performance race cars" — and the free-flowing design of its exhaust manifold.
Mazda could have tuned the engine to produce more than 155 horsepower. But it exercised restraint, says Jeremy Barnes, a Mazda spokesman, to ensure that the CX-5 could use 87-octane gasoline.
"Someone who takes into consideration the cost of fuel is someone who would walk away from a vehicle in this class if it required premium fuel," he says.
Instead, Mazda took advantage of the exhaust system's innovations to provide a broader torque curve than that of the Mazda 3, although both vehicles share similar peak torque figures.
A bigger engine may be coming: The 2.5-liter Skyactiv in the 2014 Mazda 6 seems likely to be offered in the CX-5 after 2013, although the company has not yet made an announcement.
It is worth remembering that there is more to performance than raw horsepower. When it comes to the handling part of the equation, a driving enthusiast would choose the CX-5 over the Honda CR-V, despite the CR-V's 185 horsepower and higher torque.
On back roads, I found the CR-V's body motions were not as tightly controlled as the CX-5's, so the Mazda's handling on winding roads was more nimble and confident. The Mazda's steering has a fairly tight on-center feel and is predictable. On a really rumpled surface, the CX-5's ride was a bit choppy, verging on harsh. But that's a small price for such driving fun.
In the federal government's crash-testing program done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the CX-5 received an overall rating of four stars, with five stars being the best; frontal and rollover ratings of four stars; and a five-star rating for side-impact protection. It received the highest rating, Good, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's moderate frontal overlap, side, rollover and rear-crash protection tests.
Prices start at $21,790 for the entry-level Sport model with a 6-speed manual transmission, the only trim level with a manual. The manual-shift Sport is not available with all-wheel drive.
Sport models with a 6-speed automatic and front-wheel drive start at $23,190. Front-wheel-drive Touring models start at $24,990, and the top-of-the-line Grand Touring at $28,140. Add $1,250 for all-wheel drive.
The total for my all-wheel-drive Grand Touring test vehicle was $30,415 with the $1,325 Technology Package, which includes a navigation system, high-intensity headlights with auto-leveling and adaptive front lighting that worked well on dark roads.
Because Mazda has chosen to aim the CX-5 at the heart of the compact crossover segment where it sees future growth, it has discontinued the CX-7, which straddled the small- and midsize crossover segments. But the CX-5 is larger in some important interior dimensions than the CX-7 was.
It has almost an inch more rear legroom and more cargo space. Without folding down the second row, we piled in a bulky wheelchair, an unwieldy walker with wheels and numerous travel bags. When more space is needed, flexibility is provided by the 40-20-40 split seats.
Controls for the radio, navigation and climate are knobs — and knobs are nice. Unlike Ford's touch screens, they do not incite anger. The supportive front seats are well bolstered to keep the driver in place during fun-to-drive moments.
How much of a difference Skyactiv will make to Mazda's bottom line is the huge underlying issue. Sales of the CX-5 are expected to be in the 41,000 to 45,000 range annually, and Omotoso of LMC Automotive expects that the CX-5 will increase Mazda's sales by 5 to 10 percent, which could help the company sell 300,000 vehicles in the U.S. That's not happened since 1994.
Through August, Mazda's year-to-date sales rose 11.8 percent. The company says it still plans to sell 290,000 vehicles in the current fiscal year.
Beyond practical matters, purchase decisions often hinge on visual appeal, and Mazda has given the CX-5 a fighting chance with a new styling theme. Called Kodo, it has been shown on design studies before, but the CX-5 is the first production vehicle with the look.
Kodo translates roughly to "soul of motion," which Mazda says is about capturing power and focusing on proportions with a more sophisticated overall look. As expressed in the new grille alone, the Kodo theme gives the CX-5 a far more attractive appearance than other Mazdas; it will show up on the 2014 Mazda 6.
The CX-5 is a welcome addition for crossover drivers who want some sport along with utility — and good fuel economy as well. They just need to practice a little patience.