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Car reviews - Mazda - CX-5 - Diesel range

Our Opinion

We like
Class-leading mix of value, dynamics, performance, economy, packaging, reliability and practicality
Room for improvement
Tom-Tom GPS, bucktoothed face, high entry price for diesel, ho-hum dash design, drab monochrome cabin

1 Jun 2012

BOLD, brave and just a little bit mad, Mazda has raced down numerous intriguing product and technological cul-de-sacs over the decades, only to hit the brick walls of consumer apathy and financial ruin more times than bears remembering.

We’re not just talking rotary engines and aborted Amati luxury lines, either. Over-ambitious niche marketing and wacky product planning have brought the Japanese brand down to its corporate knees.

Models that Aussies adopted and even loved, like the 121 ‘Bubble’, brought Mazda close to bankruptcy, prompting Ford to take control in the late 1990s.

Of course, there have been massive hits as well – 323, the original RX-7, MX-5, 3, 2 – and since 2009 the Hiroshima-based organisation has been almost totally independent.

What you may not realise is that, despite boasting Australia’s best-selling model last year in the Mazda3, the company is again struggling globally, haemorrhaging cash big time.

In a nutshell, everything hinges on the success of the CX-5 – the first completely fresh offering since breaking free from Ford.

Resting squarely on the compact SUV’s shoulders is the weight of a massive investment in new technologies that will underpin Mazda’s core line-up (except for 2 and BT-50) here on in.

Market success will determine Mazda’s fate, but right here and now, we can judge how right or wrong the CX-5 is.

The newcomer falls into line with the rest of the compact SUV set, being a little smaller than the swoopy CX-7, which was modelled on North American tastes and was consequently larger than most rivals. This limited its Asian and Euro market appeal, and ironically the Yanks found it was too small anyway. Another example of Mazda’s nutty thinking.

Stylistically, however, is the CX-5 a step forward? While the overall proportions and rear-end treatments are appealing, its gormless mouth and buck-toothed smile could never be called pretty.

It’s been all change on the engine front, too.

While the 113kW/198Nm 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol model was generally regarded as not having enough torque, the same could not be said of the mid-range CX-5 Maxx Sport in SkyActiv-D (for diesel) and all-wheel-drive mode.

At just a few dollars under $40K, it is currently the cheapest diesel-powered Mazda SUV on the market.

Delivering 129kW of power at 4500rpm and 420Nm of torque at 2000rpm for a claimed 0-100km/h sprint time of 9.4 seconds (the same as the petrol), the 2.2-litre SkyActiv-D four-cylinder turbo-diesel features a relatively low compression ratio and a twin-stage turbocharger for a maximum spread of performance.

Revvy but not at all raucous, it also happens to be one of the most refined engines of its type. More than one passenger asked if our CX-5 was a petrol or a diesel.

The sole transmission available for the diesel (and a first for this sort of Mazda) is the new SkyActiv-Drive six-speed automatic, which works terrifically with the engine to provide instantaneous and seamless responses. The gearbox flicks between each ratio with almost as much speed and precision as a dual-clutch unit, but without lag or jerkiness.

With only a minimum of hesitation from standstill, the 2.2D’s torrent of torque hits fast, and really takes hold for what is quite exhilarating performance for a compact SUV from about 1800rpm, with a strong and steady whoosh of momentum pretty much all the way up to the 5200rpm redline.

Whether stuck in slow traffic or roaring up a rural switchback, the diesel impresses, and rarely is caught off-boost when that happens the recovery lag is minimal.

Equally unobtrusive is the idle-stop function that quietly extinguishes the engine at idle to save fuel and cut emissions. We averaged between 7.2 and 8.2L/100km over a wide range of driving.

The best part of the driving experience is the chassis dynamics.

The electric rack-and-pinion steering system is delightfully light yet sharp, providing ease and feedback in equal measures so you can drive it both with confidence and without fatigue.

The Mazda handles corners keenly, just like a well-sorted hatchback, with a flat and controlled posture, to help keep the chosen line. The poise of this SUV is quite astonishing. Calling it car-like is an understatement.

Over our punishing drive route, the Mazda simply danced its way up and down the craggy old mountain way, keeping road contact at all times while going exactly where it needed to be, helped by a part-time all-wheel-drive set-up that apportions up to 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheels when needed.

Interestingly, the Ford Kuga we tested a week earlier gripped the bitumen just as intently but lacked the lightness of touch that makes the CX-5 so enjoyable to punt around.

The ride further added to our admiration of Mazda’s engineers by being both controlled and loping – small bumps are occasionally felt but it was the Japanese car’s ability to smooth out the larger stuff that was so impressive.

However, while in virtually every dynamic department the CX-5 sets new highs, rivals like the Kuga and (in particular) Volkswagen’s Tiguan still lead in terms of suspension quietness and road isolation. There is still noticeable noise intrusion into the cabin – not nearly as much as in the 3, but still more than the Europeans.

Unfortunately, the CX-5’s road noise intrusion isn’t the only thing that falls short of European SUVs like the BMW X1 and Audi Q3.

For a $40,000 proposition, an unrelenting sea of black interior plastic kills any premium aspiration, though there is a lighter interior option on the Grand Touring flagship.

Another aesthetic – if not functional – disappointment is the dashboard design. Lacking stylistic flourish or identity, it is a dumpy slab of sameness.

It is a mystery as to why the company chose to stack everything so low in the centre console. The screen could certainly be set higher while the vents are placed at chest rather than face level (though the ventilation system itself works fine) and the associated lower-placed buttons are a bit of a stretch away.

A good driving position is easily attained thanks to a reach and height-adjustable column and driver’s seat, while the sporty three-spoke steering wheel is a leather-wrapped delight to use and behold.

Mazda again uses a three-barrel instrument canister design for the analogue speedo and tachometer, with the third window reserved for digitised fuel gauge, trip computer and outside temperature displays.

But, while all look classy back-lit in white, why have the interior console designers settled on a clashing red lighting theme for the centre console illumination?

While we’re complaining about the centre console, Mazda’s decision to use a Tom Tom GPS system is also perplexing as it is frustratingly complex to decipher and changing over to night-time lighting is fiddly. What was wrong with the previous system found in the CX-7?

At least the Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming system works logically.

We couldn’t quite get really comfortable in the driver’s seat as well – there’s no lumbar support adjustment and consequently both the backrest and the cushion felt a little flat over longer trips. However, others begged to differ so maybe this issue falls into the personal preference category, so try before you buy.

Rounding out our criticism, front passenger knee room is restricted by the jutting glovebox area, forcing taller people to sit slightly side-saddle.

Nevertheless, for a compact SUV, the rear quarters are spacious and inviting – not least because of the deep side windows (that lower all the way down), comfy cushion and backrest, and ample space for feet beneath the front seats. A set of air vents wouldn’t go astray back there, though.

The 403-litre cargo area (up slightly on the CX-7’s) contains the interior’s only real surprise and delight feature – a retractable parcel shelf that is connected to the (easy to reach) tailgate. It pops on and off easily and is a quality item that doesn’t rattle.

The floor itself is relatively high – a skinny space-saver spare is located below – but it is wide and deep. Like all Mazda wagons since 2002, there are handles to remotely lower the rear backrests, with Maxx Sport and Luxury models featuring a three-way 40/20/40 divide for greater versatility. It all works fine.

According to project manager and keen cyclist Hideaki Tanaka, two bicycles with their front wheels removed will easily fit inside, while the load length to the back of the front seats can accommodate his 175cm frame for sleeping.

Mr Tanaka should rest easy, despite the worries that Mazda faces internationally, as he has created a very accomplished compact SUV.

In diesel guise, the CX-5 Maxx Sport sits at the top of its class – and not just in terms of value, but also dynamics, engine efficiency, diesel driveability, transmission, steering feel, manoeuvrability and packaging.

It helps that most of its competitors are in the middle or towards the end of their model lifecycles, making the Mazda the freshest by far. By this time next year there will be a new-generation Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Forester, Kuga, and Toyota RAV4, while the Tiguan, Nissan X-Trail, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Holden Captiva 5 replacements are also not far away.

But that shouldn’t detract from what a towering achievement the CX-5 is from a company that’s had its fair share of setbacks.

Learning from the experience gained with the Tribute and CX-7, Mazda at least stands a chance of fighting its way out of trouble with a new class champion.

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