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2013 Mazda CX-5. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
2013 Mazda CX-5. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

2013 Mazda CX-5

Mazda CX-5: Fresh and focused Add to ...

Mazda’s 2013 CX-5 arrived earlier this year not looking or performing radically differently from its compact crossover competitors, but this ground-up, if not ground-breaking, new model is the result of a fresh and more focused approach to vehicle design by the Japanese auto maker.

And with its good looks, typically Mazda driver-oriented dynamics, decent performance allied to improved fuel economy and a nicely done cabin with plenty of room for cargo, it’s already proving a hit both globally and here in Canada. In its first six months, sales of 6,876 – which Mazda says have been constrained by supply – just about doubled last year’s total for the Tribute, the model it replaces.

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Mazda vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman explains there was no “silver bullet strategy that would work” in developing the process that created the CX-5, which is the forerunner of future Mazda product, including the upcoming Mazda6. “What we needed was a silver machine gun that would target all the fundamentals of efficiency.”

And he says the new design methodology that emerged isn’t just pie-in-the-SkyActiv but a realistically real-world approach that rethinks the basics. SkyActiv is what Mazda calls this new down-to-the-details philosophy aimed at making sure all the individual engineering building blocks are doing the best job possible. While interlinking Lego-like to ensure all parts of the vehicle work towards the common goal of achieving a workable blend of comfort, convenience, driving dynamics, safety and environmental sustainability.

Future styling will be looked after by its also-new Kodo “soul of motion” approach, which steers it in a pleasing new direction, judging by the CX-5.

SkyActiv’s focus is on realizable gains through optimization rather than pure innovation (although there’s been some of that, too), an approach that identifies design rough spots and buffs them to a smooth, shiny, efficient finish.

In the case of the CX-5’s 2.0-litre, 155-hp/150-lb-ft engine, this resulted in seemingly mundane things that, taken together, produced important changes: reciprocating drag reduced 25 per cent, oil pump drag 71 per cent, valve train friction reduced 50 per cent and belt drive drag cut 27 per cent. And it sounds almost Zen-like, but even the way the cooling water flows through the engine and radiator was analyzed and water pump drag sliced 31 per cent.

Mazda says this kind of through-the-jeweller’s-loupe look at things is most evident in the engine and transmission, but was employed for all other aspects of the CX-5’s design, from its high-strength steel structure to its agile suspension and livable and usable cabin.

So has it worked, is the CX-5 the most polished performer in the compact class three-ring circus? Well, that’s too subjective a call to make as its rivals, a number of them also new, all bring blends of attributes to the party that will suit some buyers better than others.

But it’s a quantum leap ahead from the Tribute Mazda soldiered on with for too long to anchor the entry level of its now nicely modernized SUV range, which includes the in-the-middle CX-7 and the seven-seater CX-9.

The CX-5 is available as a starter GX with six-speed manual transmission and front-drive at $22,995, an upgraded GS with front-drive at $28,045 and the GT we’re looking at here with six-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive, which is priced at $32,645.

The CX-5’s look is a nicely balanced blend of style and interior people- and carrying-capacity practicality, although the latter was trimmed a bit by the designer’s charcoal sketching pencil. From the 1,904 litres the shorter Tribute provided to 1,852 litres, although room behind the rear seat was improved 78 litres. Max capacity in Honda’s new CR-V is 2,007 litres.

A step up and over a wide sill into the leather-clad driver’s seat, which is comfortably and supportively shaped, places you behind a leather-wrapped steering wheel through which you view shiny-bezelled instruments. Centre-stack controls for audio and climate control are reachable and logical. although there is the the dichotomy of a soft-touch dash and hard doorcaps. It’s nicely but not lavishly done, dressed up with Piano Black (otherwise known as shiny black plastic) and polished aluminum-look trim.

The rear seatback is split 40/20/40, effectively creating two shaped spots on the bench for a pair of passengers who won’t find it claustrophobic back there thanks to the side window extensions. Folding it creates a near-level load area, narrowed by the rear wheel arches, but accessed through a large hatch.

Equipment includes a blind-spot warning system and rear-view camera, intelligent key system, power sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, a power driver’s seat, Bose audio system, Bluetooth and other electronics links.

The CX-5’s 2.0-litre motor is downsized from the Tribute’s 2.5-litre four that made 171hp/171 lb-ft of torque. The new engine revs freely but lacks the bigger motor’s grunt and, even though aided by the new six-speed automatic, it serves up performance that’s a tad on the tepid side. Although it steps off briskly enough, with 0-100 km/h acceleration in the 10-plus second range and prompt automatic gear swapping (you can also do it yourself) helps around town. And it must be making some torque low down as it handles highway hills easily enough.

On the plus side are improved fuel economy numbers of 8.0 litres/100 km city and 6.4 versus the Tribute’s 9.2 city/7.2 highway. But I’d guess many may find they are using the gas pedal aggressively enough to negate those numbers. I averaged 8.1 litres in semi-rural usage and 7.5 litres at four-lane highway speeds, which is better than a number of rivals.

The CX-5 is rated to tow 907 kilograms, up from the four-cylinder Tribute’s 680 kg, but I’d guess dragging this around would be considerably less than enjoyable.

The strut-type front and multi-link rear suspension is set up to deliver dynamics that support Mazda’s sporty marketing persona and the electric-assist steering’s ratio is quick-ish, which results in the CX-5 responding to driver commands in a pleasingly linear fashion. And it feels solid and planted on a bumpy back road or at highway speeds.

The all-wheel-drive system and 210 mm of ground clearance will help in deep snow and it is certainly rough cottage road capable, if not a real off-roader.

It’s not a game-changer, but may prove to be something of a standout performer in the rapidly expanding compact crossover league.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2013 Mazda CX-5

Type: Compact crossover

Base price: $32,645; as tested $34,540

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 155 hp/150 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city/6.4 highwau; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Rogue

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