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First Drive Mazda CX-5

Well-equipped Mazda CUV will arrive early in 2012 Add to ...

Compact crossovers are one of the fastest-growing segments in Canada – and new contenders are constantly entering the playing field; the latest is the 2013 Mazda CX-5.

“This is more than the launch of a new car. This is the repositioning of Mazda for a better future. … Our cars are fun, but now they’re even better because they’re going to provide additional fuel economy that most companies can only get when you throw batteries inside and combine them with an electric engine,” says Don Romano, president of Mazda Canada and chief marketing officer at Mazda North American Operations.

Mazda is betting its new SkyActiv technology will win over customers. First introduced in North America on the 2012 Mazda3, SkyActiv technology includes re-engineered engines, transmissions, bodies and chassis. Together, the entire suite of technology is designed to create more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly cars and SUVs. Eventually, the technology will trickle into other Mazda vehicles, but the first production model to fully adopt Skyactiv is the CX-5.

With the SkyActiv-G gas engine, developers wanted to create a lightweight design that produced more from less. The compression ratio of the CX-5’s engine is 13:1 and it utilizes a newly designed 4-2-1 exhaust system with special pistons, among other things, which solves the problems associated with high compression such as knocking. As a result, the SkyActiv engine is 10 per cent lighter with less internal friction than the MZR 2.0-litre gas engine it replaces. It also delivers 15 per cent more torque, 15 per cent better fuel economy and 15 per cent less CO2 emissions.

The CX-5’s 2.0-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine pumps out a modest 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. Mated to the engine is either a new six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. I prefer the ease of an automatic on this type of vehicle, especially when lugging around kids and cargo. Besides, the shifts are crisp and seamless.

The ride and handling is pleasant and surprisingly agile for a CUV. It’s zippy and, around corners, it’s surefooted with little body lean. But driving uphill, it’s another story. Along our mountainous route towards Robinson Ranch Golf Club in Santa Clarita, the engine struggled uphill at times, creating a noisy cabin. But on the highway, the noise levelled out and the CX-5 was confident and comfortable at cruising speeds.

Available in AWD and FWD configurations, the CX-5 returns decent fuel economy figures. The AWD with an automatic transmission is rated at 8.0 litre/100 km in the city and 6.4 on the highway; while the FWD with a manual is rated at 7.8 city/5.7 highway. All models take regular fuel.

On the exterior, the CX-5 represents Mazda’s new design language dubbed “Kodo – Soul of Motion.” The front end features Mazda’s new face – gone is the smiley grin found on the former Mazda3. Now the upper grille extends horizontally from the nose towards the headlamps while the lower trapezoidal grille fans out towards the ground. Look closely and you can still see hints of a subtle smile. The new look is attractive coupled with distinct creases along the body sides and a sharply raked back window.

Two wheel sizes are available: 17- and 19-inch; I prefer the larger ones. They fill up the wheel wells nicely and give a beefier, sportier stance to the CX-5.

Inside, the CX-5 seats five and is spacious. A low step-in makes it easy to enter and exit the vehicle. Once inside, all-around visibility is good thanks to narrow pillars and repositioned side mirrors.

The dashboard is simple and intuitive. Even though our test vehicles were pre-production models, the materials and gauges feel firm to the touch. The gauges are easy to read; white illumination appears on the instrument panel, which is easier on the eyes than red.

My top AWD tester has a 5.8-inch touch screen, nicely positioned above the centre console at eye level. An all-new infotainment system includes a USB connector, available Bluetooth audio and phone connectivity and an iPod audio jack. Front, side, and side curtain airbags are standard.

You can also add a blind spot monitoring system, which monitors the vehicle’s blind area and alerts you if it’s dangerous to make a lane change, or an adaptive front-light system with auto-levelling bi-xenon headlamps that offer better illumination.

The driver’s seat on my tester is eight-way power-adjustable with power lumbar support and heater functions. The seating position is supportive. The rear seats are comfortable, too, with ample leg- and headroom – even for tall passengers.

I like the remote rear-seat fold-down system; it makes it easy to lower the 40/20/40-split folding second-row seats. When lowered, there’s a nice flat cargo area with 1,852 litres of room. With the seats upright, there’s 966 litres of space – plenty of space for hockey equipment and golf clubs. A low lift gate height also makes it easy to load and unload groceries in the back.

The 2013 Mazda CX-5 comes in three trims – a GX, GS, and GT model. It goes on sale in early 2012. Prices aren’t available yet. That will be the key to Mazda’s success in this ever-growing segment.

Tech specs

2013 Mazda CX-5

Type: Five-passenger compact crossover

Price: Not available

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 155 hp/150 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic or manual

Drive: Front-wheel or all-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.7 highway (FWD with six-speed manual 8.0 city/6.4 highway (AWD with six-speed automatic); regular gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, RAV4, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson

pgentile@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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