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car review

2013 Mazda CX-5.David Dewhurst

The story of the 2013 Mazda CX-5 began in 2005 when Mazda began mapping out its long-term strategy in a post-Ford world. This is how the car business works. What you see in showrooms today was conceived long ago.

SkyActiv, the buzzword Mazda is using to describe the company's comprehensive take on improving fuel economy and reducing emissions in vehicles that remain fun to drive, is all about "wiping the slate clean," says Mazda senior engineer Dave Coleman, the self-described Director of Technobabble. "No more parts-bin engineering," he adds.

By that he means this: The CX-5 and all that comes next from Mazda represent what you might call a holistic approach to vehicle development. Everything you will see from Mazda going forward, from the powertrains to the platforms, from the designs to engineering top to bottom – all if it is about "squeezing maximum efficiency from existing technologies."

Yeah, but why should you care? You're not a technogeek. But if you're like 300,000 other Canadians or so, you will be buying a compact SUV of some sort this year or next year or the year after, each and every year. Canadians love their compact SUVs; sales here account for 17 per cent of the entire new-vehicle market and just in the last two years have doubled.

So you are very likely to want something along the lines of a Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox, Kia Sportage, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue. If you are a Mazda owner, you will likely be moving up from a Mazda3, although Mazda wants you if you are a former Honda Civic or Ford Focus owner, too.

If that's you, the base version of the CX-5, the GX with front-wheel-drive, starts at $22,995. The volume model, the GS, lists for $27,895 and the top-of-the-line GT starts at $32,495. All are well equipped, but of course, as you pay more you get more. AWD, for instance, is a $2,000 option on GX and GS models, standard on the GT.

Most importantly to Mazda, the CX-5 offers the "best highway fuel economy of any SUV sold in Canada – including hybrids:" 7.8 litres/100 km in the city, 5.7 highway for front-drive models with the six-speed manual transmission. Front-drivers with the six-speed automatic get 7.7 city/6.1 highway and with AWD and the automatic, 8.0 city/6.4 highway. Using regular gas across the board.

Mazda, then, is taking aim at the heart of the new-vehicle market in Canada with a crossover that is very capable, looks sharp and is fun-to-drive. All at an appealing price. If Mazda gets this right, the CX-5 will not be a niche player. You're going to see them all over your neighbourhood.

The CX-5 is, for the present, the future of Mazda. It's Mazda going all in for the first time with SkyActiv fuel-saving technologies. For instance, there is a new global platform architecture here, and it is 8 per cent lighter and 30 per cent more rigid than the company's previous small-car architecture.

Most interesting, I think, is that this small-car architecture has yielded a fuel-efficient crossover that not only isn't a bore to drive, but is almost as big as the current Mazda CX-7. SkyActiv at work.

Speaking of which, the heart of it, really, is Mazda's new Skyactiv-G direct-injected, 2.0-litre, inline- four-cylinder gasoline engine. Director Technobabble had a long and detailed presentation to explain why this engine is so good, so strong, and so efficient and if you must know, the essence of it all is the 13:1 compression ratio using regular gas. Those who care about compression ratios will know that's a pretty good number for an everyday car.

If you could not care less, suffice to say the 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque are all there and pretty quickly. This Mazda is no slug. And thanks to some fancy engine plumbing, the power comes on smoothly, without any knocking or hesitation. All very impressive.

Then there's the new automatic transmission. Delicious. Again, only a geek would care why the shifts are so good (the torque converter is basically on the job only during gear changes) but let me tell you, up-shifts are smooth and downshifts are rev-matched. They are seriously snappy, too. As is the overall handling of the CX-5.

Meanwhile, the exterior design is an eye-grabber and the cabin is roomy, intelligently useful and airy. Outward visibility is exceptional, rear-seat room is good for adults and the big cargo area expands thanks to near-flat folding rear seatback.

As family haulers go, the CX-5 looks like a winner. No, that's damning with faint praise. Mazda, in fact, has just thrown down the gauntlet in this segment. The competition should start tearing down CX-5s ASAP.