First, a word from the brand police. Listen up: California's Laguna Seca race track is officially known as Mazda Raceway At Laguna Seca.
Mazda has a long-standing arrangement with Monterey County and, despite the fact that just about everyone knows it as Laguna Seca, this is Mazda's track and it runs the show here. Secondly, the new SkyActiv technology from Mazda is spelled without an "e", and will be the platform for future models coming from the Japanese manufacturer.
"By 2016," explains Kory Koreeda, executive vice-president of Mazda Canada, "at least 80 per cent of all Mazdas will feature SkyActiv technology."
SkyActiv, in a nutshell, is a complete nuts-and-bolts re-evaluation of the automobile, from stem to stern. A new approach to engine management, suspension, steering, lightweight body construction, ergonomics and performance. According to the company, virtually all future Mazdas will get the SkyActiv treatment, and the first one out of the gate is the new CX-5.
Picking up where the Tribute left off, the CX-5 is not just a smaller CX-7, and features its own platform and powertrain. It is offered with either two-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, and there is but one engine: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that develops 155 horsepower.
This engine will feature the highest compression ratio – 13:1 – in the industry for a gasoline-powered engine and was designed with a view to efficiency, rather than performance. "If there's a higher compression gas engine out there, we'd like to hear about it," adds Mazda's director of technology, Dave Coleman.
According to Coleman, one of the minor but important things Mazda engineers had to contend with to heighten the efficiency of this engine was move the air conditioner. Because one of most important ingredients of a free-breathing engine is found in its exhaust system, Mazda designed a serpentine exhaust header that takes up a good deal of the engine bay. The a/c compressor had to be moved to accommodate it, and the catalytic converter for the car is actually housed within the exhaust header and not somewhere along the exhaust pipe.
As well, the new SkyActiv engine has a plastic water pump impeller, as opposed to the traditional metal blades, to save weight and move engine coolant around more thoroughly, and lightweight Torx bolts are utilized everywhere, rather than the conventional hex nuts.
Two transmission are available with the new CX-5: six-speed manual and six-speed automatic, and the AWD system is 39 kilograms lighter than the one in found on the CX-7.
Other engineering highlights include electric power steering taken from the RX-8, repositioned and redesigned rear suspension links and an all-new body style. Mazda is calling this latter design a "leaping forward" concept and the idea is make the CX-5 appear more upscale. It still has a rather unnecessary side body seam, but at least the heavy-metal, happy-face, front-grille treatment is gone.
So how does all this come together? Aside from a bit of a power shortage, rather well, actually.
After spending time on the Mazda Raceway At Laguna Seca track and running through an autocross course a bunch of times, I'd have to say that this may be the best-handling SUV/CUV on the market. Certainly, it's equal to the likes of the Volkswagen Tiguan or Audi Q5, and is remarkably precise and stable through the tightest of turns.
During many spirited runs through the autocross course setup at the track, the CX-5 exhibited one of the trademark signs of a proper suspension setup: during tight high-speed corners, the right or left rear wheel would come off the ground without causing the vehicle to spin off the track. Usually, this kind of manoeuvre results in an immediate loss of control, but not here. Nice.
As well, the CX-5 is remarkably quiet on the highway, with excellent NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) and minimal wind noise.
I'd like it better if there was a bit more oomph in this engine, because when you reach for reserve power – well, there isn't any. The SkyActiv engine may deliver outstanding fuel economy – 7.8 litres/100 km in town and 5.7 on the highway – but a powerhouse it ain't.
The compact SUV/CUV market is a big one in Canada. According to Mazda's Koreeda, it has grown 27 per cent over the past two years and, by 2015, more than 300,000 units a year will be moved out of Canadian showrooms. Mazda's current SUV models – the CX-7 and CX-9 – have doubled their sales volumes since 2010, and the CX5 will getting its share of this market, according to Koreeda. The company does expect some cannibalism with the CX-7, he concedes, but that's to be expected.
The CX-5 is available now and comes in three trim levels; GX, GS, and GT. Standard equipment includes a traction control system, ABS, cruise control, push-button start, tilt/telescoping steering, steering-wheel-mounted controls and a hill start assist program. As you climb through the model range, you can order things like leather interior, heated front seats, back-up camera, a navi system and a power glass sunroof.
2013 Mazda CX5
Type: Compact CUV
Price Range: $22,995-$32,495
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 155 hp/150 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic/six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.7 highway (manual transmission with FWD); regular gas
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Volkswagen Tiguan, Nissan Rogue, Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Compass, Dodge Journey