Mazda CX-5: Promising, but not perfect

By Deon Schoeman 13 July 2012

At first glance, the new Mazda CX-5 looks like your typical compact SUV, complete with its tall stance, extended roofline and tailgated rear. But as it turns out, the Mazda is better described as a crossover vehicle, combining the appearance of sports utility vehicle with the versatility of a multi-purpose vehicle – and the practicality of a station wagon. By DEON SCHOEMAN.

Endowing the new Mazda CX-5 with a strong SUV persona is a clever move in the South African context, where SUVs are all the rage, and station wagons struggle to find buyers. Besides, very few SUV owners really require the all-terrain capability and all-wheel drive of a real SUV.

In reality, what South African family car buyers want is space and versatility, together with the visibility and security a raised ride height implies. And besides, 4x4s are thirstier and unnecessarily complex for most motorists.

At face value, then, the CX-5 ticks all the right boxes. In fact, it’s a handsome vehicle, reflecting a design language Mazda proudly calls “Kodo” – or Soul Of Motion. Translated into plain English, the CX-5 looks streamlined and dynamic, with a hint of muscle around the rear haunches.

But perhaps the most striking aspect is the front end, which hosts a bold interpretation of the Mazda corporate identity. It’s dominated by a large, dark-meshed hexagonal grille, mounted almost vertically at the far end of the long, swooping bonnet.

A hungry lower air intake emphasises the Mazda’s almost menacing appearance, while sculpted recesses on either side provide a home for the round fog lamps. A steeply raked windscreen adds to overall aggression of the front styling.

By comparison, the rest of the CX-5’s design is pretty conventional. A high waistline leaves plenty of space for the curved outlines of the wheel arches, while the flanks flare towards the rear, suggesting a wide and stable track.

The rear is curved and tidy, with a fairly small rear screen and a generous rear apron in contrasting black. Twin exhausts add to an impression of athletic prowess.

But don’t get your hopes up too quickly: appearances can be deceiving. Instead, let’s consider what’s under the bonnet. Providing the CX-5’s urge is a two-litre, four-cylinder engine. Nothing unusual about that. And at 114kW and 200Nm, the power and torque outputs are good, but hardly exceptional.

What isn’t immediately apparent from those figures, however, is that the engine features direct fuel injection, and an unusually high compression ratio of 13:1, which (according to Mazda) results in improved torque output, lower fuel consumption, and reduced emissions.

Okay, so since the output figures don’t look all that remarkable, let’s consider the claimed fuel consumption figures. Mazda says the CX-5 sips 95 unleaded at a rate of 6,9 litres per 100km in the combined cycle – and yes, that is a pretty impressive figure. But the big question is whether it’s that frugal in real-world driving conditions.

After a week of testing under mixed driving conditions, including a fair amount of steady-speed highway motoring, our test car returned a consumption figure of 8.7 litres per 100km – pretty good for a generously proportioned crossover, but way off that combined cycle claim. 

As the CX-5 is not a 4×4, drive is to the front wheels – in this case, via a six-speed automatic gearbox. And it’s that gearbox that is the single most disappointing element of the Mazda. It manages to undo much that should be positive and pleasing about the CX-5’s dynamic talents.

In full auto – which, let’s face it, is the mode most owners will employ – the gearbox is far too sensitive to decisive throttle inputs, gearing down at the slightest provocation, even when there’s enough grunt to remain in the current gear.

Making matters even worse is a gear ratio set in which fifth – and sixth, in particular – are too tall, relative to the other gears. For all intents and purposes, sixth is an overdrive ratio, which explains why the gearbox will kick down to fifth, and even fourth, at every opportunity.

The yo-yoing between gears is annoying and does the CX-5 no favours. In fact, I’d urge would-be buyers to consider the manual gearbox carefully, even though it’s only offered on the so-called Active base model.

Alternatively, drivers should employ the manual sequential shift mode, which allows manual selection of gears – albeit without the assistance of any shift paddles. At least that way, the driver gets to decide which gear is best for a particular set of circumstances.

Of course, a contributing factor here may also be Johannesburg’s elevated altitude, which would not only rob the two-litre engine of around 18% of its muscle, but would also tend to persuade the engine management system to retard the timing – which, in turn, would steal even more urge from the otherwise smooth and willing four-potter.

Despite the very real shortcomings of the automatic gearbox, the CX-5 is a willing enough performer, as long as the engine is kept in the power band. The factory figures show a zero to 100 km/h acceleration time of 9.5sec, and a top speed of 187km/h.

More importantly, the Mazda feels solid and composed on the move, even when pressing on. The fully independent suspension combines traditional MacPherson struts in front with a latest-generation multi-link rear design, which explains its sure-footed, confident road manner.

Crisp steering is a further boon, and makes manoeuvring the CX-5 into parking spaces a simple affair. At speed, the steering loads up nicely, but is still too light for meaningful feedback – a common shortcoming of electro-hydraulic steering systems. 

Ride quality is excellent, with enough damping to iron out the rough and bumpy stuff, without turning the Mazda into a wafter. The feel-good factor is further emphasised by a cabin that is attractively executed, and comprehensively equipped.

The version under scrutiny here is the flagship CX-5 Individual, which has almost everything that opens and shuts: from electric windows and mirrors to heated seats, a nine-speaker Bose system, dual-zone climate control, parking sensors with a rear-view camera – and a whole lot more.

The cabin is spacious and inviting, with excellent all-round visibility from the driver’s side. An efficient ergonomic design places most of the key controls within easy reach, while the large touch-screen central display allows intuitive control of the audio, Bluetooth and telephone systems. Tactile quality is impressive, thanks to nicely textured surfaces and genuine leather upholstery.

Accommodation is generous both front and rear, but at just more than 400 litres, the luggage compartment is useful, if not exactly huge: you’ll need to fold down the 40:20:40 rear bench seat to boost capacity for bigger items. Fortunately, access via the top-hinged tailgate is very convenient.

The list of active and passive safety features is extensive, confirming the Mazda’s five-star Euro NCAP status. It embraces everything from ABS brakes with EBD and EBA to dynamic stability control and hill start assistance. The airbag count comes to six, while ISOFIX child seat anchors are standard, too.

The Mazda CX-5 is one of those vehicles that shows tremendous promise, and delivers on most counts, but is hampered by some frustrating shortcomings. Chief among those is the automatic gearbox, but at altitude the engine also lacks ultimate brio. One can’t help but think that diesel power – available in European markets, for instance – would have been a better option here, too.

That aside, the CX-5 shines in the ride, handling and comfort departments, while standard specification is high, especially in the case of the range-topping Individual version. For well under R400,000, the Mazda CX-5 also has value on its side, underscored by a five-year/90,000 km service plan, and a four-year 120,000 km warranty. DM

VITAL STATISTICS

Mazda CX-5 2.0 Individual AT

  • Engine In-line four-cylinder, 1,998cc, direct injection
  • Gearbox Six-speed automatic
  • Power 114kW @ 6,000rpm
  • Torque 200 Nm @ 4,000rpm
  • 0-100 km/h 9.5sec
  • Top speed 187km/h
  • Fuel consumption 8.7 l/100 km (tested)
  • CO2 emissions 161 g/km
  • Retail price R389,500
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