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Mazda's CX-5 at the head of its class

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Actor Patrick Dempsey, right, and Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi pose next to the Mazda CX-5 at the LA Auto Show last year.

The first word in the SUV acronym is “sport,” but you’d be hard-pressed to tell from the recent crop of compact crossover dullmobiles that serve as modern suburban station wagons.  It used to be that parents would put fussy babies in the car for a ride around the block to rock them to sleep.  Now they just prop them in the front window and force them to look at the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 in the driveway to send them to the land of nod.

Sales in the segment are booming as consumers who previously would have bought mid-size SUVs like the Ford Explorer or Jeep Grand Cherokee have moved down a segment to burn less $4 gas.  This year more than 1.3 million Americans will drive home from the dealer in a compact SUV, and that number is growing every year, reports Tim Barnes, Mazda’s director of product planning.

There are a lot of these buyers, but they don’t have high expectations.  “Entry into the segment is motivated by practical reasons and not by emotional desires,” Barnes said.

Obviously many of these buyers don’t prioritize sportiness, but those who do can turn to Mazda for relief.  The new Mazda CX-5 is at the head of the class in expressive styling and crisp handling.  The long-hood proportions are a classic way to convey sporting intent, while the front suspension geometry was optimized to provide road feel and feedback to the drive through the steering wheel.

A clever repositioning of rear suspension geometry lets Mazda use stiffer suspension bushings for sharper response without inflicting the customary bad ride that would otherwise result.

As per Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom brand promise, the feel of the steering wheel, the touch of the brake pedal and the engine’s throttle response all tell the in-the-know shopper that the CX-5 was developed by fellow car enthusiasts.  Too many other companies’ cars look good on paper and sometimes even in the metal, but they don’t feel good on the road, as parts are specified by people who don’t really understand the nuances that make cars feel right.  No brand in the mainstream does this better than Mazda.

In the past, touting sporty attributes might also imply a thirst for fuel, but Mazda’s new SkyActiv suite of fuel-saving technologies lends the CX-5 the ability to tiptoe past more gas stations than you’d expect for family wagon of it ilk.

I saw an honest 25 mpg in around-town suburban soccer dad carpool service, which is the same as the EPA city rating, so that’s probably a pretty realistic number for everyday use.

The 155-hp 2.0-liter four cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission each benefit from an impressive raft of fuel-saving technologies.  Many of the parts that make the CX-5’s SkyActiv engine innovative look familiar to hot-rodders, right down to the complex exhaust header that snakes through the engine compartment. 

Just like back in the days when high compression, fuel injection and headers were the hot setup at the track, modern direct fuel injection and even more carefully tuned exhaust pipes help wring the most from the engine, only now the main goal is to go farther, rather than faster, on a gallon of gas.

Maybe the SkyActiv moniker comes from the sky-high 13:1 engine compression that would astound racers of old by running on regular octane gas.  In Europe, where consumers are more willing to pay for higher-octane fuel, Mazda runs at an even-higher 14:1 ratio on premium gas. 

Unlike the old days, this modern hot-rodding doesn’t produce a raucous ride.  The CX-5 is smooth and quiet enough that customers coming out of V6 vehicles shouldn’t be put off by its four-cylinder engine.  And the six-speed automatic transmission does a good job of picking the right gears to sip fuel and keep the engine from screaming.

Despite all this focus on the driving experience, Mazda hasn’t forgotten that such vehicles are bought for practicality.  Class-leading back seat room, a middle pass-through in the back seat from the cargo area and a back seat that folds flat show that Mazda knows that SUV buyers want useable space for passengers and cargo.

A nice touch in the back: windows that open all the way, giving back-seaters full automotive citizenship in the CX-5.

The tested Grand Touring trim level produces a pretty high sticker price for this segment, which is why the slightly cheaper Touring model will be the high volume configuration for the CX-5.  The Grand Touring adds goodies like bigger wheels, leather, sunroof and a Bose satellite radio sound system.

The Tech Package added to the price tag, with a Tom Tom navigation system, fantastic xenon high- and low-beam headlights, and active headlights that steer into turns.  Like most of the hand-held nav systems adapted to in-car use, the graphics are cartoonish and the interface is annoying on the larger in-dash screen.

But the Bose stereo is just the ticket for blasting your favorite tunes from college, even if it does prevent back-seaters from falling asleep.  At least you’ll be awake at the wheel thanks to Mazda’s more exciting interpretation of the usually somnolent compact SUV.

2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring All Wheel Drive

  • Base price: $28.295
  • Price as tested: $30,415 (including $795 delivery fee)
  • EPA gas mileage: 25 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, 28 mpg combined
  • Pros: Expressive styling, interactive handling, thrifty fuel consumption
  • Cons: Lame seat heaters wouldn’t cut it in a real winter, Sponge Bob-worthy navigation graphics, excessive road and wind noise
  • Verdict: Mazda has the home run product it needs, if only customers will notice.
  • Standard equipment: 155-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 engine, 6-speed transmission, automatic windows and door locks, aluminum wheels, keyless start.
  • Safety equipment: electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, blind spot warning, front, side and curtain air bags.
  • Major options: Navigation, xenon headlights, adaptive headlights.