Leader of the pack

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Whichever variant takes your fancy, it is clear that this time the new CX-5 does not suffer from lack of boldness in its styling. Photo: David Thomson

If you want confirmation of the importance of sports utility vehicles to mainstream car-makers in 2017, pause and consider this startling piece of information: eight of the top-l0-selling new vehicles in New Zealand so far this year are SUVs.

Sales-wise, the Mazda CX-5 is the third-strongest selling of these, behind Toyota's fleet and rental favourite - the RAV4 - and the Kia Sportage. The CX-5 is sitting pretty in the sales charts following a shift to a new second-generation model back in April, and in the face of an array of talented competition that includes two of its own kind, the still quite new CX-9 and the recently upgraded CX-3.

In 2012, I applauded the then new-generation CX-5 for its superb mechanicals, decent handling, roomy interior and strong suite of standard equipment. My one reservation was exterior styling that lacked boldness.

Fast-forward to the latter half of 2017, and I have now ventured far and wide across Otago in both petrol and diesel versions of the new CX-5. Though noting that there is also a front-drive variant with a 2.0-litre petrol engine under the bonnet, thepetrol version tested here is the all-wheel-drive 2.5-litre in mid-spec $45,995 GLX guise. The diesel, meantime, is the flagship $57,495 AWD Limited. 

Whichever variant takes your fancy, it is clear that this time the new CX-5 does not suffer from lack of boldness in its styling; while a recognisable evolution of the outgoing model, the formers soft lines have been replaced by a sharper-edged look that is especially strong around the nose.

Opt for the GLX, and 17-inch alloys come as standard along with LED headlights, a rear spoiler and dual chrome exhausts. The Limited, meantime, sits on 19-inch wheels, and LED running lights are fitted as well. Comparing new with old, the latest CX-5 is fractionally longer and a little lower than the vehicle it replaces.

Considerable thought has gone into giving the interior of the new CX-5 a premium feel. The cabins of both test cars are beautifully put together, and trim quality takes a significant step up; the Limited feels especially classy, with its leather trim, soft-touch surfaces, dark woodgrain inlays and chrome highlighting.

The new CX-5 also scores well for practicality upfront: key controls and instruments are clearly laid out; storage spaces around the front seats are plentiful; the centre touchscreen, while smaller than some, is easier to glance at now that it sits atop the dash rather than being integrated into it.

A large tailgate, power-operated on the Limited, gives access to a generous boot. As before, the CX-5 provides a handy load-through capacity for skis and other long items thanks to its 40-20.40 rear seat back. Rear-seat room is fine without being outstanding, but if room in the back is a priority, Mazda can point to its larger CX-9 as an alternative.

The GLX is trimmed in imitation leather and suede, with key standard equipment items including keyless entry and start, dual climate control, auto stop-start, cruise control, a head up instrument display, auto lights and wipers.

The 7-inch centre colour display is a touchscreen, augmented by a rotary control dial and buttons, and is home base for satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and the sound system. GLX active safety features comprise a reversing camera and parking sensors, blind-spot alert and autonomous emergency braking.

The Limited gains heated and power-operated seats, a premium Bose sound system, a sunroof, and an extended set of active safety features. These include full adaptive radar cruise control, lane departure and lane-keep assistance, and side camera and smart brake support.

Mechanically, the new CX-5 depends on the tried and true, with both the 2.5 petrol and 2.2 turbo-diesel motors of the test vehicles familiar from the previous CX-5 and other models in the Mazda range. Featuring Mazda's Skyactiv economy and emissions-friendly technologies, the engines have been lightly tweaked for the new CX-5 and are mated to six-speed automatic transmissions.

The 2.5-litre petrol engine musters 140kW of power and 251Nm of torque. It is a responsive free-rewing unit that combines smoothly with the six-speed automatic 'box to deliver thoroughly acceptable round-town and open-road performance. Using the vehicle's more aggressive sport mode some of the time, managed an 8.71/100km return on test, against a 7.5I/100km official standard cycle figure. 

Producing 129kW and 420Nm, the turbo-diesel remains a fine performer, and would certainly be my preference if I used the latest CX-5 for regular towing or extensive highway work. Without any towing, but with plenty of open-road driving, I was pleased to record a 7.31/100km economy return with the diesel CX-5 on test (its standard cycle return is 6.01/100km). The engine is responsive and pulls strongly from low revs, has a pleasantly rorty note under hard acceleration, but is all but silent during open-road cruising.

While the latest CX-5 is built around an updated version of its predecessor's underlying platform, the chassis has been extensively reworked. A greater use of ultra-high-tensile steel, and the strengthening of a number of key chassis and body joints, means torsional rigidity has improved by 15%.
The suspension has also been tweaked, and Mazda's clever G-Vectoring Controlsystem is standard across the range. The system monitors the car's movement through corners, and subtly modifies torque delivery to optimise balance between the front and rear axles. 

Thanks to these changes, the new CX-5 rides and handles with even greater aplomb than its dynamically strong predecessor.

In terms of handling, the most obvious advances come with improved steering accuracy and crisper initial turn-in to corners. As before, the CX-5 holds its line nicely and maintains momentum through moderately sharp corners with consummate ease. This makes it a fine vehicle for effortless main and secondary highways cruising on typical South Island roadsin either of the guises tested. Open-road ride quality is excellent, too, and tyre roar is better contained than on the previous model. 

Though both test vehicles were equipped with all-wheel-drive, the CX-5's total traction system is, like most of its rivals, fully automated. As a result of this feature and road-oriented tyres, the CX-5 is best thought of as a soft-road rather than fully off-road-capable SUV. It will take tarmac and gravel in its stride but unless conditions are bone dry, it will get to the edge of rather than fully off the beaten track.

Around town the new CX-5 is a generally easy steer. Sharp street surface imperfections were sponged away more effectively by the petrol GLX than the diesel Limited, due almost certainly to the former running 65-profile tyres on 17-inch alloys rather than the Limited's 55-profile tyres on 19-inch alloys.
Looking back on a total of two weeks behind the wheels of two variants of the new CX-5, it is impossible not to be impressed by this new arrival.

Revolution was something Mazda would not have contemplated when replacing a model as capable and popular as the previous CX-5. And as far as evolution goes, this is surely as good as it gets.

Leader of the pack
At a Glance

MAZDA CX-5 DIESEL LIMITED Overall: 5 stars

Design and styling: 4+ stars

Interior: 5 stars

Performance: 4stars

Ride/handling: 4+ stars

Safety: 5stars

Environmental: 4stars

For: Great interior, and fine road manners

Against: Precious little Verdict: Remains the benchmark in its class

SPECIFICATIONS

Price (as tested): $57,495

Engine: 2191cc four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC intercooled turbo-diesel, maximum power 129kW@4500rpm, maximum torque 420Nm@2000rpm

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, VSC, HAC, DAB, TSC

Safety rating: Five-star ANCAP

Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 225/55 R 19 tyres Fuel and economy: 6.0 litres per 100km on standard economy cycle, fuel-tank capacity 58 litres

Emissions: C02158g/km on combined cycle Dimensions: Length 4550mm, width 1840mm, height 1675mm

RATING (5/5)