Mazda makes an impact with new CX-5

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The Mazda CX-5 delivers pleasing fuel consumption and is a treat to drive. Photos supplied

Back in the 1970s, and well into the 1980s, rotary engines and the RX2, RX3 and RX7 cars they powered, set Mazda apart as one of Japan's quirkier, yet most innovative brands.

Favoured by boy-racers and serious competitors of the pre-turbocharger era alike, these RX models were easily modified for extra power. They ranked as dismal failures for economy though, which is why, in late June of this year, the rotary engine was declared extinct.

The official extinction event was the final RX8 sports car rolling off the production line, but while the rotary RX may be no more, mechanical innovation has recently gained a different lease of life at Mazda.

The catchcry this time round is SkyActiv technology, and the focus is on blending economy and performance. First tested in these pages in the Mazda 3, which deploys the technology in a limited way, SkyActiv reaches fruition with the new CX-5 mid-sized SUV.

SkyActiv is an engineering approach rather than a particular item of technology. It incorporates weight saving (something Mazda has been obsessional about with its MX5 roadster for years), the reduction of mechanical friction, exotic exhausts and other fuel-saving mechanical cleverness.

Taken to the fullest possible extent, it is an approach that Mazda believes can rival even hybrids for fuel economy, without using the precious rare earth metals that these petrol-electric machines require.

To be fair, in almost a week behind the wheel of the flagship $55,990 CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv diesel auto, I noticed very little about economy from day to day, aside from the fuel gauge being stubbornly slow to drop.

A final inspection revealed a 6.4l/100km return on test, which ranked as very good for a predominantly urban-based drive, especially against a 5.7l/100km standard cycle figure.

More interesting to my mind was how well this variant of the CX-5 went: never mind the combination of the 129kW/420Nm diesel motor and six-speed automatic being superior to the adequate match of 114kW/200Nm 2-litre petrol and six-speed 'box offered as an alternative in the CX-5 range for $3000 less, the CX-5 diesel-auto match is one of the best engine-gearbox pairings experienced by Drivesouth this year.

Fellow Drivesouth contributor Richard Bosselman had already alerted me to this fact delivering first impressions of the CX-5 and its sequentially turbo-charged diesel engine a couple of months ago. But his rave report failed to prepare me fully for this motor's capacity to deliver a massive swathe of power and torque from little more than 1000rpm through to 5550rpm, with both an urgency and smoothness not often associated with diesel.

Rock-solid performance is supported by thoroughly decent handling, which in the case of all but the base model CX-5 variant can be extended gently off-road thanks to four-wheel drive.

Ride quality and aural refinement are good too, though the Limited, which sits on 19-inch alloys and 225/55 rubber, fidgets on poor surfaces more than the standard CX-5 on its lesser 225/65 R17 tyres, and picks up more road noise.

The CX-5 stacks up well inside, with a cleanly designed and well-finished cabin.

The front seating position is quite upright, which will suit the many buyers who favour vehicles of this type, primarily for ease of access and a commanding driving position.

With the exception of the start button, tucked out of sight behind the wiper stalk, the key controls and instruments are well located.

The back seats provide ample legroom, with adequate width to accommodate adults in the outer seats and a child in the middle on a long trip.

All too often, boot space is the weak point of medium-sized SUVs. Not so with the CX-5, which offers a class-leading 503 litres of stowage space behind the back seats, and a neat 40/20/40 rear-seat split that can boost that capacity through various configurations to a maximum 1560 litres.

Equipment levels are also impressive. The Limited justifies a $9000 price premium over the mid-spec GSX with such items as 19-inch alloys, leather trim, a premium nine-speaker sound system, heated power seats, a power sunroof, and adaptive bi-xenon headlights with auto-dipping.

It also boasts front and rear parking sensors, tyre-pressure monitoring, lane departure and blindspot warning systems, the latter of which flashes in the side mirrors when there is a car close by in another lane.

These items, some of which are extra-cost options on $100k-plus luxury SUVs, augment features standard at either entry or GSX level including audio and phone Bluetooth connectivity, USB/iPod interfaces, cruise control, an integrated TomTom satellite navigation system, a reversing camera, push-button start, dual-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers.

Core safety features that have helped the CX-5 to the maximum five-star European crash test rating include front, side and curtain airbags, electronic stability control, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and the automatic activation of the vehicle's hazard lights during and after heavy braking.

If there is one area where the CX-5 disappoints slightly, it is in the way it looks.

This is clean and tidy design for sure, but while unlikely to offend, exterior styling that plays it this safe gives little hint of the remarkable treat that awaits within.

Mazda makes an impact with new CX-5
At a Glance

MAZDA CX-5 2.2 SKYACTIV DIESEL LIMITED

For: Superb engine and gearbox, decent dynamics, roomy interior, very well equipped.

Against: Styling could be bolder.

Verdict: An excellent addition to mid-sized SUV ranks.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $55,990 (as tested).

Engine: 2191cc four-cylinder 16-valve direct injection turbo-diesel, max power 129kW@4500rpm, max torque 420Nm@2000rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Brakes and stability systems: Disc, ABS, DSC, EBD, EBA.

Wheels, tyres: Alloy wheels, 225/55 R19 tyres.

Fuel and economy: Diesel, 5.7 litres per 100km (on ADR combined cycle), capacity 58 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4540mm, width 1840mm, height 1710mm.