The Most Functional Miata Money Can Buy

Now, before you furiously fire off angry comments about the absolute blasphemy of soiling the Miata's good name in reference to a crossover, hear us out. Mazda has told us over and over again that everything it has learned from the Miata project has directly influenced its new products. Case in point: the Mazda2. It's the least-powerful offering in its class, but we'll go on record as saying that it's the most entertaining B-segment car offered in the United States. The Mazda2's success is built upon its superb steering, great manual gearbox and well-balanced suspension geometry – you know, just like the Miata.

So how does this philosophy play out on a much larger vehicle like the 2013 Mazda CX-5 – a new entry in an extremely competitive class filled with big names like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape? Does Mazda's theory of Zoom-Zoom Above All work in a segment that largely values function over fun?

Just days after the its official debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Mazda let us loose in some pre-production CX-5s along the sun-drenched roads of southern California. Here, on the twisty roads through the canyons, it's easy to see what the CX-5 is all about.

The 2013 CX-5 is, effectively, the replacement for the Tribute – Mazda's badge-engineered version of the Ford Escape. The Tribute never really fit within Mazda's lineup, especially in recent years as the Japanese automaker has begun to furiously hone its styling and engineering directions. That said, there's a brand-new Ford Escape coming for the 2013 model year, and Mazda quickly put its foot down to kill any rumors that the CX-5 is in any way related to the Ford. Sure, they're similar in size, but the company executives insist that every single part of the CX-5 is brand-new and Mazda-specific.

2013 Mazda CX-5 side view2013 Mazda CX-5 front view2013 Mazda CX-5 rear view

One of the major points of newness to the CX-5 is its styling. It's the first Mazda vehicle to bring the company's new Kodo design language to production, and you'll want to get used to this new corporate face – it'll quickly spread throughout the entire lineup. The swoopy-smiley Nagare design has been ditched in favor of "Soul in Motion" styling that incorporates a more aggressive trapezoidal black grille with subtle wings that extend into the wraparound headlamp clusters. From the side, the CX-5's Kodo styling features a prominent shoulder line that rises up towards the hind quarters, complemented by an accent line above the rocker panel to further draw your eyes upward as they move along the rear doors. Combined with relatively short front and rear overhangs, Mazda says this makes the CX-5 look like an animal up on its haunches, ready to pounce.

Hyperbole aside, at 178.7 inches long, 65.7 inches tall and 72.4 inches wide, the CX-5 is nearly identical in size to the redesigned 2012 Honda CR-V, but because of its more aggressive design, the Mazda looks decidedly more compact. To further that point, know that the CX-5 rides on a wheelbase that is a full three inches longer than the CR-V. Just by looking at the two CUVs, it's not immediately noticeable. Sport (read: Base) and Touring models come standard with 17-inch wheels, while Grand Touring models (what you see in the pics) ride on handsome 19-inch alloys that fill out the large wheel wells nicely.

2013 Mazda CX-5 headlight2013 Mazda CX-5 grille2013 Mazda CX-5 wheel2013 Mazda CX-5 taillight

Sure, it looks compact, but stepping inside the CX-5 reveals an interior that's spacious and comfortable. And while we'd love to tell you about all of the technological and space-saving innovations that the CX-5 offers, truth is, there aren't any. Sure, there's an easy-to-use touchscreen navigation system with simple audio controls and Bluetooth connectivity, and yes, there's an optional 40/20/40 split-fold rear seat that offers up 65.4 cubic feet of cargo space, but that's about it. Mazda knows that it's behind in the tech game, and assures us that a more advanced infotainment system is in the works. Curiously, the multifunction knob found in the early-build, camouflaged cars we tested in Iceland has been removed for these North American models.

Still, the CX-5's interior is much nicer than what's currently offered in the rest of Mazda's lineup, though that isn't exactly a huge compliment. A wealth of soft-touch materials has been added to the dash and door panels, and the interior build quality feels solid, but there just isn't anything particularly special about the cockpit of the CX-5. It doesn't wow us in the way that the Kia Sportage does, and as soon as the Escape launches with its revised MyFord Touch, the infotainment in the CX-5 – or lack thereof – will be downright embarrassing. Our pre-production test cars had unfinished interiors with lots of ungrained surfaces, and while we'll wait to pass final judgment until we sit in a CX-5 that's true to production spec, we still aren't wholly hopeful for a superb cabin.

2013 Mazda CX-5 interior2013 Mazda CX-5 front seats2013 Mazda CX-5 rear seats2013 Mazda CX-5 rear cargo area

But Mazda's interiors have never been fantastic in its other volume models – the 2 in particular and the 3 on occasion – and we still have plenty of nice things to say about them. That's because what Mazda does best is driving dynamics (it's that Miata theory again), and the CX-5 does not disappoint. It's not because of any sort of overwhelming power – it's quite the opposite. This CUV garners our praise because of how nicely balanced the whole package is out on the road.

The CX-5 uses the full suite of Mazda's Skyactiv technologies, and while most people think that just refers to the 2.0-liter inline-four underhood, it's actually much more involved than that. While the powerplant in the CX-5 is the Skyactiv-G gasoline engine, it's mated to the buyer's choice of a pair of new Skyactiv-branded transmissions – a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic – and the whole package is wrapped in a lightweight Skyactiv chassis. Speaking of lightness, Mazda has vowed that each new model will weigh roughly 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor. We could compare the CX-5 to the Tribute, but honestly, the larger CX-7 crossover is a more direct competitor. Depending on equipment levels, the CX-5 can weigh as much as 575 pounds less than its older, ever-so-slightly larger sibling.

But back to the Skyactiv-G engine. Here, it's good for 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque – not breathtaking numbers by any means, and actually one of the least-powerful powerplants in its class. But thanks to an impressive 14:1 compression ratio, Mazda doesn't need to rely on turbocharging or downsizing in order to get decent performance. Fuel economy is also a huge win for the Skyactiv powertrain, too, with manual-equipped CX-5 models expected to deliver a best-in-class 33 miles per gallon on the highway and 26 mpg in the city. Adding the automatic transmission drops the highway number to 32 mpg, and equipping the CX-5 with all-wheel drive reduces overall economy to 25/30 mpg.

2013 Mazda CX-5 engine

We'll admit, the CX-5 feels rather sluggish off the line, with the 2.0-liter engine really needing to wind up to make the most of its power. But you'll only notice this during hard, highway entrance ramp acceleration efforts, and around town, the Skyactiv powerplant is perfectly adequate to keep pace with traffic.

The highlight of the whole CX-5 powertrain package is the transmission, regardless of which one you choose. Mazda now offers the only manual box in the segment, and it's a pure shame that it isn't offered throughout the CX-5 trim range. Mazda targeted the Miata's shifter in terms of throw length (a short 45 millimeters) and engagement, and with a light, linear clutch, the row-it-yourself package is, frankly, better than many sports cars we've tested. We know that less than five percent of CX-5s sold will be equipped with the do-it-yourself shifter, so to those intrepid buyers who select the three-pedal setup, know that you'll be in for a real treat.

But since the majority of CX-5s out on the road will be equipped with automatic transmissions, Mazda has worked tirelessly to make this transmission as slick as can be. The Skyactiv-Drive six-speed auto uses a traditional torque converter to get the car moving at speeds under five mph and then clamps down on the clutch with a quickness at speed to fire off shifts that rival dual-clutch boxes, but without any of the harshness and low speed refinement issues. The transmission is willing to shift often and keep the car at optimal revs for more enthusiastic driving, though prolonged stints of this aggressiveness will predictably hinder overall economy.

2013 Mazda CX-5 badge2013 Mazda CX-5 badge

But the CX-5 is a crossover that begs to be driven with passion. We spent hours caning it along the curved roads of the Angeles National Forest, and in these instances, the Miata theory of excellent steering and a well-sorted suspension are not only noticeable, but greatly appreciated. Mazda has employed electric power steering assist here, and while a majority of electric steering racks have a tendency to feel artificial and overboosted, the system in the CX-5 is comparatively grand. Steering feel is direct and linear, with minimal effort needed to execute quick turns. Combine that with a suspension that's designed to reduce body roll and offer a sportier ride quality than the more mainstream cushy CUVs, and what you have is a crossover that stands true to Mazda's belief in driver engagement as the most important aspect to the whole vehicular experience. It truly feels like a big Mazda3 rather than a smaller CX-7.

The one issue here is that, while the steering and suspension make for a rewarding driving experience, the lack of low-end torque means you'll be pushing the pedal down harder than in more powerful, turbocharged applications. Mazda has confirmed that its Skyactiv-D 2.2-liter turbo-diesel with 310 pound-feet of twist will be coming to the United States at some point, but mum's the word on whether or not it'll be offered in the CX-5. After our experience testing this engine in Iceland earlier this year, we're seriously clamoring for the diesel powertrain to make it Stateside. Do that, and the CX-5 will easily be the best-driving small crossover on sale, not to mention the added fuel economy benefits.

2013 Mazda CX-5 rear 3/4 view

Mazda has yet to announce pricing for the CX-5, but we expect it to start just below $20,000 when it goes on sale in February. Our best guess says that, all-in, you'll be paying at least $28,000 for a fully loaded Grand Touring model with all-wheel drive.

As it stands, the CX-5 truly employs the lessons learned from the Miata in its driving engagement. Lightweight materials combined with a nicely balanced, well-tuned suspension and excellent, direct steering are the key elements that have made the Miata so wonderful, and like in the Mazda2 and Mazda3, the CX-5 brings this philosophy to a larger package.

Will this work for the majority of crossover buyers? A spruced-up interior and a full suite of tech goodies would be welcome, but for folks who value driver involvement above all, the CX-5 proves to be a rewarding steer that'll look great next to the Miata in your garage.