While the recent struggles of its larger countrymen have been well publicized, Mazda finds itself at something of a quiet turning point. It would be hard to blame the Japanese automaker for kicking back and enjoying the warm fuzzies it's earned over the years with cars like the MX-5 Miata and Mazda3, but as a small company going it alone in a pond full of bigger, better-funded fish, it still has much to prove.
Among the competencies Mazda has to demonstrate, it must show it can build the powertrain technology necessary to reach fuel economy goals mandated by the U.S. government, rival automakers and the buying public. The only hybrid models it ever sold here were built under contract, and to this point, no other alternative fuel vehicles have found their way into its North American showrooms. What's more, Mazda's last attempt at a styling language, the flowing folds of Nagare, came in for critical praise on the showcar circuit thanks to stunners like the Furai and Ryuga, but the philosophy never really gelled in production form (its awkward, Jokerian pulled-smile and ribbed sheetmetal choices triggered more confused looks than praise). Compounding matters, the company recently announced it was pulling the plug on its iconoclastic RX-8, whose rotary engine and lightweight construction were brand cornerstones.
So... has Mazda lost the plot? As it turns out, not a bit. In fact, after spending a few days grilling company executives and driving prototypes of its forthcoming 2013 CX-5, we think the company seems as clear about its identity and mission as it's ever been, and the proof is in the CX-5's pudding. The new small crossover singlehandedly attempts to answer most of our nagging questions by packing Mazda's new Skyactiv blueprint for eco-friendly enthusiast driving ("sustainable Zoom-Zoom") and the seeds of Mazda's new Kodo design language, so we couldn't wait to get behind the wheel.
Shucking off Hurricane Irene's wrath, we flew to Iceland to get our first taste of the CX-5.
Why the Nordic island nation? Aside from a network of beautifully and scarcely traveled winding roads (engineered more by volcanic whims than urban planners, sheep actually outnumber people nearly two-to-one. Honest.), both Iceland and Mazda remain small yet proud entities with fiercely independent streaks, and, as the automaker is quick to point out, a keen interest in earth-friendly living.
Most of the time, when an automaker tells us that a product is "all-new," we always look for an asterisk. Even if a model's name is unfamiliar, there's generally some bit of recycled or updated hardware lurking under the skin, be it a chassis, gearbox or engine. Not so with the CX-5 – from grille to tailpipe, this is a clean-sheet proposition. At 178.7 inches long and 72.4 inches wide, it's less than six inches shorter and under an inch narrower than the CX-7, with a 106.3-inch wheelbase that's just two inches shorter. Given the camouflage seen here, it's hard to discern the CX-5's relative size, but it's over three inches shorter than a Toyota RAV4. Just as important for its dynamics and interior space, it has a longer wheelbase and is wider, too. Think of it as a less SUV-like and more Mazda-like replacement for the departing Tribute.
The clearest giveaway to our testers' pre-production status wasn't their black-and-white Rorschach test wrappers – it was their interiors. Ignore, if you will, some of the unevenly grained surfaces and scratchy finishes shown in our photos – these are not final production cabins – not by a long shot. We did find much to like, however, including plenty of room for head and legs in both the front and rear seats along with a surprisingly generous cargo hold. Good visibility, respectably supportive seats, a soft-touch dashboard cap and crisp new gauges (that finally dump the brand's outdated amber lighting) round out the accommodations. There's nothing terribly daring or distinctive about the interior's design, but that also means that everything is intuitive to operate, save minor quibbles like the climate controls mounted a bit too low for our tastes and a start button hidden behind the steering column.
Also worth noting is a new 5.8-inch display that tops the center console. Audio and navigation functions can be controlled through both touchscreen and a new-for-Mazda multifunction knob in between the seats. Our testers' systems were not fully operational, but the functionality seemed slightly basic and the screen a bit small. Mazda assures they are working on a more comprehensive "next generation" infotainment system, but it won't be here in time for the launch of the CX-5. In the meantime, the options list will include items like dual-zone HVAC, lane-departure warning and auto-dim headlamps.
For some months, Mazda has been buzzing about Skyactiv, a new collection of equipment and design techniques encompassing everything from chassis construction to a fresh range of gasoline and diesel engines along with new gearboxes. While some of the powertrain developments were introduced on the updated-for-2012 Mazda3, the CX-5 is the first vehicle to benefit from Skyactiv's full suite of technologies. In true Mazda fashion, this softroader strikes out on its own path toward improved efficiency and dynamics. Most automakers these days are downsizing their engines and turning to forced induction, but Mazda has chosen to focus on optimizing combustion. In the case of the CX-5, that means a sky-high 14: 1 compression ratio on its new 2.0-liter gas powerplant, made possible by special lightweight pistons with an unusual cavity design, a 4-2-1 exhaust manifold and variable sequential timing on the intake and exhaust valves to curb pumping losses.
While Mazda isn't ready to disclose power and efficiency figures in this application just yet, it claims torque and fuel economy have been improved by 15 percent over its old 2.0-liter MZR engine while improving tractability and lowering emissions. It's even 10 percent lighter. In the Mazda3, this engine is good for 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque while achieving 40 miles per gallon. We expect a power nudge in this application (160-165 hp and around 155 lb-ft), and while mpg will undoubtedly fall a bit, Mazda pledges its CX-5 will vanquish the Chevrolet Equinox and its class-leading 32 mile per gallon highway rating. More importantly to us, it will almost certainly be a much better drive.
While no CX-5 testers representative of U.S. trim were available (specs are still being finalized), we sampled four European prototypes, including a front-wheel-drive model with Mazda's new six-speed Skyactiv manual transmission, an all-wheel-drive model with a Skyactiv six-speed automatic and a pair of diesels. Driving along the remote, scenic fjords far away from Iceland's capital city of Reykjavík, we found much to like in the new CX-5, including a poised front strut/rear multilink suspension, surprisingly direct and feelsome electric power steering (another Skyactiv development), and wonderfully well-behaved gearboxes.
Predictably, the manual is the most engaging setup, with a light, progressive clutch and short, 45mm throws just shy of the Miata for its directness. But the automatic is no slouch, either. As most of the competition has busied itself developing gearboxes with more and more ratios, we had to wonder if the new Skyactiv-Drive cogswapper might be leaving something on the table since it only has six speeds. In practice, however, the unit is exceptional in both its smoothness and quickness, kicking down with appreciable immediacy. The key to its performance is a newly designed torque converter with an integrated full range lockup clutch for all six gears. By clamping down the torque converter earlier and more often (the lockup clutch ratio has been raised from 64 percent to 88 percent), the gearbox feels almost dual-clutch-like in its directness, yet it has the refinement of a conventional automatic. In other words, it can behave civilly during workaday schlepping, yet it's a surprisingly willing partner when driven enthusiastically.
If there's a sin with the CX-5's Skyactiv automatic, it's one of omission: there are no paddleshifters. Mazda says that's because its research shows that most people never use them. Fair enough. But most people never really take advantage of the improved dynamics offered by larger wheels and tires, either – yet both are desirable signposts of sportiness. Besides, they're an inexpensive addition that delivers an added dose of engagement for those who do use them... and isn't enthusiastic driving what Mazda hangs its hat on?
While the 2.0-liter gas engine holds its own, it's the 2.2-liter diesel that should make everyone sit up and take notice. Rated at 173 hp and a no-waiting, no-kidding 310 lb-ft of torque, the Skyactiv engine offers an unusually low 14:1 compression ratio. Usually, the latter would harm cold-weather startup, but Mazda claims that ceramic glow plugs and variable exhaust valve lift solve the issue. More importantly, the 2.2 meets stringent Tier II Bin 5 emissions standards without NOx aftertreatment. This is quite an achievement – other vehicles in its class that offer diesel engines elsewhere would generally have to resort to urea injection systems to pass the U.S. government sniff test. Its lack of an aftertreatment setup not only curbs weight (around 3,300 pounds), it lowers cost significantly – potentially enough to make the premium more manageable for America's historically diesel-averse consumers.
Did we mention it's a hoot to drive? The two-stage turbo helps the diesel rev willingly to a high 5,200-rpm redline, and remember, this engine effectively doubles the torque output of its gasoline counterpart – there's gobs of thrust under all conditions. And the 2.2-liter delivers surprising civility with almost no clatter. Simply put, its refinement and fun quotient is miles ahead of the diesel lumps we recently experienced in the not-for-U.S. 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan TDI.
Of course, we've been teased with great diesels before, only never to see them come to North America. In this case, while Mazda hasn't committed to offering the Skyactiv-D engine in the CX-5, officials swear up and down that the company will bring a diesel to market in 2013. Reading between the lines, this CUV is almost certainly the best fit, as it will probably be a big-volume model for the brand. Further, it makes sense to plunk the engine in an all-new vehicle that includes all of the other energy-saving Skyactiv technologies, not a product near the end of its lifecycle. The next-generation Mazda6 is also a candidate, but we love the idea of a 40+ mpg crossover – at least one that drives as well as the CX-5.
Fuelish decisions aside, the rest of the CX-5 driving experience is very enjoyable, with responsive, well-weighted steering and a firm but smartly damped ride – even rolling on optional 19-inch tires. The brakes are progressive and feel good underfoot, too. Mazda admits it's in the process of tweaking both the steering and ride for U.S. tastes and road conditions, including a switch from summer tires to all-seasons. This sort of talk always triggers nervous visions of mallow-filled suspensions and lifeless steering, but the company's U.S. engineers have a good track record, delivering vehicles that are at or near the apex of their class for engagement – something that's true from the diminutive Mazda2 all the way up to the three-row CX-9. Either way, we'll have to wait until we get our digits on production-spec cars (deliveries begin in the first quarter of 2012) to figure out if they've managed to avoid messing up a good thing.
Pricing has yet to be released for the 2013 CX-5, but we expect to see a MSRP of around $20,000 for starters. If Mazda can resist the urge to fiddle too much with its ride and handling, it might finally have a hot ticket in one of the market's fastest-growing segments. And if Mazda finds the bravery to bring over the diesel model, it could just have the best affordable crossover on the market, full stop.