First Drive

Sweating the small stuff | 2017 Mazda CX-5 First Drive

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  • Engine
    2.5L I4
  • Power
    187 HP / 185 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    6-Speed Automatic
  • Drivetrain
    Front- or All-Wheel Drive
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    3,527 LBS
  • Seating
  • MPG
    23–24 City / 29–31 HWY
  • Base Price
The 2017 Mazda CX-5's door handles got their own design study. They got their own graphs, maths, and a team of people scientifically analyzing how humans interact with them. There was a whole to-do. And yet, you look at them back-to-back with their predecessors, a Spockian eyebrow reaching to the stars, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

But apparently they're better. They're also perfectly illustrative of the entire effort to re-engineer and improve Mazda's best-selling model. At first, the 2017 Mazda CX-5 seems like a sensible evolution of its well-loved predecessor – there's sexier styling, a more premium cabin, and additional features, but the dimensions and engine specs look awfully similar. It certainly looks like one of those "the old car's great, let's not overthink the new one" redesigns.

Except it isn't. Dig deeper and you'll see just how much meticulous work – from the door handles to the throttle response – went into making the new CX-5 a crossover that thoroughly trounces the majority of its competition.

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Take the efforts to make it quieter. According to Mazda's internal measurements, the sound-quelling improvements made for the CX-5's 2016 refresh already made it one of the quietest compact SUVs on the market. That apparently wasn't good enough. To what seems like an absurd degree, Mazda's engineers obsessively examined every nook, cranny, corner, and crevice to sniff out noise and eliminate it. Gaps were filled, insulation was injected, seals were added, air was redirected, glass was double glazed, and carpet replaced plastic coverings. It would seem that the Society of Persnickety Engineers is well represented at Mazda HQ.

"I'm not sure how they found some of these," said Mazda vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman with a shake of his head, almost amused by the obsession and dedication of his colleagues across the proverbial hall in the sound-deadening department. (He goes over many of their enhancements in the video below.)

And it worked. The new CX-5 is indeed incredibly quiet, even on San Diego's notoriously loud corrugated concrete freeways. It is quiet for a Mazda – a brand previously known for the exact opposite – and the entire segment. Even the fairly quiet 2017 Honda CR-V we drove on the same freeways on the way to San Diego couldn't match it.

Actually, much of the driving experience can't be matched by a competitor. The previous CX-5 was arguably the driver's choice in the segment and version 2.0 sends the ball further downfield. The electric power steering immediately impresses – its effort is linear and its weighting feels natural and consistent. There are no different settings; no wildly differing effort levels based on speed.

The throttle is also absolutely spot-on, the direct result of the same sort of painstaking fiddling that went into those door handles. The delay between what your foot does and how the engine reacts is quite literally impossible to detect by humans (there was another scientific study about that too), and since the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder is au naturel, it never has to deal with the sort of lag inherent to the turbocharged engines found in many competitors.

2017 Mazda CX-5

Unlike the steering, throttle response can be altered by flicking the Sport toggle, but it only makes responses that much better without venturing into manic. The accompanying transmission changes result in an eagerness to downshift for both acceleration and deceleration. It's fantastic.

The best comparison for these dynamic qualities? Porsche. Seriously, and we thought that before Coleman revealed that Team Mazda specifically benchmarked the 911's throttle response (after that study, of course). However, it's just that good. Much like with the Macan, you completely forget you're driving a tall, truck-like thing. If you're being dragged kicking and screaming out of a fun car and into a family vehicle, boy have we got a suggestion for you.

The steering and suspension didn't see big changes. Rather, Coleman and friends enacted more fine-tooth-comb improvements intended to better road holding, increase comfort, and reduce vibration. One is Mazda's G-Vectoring technology. We've previously gone into great detail about it, so simply put, you turn the wheel and the car imperceptibly reduces just enough torque from the engine to subtly send weight forward (as much as 10 pounds) onto the front wheels. This improves steering response, reduces excessive input, and thus makes you a better and smoother driver. This isn't a night-and-day upgrade, but every little bit counts to Mazda.

2017 Mazda CX-5

Then there's the driving position. Engineers took great pains to make sure that the wheel is perfectly centered and that the accelerator and dead pedals are positioned exactly at shoulder width. The seats were designed using NASA data to provide an ideal body position, and in practice, the Grand Touring trim provides ample eight-way power adjustability for even tall drivers. The steering wheel was also scientifically redesigned to fit in your hands better. Much like the entire driving experience, sitting behind the wheel just feels right.

Well, not entirely. The 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G four-cylinder, itself a product of Mazda's no-stone-left-unturned engineering approach, remains the only engine choice for now. Apart from that throttle enhancement and some other fiddly improvements (edge-cut pistons! Asymetical oil rings!), the hardware carries over. It's more than sufficient, but it's an absolute shame that the marshmallow Subaru Forester can be had with 250 horsepower and the CX-5 is stuck with 187. A vehicle this great to drive deserves something more exciting and the Skyactiv-D diesel engine coming this fall won't change that.

At least there's the smart six-speed automatic, which Mazda quite happily stuck to. Adding more ratios results in "shifting gears every time you touch the throttle" and a CVT would be, um, terrible. (Our words, but one reads between the lines.) So, sticking with the six-speed and opting for right-now throttle response were decisions made for performance with the knowledge that class-best fuel economy wouldn't be possible. In fact, it's down a bit. With front-wheel drive, you'll be looking at 24 mpg city and 31 highway. All-wheel drive drops it to 23/29. That falls short of the Honda CR-V's best-in-class numbers, but it's still comparable to competitors that employ small-displacement turbo engines (Ford Escape) or a CVT (Subaru Forester).

Inside, the improvements are far grander. The old car car's quality was nice enough, but its drab design didn't show it. The new one is improved on both counts, with Mazda specifically trying to impart a more premium feel in keeping with the fact that it attracts a higher-income clientele than the typical compact SUV. In fact, 48 percent of buyers previously opted for the range-topping Grand Touring model.

The new version of that trim is what you see here, complete with quality leather and contrast French stitching. There's stitching on the dash too, though it goes through rubbery stuff. The padded and stitched pleather on the doors and center console are a nicer touch, as is the subtle dark wood trim and alloy trim – especially the air vents that seem to jut out from within the dash. Topping all of that is Mazda's now-familiar central screen with accompanying console-mounted controls. One persnickety improvement, though: all of the cabin's various typography, color schemes, and brightness levels are now the same in order to eliminate "visual noise."

There are functional improvements as well, even if it still trails the CR-V for overall space, versatility, and comfort. The new center console is better at holding your stuff. The backseat not only gets an extra two degrees of rake, but can now be reclined an extra four degrees. Practically speaking, the cargo area is about the same, but it officially shrinks by about five cubic feet mostly due to a lower roof. At 59.6 cubic feet, its maximum falls way short of the CR-V, RAV4, and Forester.

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Really, that just reiterates that if you want the most stroller-stuffing capability, the CX-5 still isn't for you. Instead, Mazda quite wisely decided to continue honing its own niche of buyers who'll trade some utility for better looks, a better drive, and now, an all-around more premium feel.

Except, you won't be paying premium prices. The loaded Grand Touring you see here will hit the register at $32,525 complete with new features like auto LED headlights, full-speed adaptive cruise control, a low-speed automatic braking system, a power liftgate, and two extra USB ports in back. A comparably equipped CR-V Touring trim would be about $1,000 more. The range-topping RAV4 is about $35,000, and you can't even get that with real leather. One omission from the CX-5 is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, though Mazda says they'll arrive eventually and can be applied retroactively to already-sold cars.

So, the 2017 CX-5 doesn't possess big, headline-grabbing changes. Instead, there are a multitude of smaller, often imperceptible tweaks that add up to a much better vehicle. It won't be for everyone, but there will be those for whom it's a no-brainer. Plus, it has swell door handles.

Related Video:

Mazda CX-5 Information

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