Car review: Mazda builds fun, efficiency into CX-5 compact SUV

If there’s an ideal vehicle for every buyer, consider matching Mazda’s 2013 CX-5 with Zeus or better yet, his kids’ baby sitter.

Although no gilded chariot, this all-new compact sport utility vehicle has the sturdy construction to climb Mt. Olympus, impressive safety features to keep little Herakles in one piece and the adroit handling ability to outmaneuver any errant lightning bolt thrown its way.

Plus, for anyone with a bit of a commute and interested in saving gas, consider the CX-5’s fuel economy. The vehicle is the first from Mazda to be designed from the ground up using an engineering philosophy that’s on a quest for efficiency.

What does Mazda call this new approach? SkyActiv. If that doesn’t sound like a Twitter handle for Zeus, I don’t know what does.

The CX-5 starts at $21,490, and it presents itself as the sporty, fun alternative to a segment dominated by the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevy Equinox and Ford Escape. The company’s Zoom-Zoom advertising mantra is actually more than just marketing drivel, and the CX-5 lives up to that claim. Mostly.

Point it at a winding road and it’ll move like a “Dancing With the Stars” contestant. The steering on the front-wheel-drive model I tested was tight and communicative; the suspension was firm but comfortable while allowing less body roll than you’d expect; and the entire vehicle just felt agile.

A six-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models except the base CX-5, and though it’s clearly geared for efficiency, drivers can put it into manual mode and choose their own adventure. Doing so results in reams of gratification sourced from the transmission’s quick, precise shifts.

Although it’s no sports car, Mazda has managed to inject an appreciable element of fun into a segment that can always use more. But don’t confuse the relative driving enjoyment borne from handling with enjoyment borne from raw power. The CX-5 is decidedly low on the latter.

It gets 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque from the same 2.0-liter, direct-injected four cylinder engine that’s found in the Mazda 3. That’s a significant deficit compared with the rest of the segment where 175 horsepower is average and Honda’s CR-V has 185.

Although fine for city driving, the engine’s power disadvantage is noticeable on onramps or in passing situations, which require more time and patience than some drivers will like. However, the engine earns a gold star for its quiet and refined demeanor, even when pushing it hard to overtake Droopy in the right lane.

The low power output is also a key reason the vehicle can stay toward the top of the segment for fuel economy.

The model I tested was rated at 26 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. That highway rating ties it for best in the segment while the city rating blows away any other non-hybrid competitor by at least four mpg. Over 230 miles of more city than highway driving, I averaged 25.1 miles per gallon.

Also helping that fuel economy is the fact that the CX-5 is one of the lightest vehicles in its class. This is a result of that SkyActiv philosophy.

Goofy moniker aside, SkyActiv is basically Mazda putting a name to the practice of adapting existing technologies to make the automobile and its components lighter and more efficient. Thus, hybrid power plants or fancy dual-clutch and continuously variable transmissions are eschewed in favor of a high-compression engine and a transmission that has the characteristics of both a dual-clutch and CVT.

The CX-5 adds to that a lighter, more rigid chassis made largely from high-tensile steel that enables the CX-5 to feel solid and composed when slogging through rough terrain, be it roads or trails. And I was driving the front-wheel drive model. All-wheel drive is a $1,250 option.

High-tensile steel is also used in the body panels on the CX-5, which Mazda shaped for a sporty, athletic demeanor. At the front, a large, trapezoidal grille is flanked by low-slung, wraparound headlights that sit above a tastefully aggressive bumper. The lower portion of the doors have a subtle crease that denotes movement. The rear end happens abruptly thanks to a short overhang and features wraparound, horizontal taillights and a compact rear window.

The CX-5’s sporty inclinations are reflected in the interior as well, but this time it’s to a fault. It’s as well put together as the rest of the vehicle and features an impressive soft-touch dashboard and piano-black trim.

But the overall aesthetic and layout feels a bit stark. It doesn’t have the warmth or luxury that’s possible on Honda’s CR-V or Chevrolet’s Equinox. That’s not to say those vehicles have Beluga caviar dripping from the door handles, but in the grand scheme of compact SUVs, it’s likely they’ll appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience than will the inside of this Mazda.

Making matters worse are charmless seats and a lamentable, confusing, almost afterthought of a navigation system (it’s a TomTom unit that’s part of the $1,325 tech package.) Interior dimensions including rear seats and cargo room are about average for this segment, with plenty of room for taller passengers anywhere in the cabin.

Safety is doled out in heaps, with all CX-5s coming standard with six air bags, stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, a tire-pressure monitoring system and 24-hour roadside assistance.

What came as a very welcome surprise is that the middle-of-the-road Touring model (yours for $24,690) and the Grand Touring model I tested not only come with a standard backup camera but also a blind-spot monitoring system. It was as useful and effective as those found on cars costing two or three times as much, and such a system is almost unheard of on any vehicle costing less than $30,000.

That value quotient is a mainstay of all CX-5 models. My Grand Touring version rang in at $29,165. For that coin you get a moon roof, dual-zone climate control, leather seats that are heated in the front, an excellent Bose sound system, the decidedly non-excellent navigation system, HID headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 19-inch alloy wheels and the aforementioned backup camera and blind-spot monitoring system.

Mazda has a rich history of injecting a sporty note into segments that are otherwise flat, and it’s done it again with the CX-5. Although low on power and interior moxie, it’s high on driving enjoyment, safety and efficiency. The trade-off will probably suit plenty of buyers unenthused with what the rest of the segment offers.

Including those who work for Zeus.