Test Drive: 2013 Mazda CX-5

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I reach out for the door and close it behind me, which responds with a satisfying clunk.

Good.

I take a quick glance at the materials around me and am impressed: The door pulls are made from aluminum, the door panels are nicely trimmed, seats supportive and comfortable. Yes, there are some hard plastics on the dash but that is to be expected on a car of this price point.

Aluminum swept door handles. Nice touch…

Nicely laid out instrument cluster and multi-function steering wheel.

The visibility is quite good for a smaller SUV despite the large A-pillars.

There are two plug ports for various electronic devices plus a USB port to complement the screen interface (not a touch screen though). Nice.

Plug #1 for random electronic devices

Looking at the glove compartment. Plug #2 + USB port should cover most electronic devices. Nice.

Screen interface. Wish there could have been an option for a touch screen though…

I have a key, but much like the technologically-advanced cars today there isn’t actually a key. All you do is walk into the car, step on the brake, and push the “Engine start” button. That is great and all but what happens if the battery runs out?

At first glance, I thought that rear head room and storage space might be compromised with the slightly sloping roof but it looks pretty cavernous, and folding the seats down 60/40 expands the space even further. Pulling the seats back upright however, and they don’t seem to engage the locking mechanism with the same positivity the car exudes. Neither does smashing my head on the tailgate on the way out. Ow.

Lots of trunk for your junk.

No cup holders in the back though, and when I tried to see if some random plastic bit near the foot of the rear seats could be somehow magically transformed into a cup holder, the plastic bit snapped off. Oops.

This is the Mazda CX-5, a mini-SUV slash cross-over that will play in the Toyota RAV-4 Honda CR-V market and more importantly, address ongoing concerns over fuel efficiency.

The car looks good, and is a much needed improvement over the previous Mazda Tribute. This car embodies Mazda’s new design direction of “KODO” – Soul of motion. Whatever that means.

Can you see the KODO-ness of this design? Yeah me neither. Looks good though…

This test drive is more than just about driving the Mazda CX-5, it is the first car which features Mazda’s fuel efficient direction – the SkyActiv systems – as a standard offering. SkyActiv is a fuel efficiency program developed by Mazda that has redesigned all of the car systems with a focus on efficiency through lightweight and rethinking of how traditional fossil fuel engines and transmissions work.

This is Mazda’s answer to hybrids, electric vehicles, and other alternatives, and Mazda claims to achieve hybrid-like fuel efficiency while maintaining its “zoom zoom” nature.

The SkyActiv system is comprised of several different systems of the car, each with their contribution to efficiency (I’ve only mentioned the ones here that pertain to the CX-5 for brevity):
– SkyActiv engines – high compression ratios (13:1) improve low end torque and fuel efficiency by 15% while using standard 87 octane gasoline

Here’s a picture I’ve inserted to get the attention of people who normally skim through my articles. Its also the piston design which shows the special cavity design preventing knocking occuring despite the 13:1 compression ratio on 87 octane gasoline

– SkyActiv drive – torque converter automatics are redesigned to fully “lock-up” – giving a feel of a manual transmission and rev-matching on downshifts for an efficiency improvement of 4-7%

Difference between conventional torque converter autos and the SkyActiv Drive automatic. Except it doesn’t actually flash blue/white…(picture courtesy of Mazda)

– SkyActiv chassis – revised suspension geometry allows use of softer springs while maintains cornering ability. Also, optimized chassis design has lightened the chassis by 14% while improving front rigidity by 40%

Changes to chassis allow increased stiffness….(http://www.mazda.com/mazdaspirit/skyactiv/platform/skyactiv-chassis.html)

– SkyActiv body – improved structural rigidity by 30% while reducing weight by 8% by redesigning the chassis using more “straight” sections for better support in an accident and better rigidity.

Changes to body to increase body stiffness by having more “inline straight” sections. (courtesy of http://autos.ca.msn.com/editors-picks/gallery.aspx?cp-documentid=29993790&page=6)

I think this is a great approach – taking technology that is already existing and rethinking the design and manufacturing process so that it is still fun to drive, and best of all, it doesn’t require any major overhaul in today’s current infrastructure. It is a simple philosophy, and very Colin Chapman – inventor of Lotus, and one who coined – “Simplify, then add lightness”. Also prevalent here is another Colin Chapman-ism – “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere”. Well said, and the Mazda CX-5 here weighs 40 kg less than its equivalent Ford Escape.

So… does it work?

Hmm…I would say it is hard to tell, as I think I would need a direct comparison between the same car with and without the SkyActive system (e.g. a Mazda 3) before I could decide whether this works or not.

But here is what I can gather:
1. The engine is a bit gutless.

I’m not sure why this is; the 2L direct-injected generating 150hp isn’t a huge amount but I would have thought the 15% increase in the torque down low would have helped. It feels a bit sluggish off the line unless I shift it to manual mode and kept it in 1st gear for awhile. Perhaps it is the fact that the peak torque is at 4000rpm, or that the car I had was flawed. I’m not sure.

I recently drove the Ford Escape and for me that is a close competitor but that Escape just seemed so much more…powerful. And almost everywhere in the powerband. Its 178hp is a good 30hp higher, but the Mazda CX-5 weighs ~40 kg LESS so I was expecting something more lively. But what about the fuel efficiency? To be discussed later…

2. Suspension is firm on the straights but a bit rolly-polly in the corners.

Initially, when I took the car over bumps the car felt very taut. On tight corners however, I had to wait for the suspension to load up before I could really do anything, and changing direction before the suspension was properly settled meant you could feel the weight and height of the car making itself known.

I feel like the Escape won here too, but I drove the two cars on different roads so perhaps that is a bit skewed. The steering here is also a bit numb making it difficult to “feel” your way around a corner through bumps and vibrations in the road. It is accurate however, so the experience is cerebral vs. instinctive.

3. The automatic transmission is excellent.

This the best torque converter automatic I have ever driven. You can really feel the locking functionality working and the response felt very direct. It almost seemed like the transmission had to make up a lot of ground for the lack of grunt from the engine. The programming of the transmission was very impressive as well, always shifting into the correct gear and not “over-reacting” by downshifting too many gears when the gas is pushed – a common issue I have with automatics.

Shifting into manual mode, the transmission would “rev match” whenever I downshifted making for very smooth downshifts. I was completely flabbergasted. Very impressive indeed.

Forget CVT’s – this is the way to go for automatics.

4. The AWD system makes you feel like a rally-car driver.

I’ve driven AWD systems before, and this one worked well. You can tuck the car into corners, and step on the gas and the AWD system will pull you out of the corners like a Subaru STI.

OK it wasn’t quite that amazing, but it was pretty good nonetheless.

5. Fuel efficiency

Ah yes. All this SkyActiv was in the pursuit of fuel efficiency. So how was it?

For the AWD model that I drove Mazda claims a 8L/100km, and for the driving that I did – which was a mix of city stop-and-go traffic and highway cruising I managed…well pretty much spot on 8L/100km, which is pretty impressive for a compact SUV with AWD and an automatic gearbox. If it was a FWD, had a manual box, I would expect even better gas mileage.

So all in all, Mazda has built something quite promising. A practical, fun-to-drive SUV that is fuel efficient. I wouldn’t say its quite “hybrid” efficiency, nor would I say it handles like a sports car but its not a poor effort either.

In Europe, the CX-5 has won awards for its competency and I can believe it. Now if only they can resolve the lack of power…a diesel would suit nicely for its low end torque. Perhaps some sort of SkyActive Diesel? 😉

..I’m thinking as I smack my head into the rear-lift gate once again.

The tailgate…which liked to smack me on the back of the head.

Is that a no, Mazda? 😉

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