SAN DIEGO, California—The news was big for Mazda at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Finally, after months – nay, years – of talk, Mazda was going to be bringing the SKYACTIV tech full circle, and introducing the most fuel-efficient engine it could: a diesel.
It was originally supposed to find a home in the Mazda6 sedan, but the growth in that segment pales in comparison to what’s happening in the compact crossover market, where this model, the CX-5, lives.
Thing is, Mazda is famous for pulling off “interesting” rollouts of models: 2016.5 denotes a mid-cycle refresh, for example, where most manufacturers would just call the refreshed car a “2017.”
In the case of the latest CX-5, Mazda is doing that again. We won’t be seeing the diesel until later this year – likely as a 2018 model – but 2017 does mark the arrival of an all-new CX-5, just not with “diesel” designation.
On the styling front, you’ll be hard-pressed to spot the differences between the ’17 and ’16.5 model; you can be sure, however, that the changes that have been made are not just about looking good, but about functionality, as well. This is especially the case in the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) department, where special attention has been paid.
Take the wipers, for example. Eagle-eyed CX-5-ophiles (these exist?) will notice they have been pulled below the hoodline to help ensure air passes as smoothly as possible around the car. The beltline has also been lowered for a better stance, and the headlights now bisect the grille, which itself is wider and lower than previous.
The rest of the changes are very much in the “below the surface” department, in keeping with Mazda’s “less is more driving aesthetic,” according to Mazda Canada president and CEO, Massey Konda: extra door seals on the front and rear doorjambs; acoustic-laminated windshield and side windows; deeper seals around the door frames; and even extra sealant beneath the chrome stripping found around the windows. Inside, more sound-absorbing materials have been applied to the cargo bay floor, headliner and around the C and D pillars.
Interior and tech
To complete the interior enhancements, Mazda has improved audio quality through a more powerful Bose audio system; moved certain touch-points around the cabin – like the door handles – to a more ergonomic spot; added genuine leather seating on upper trims; and moved the A-pillars backward for a better view out, working in concert with re-shaped wing mirrors.
The rear seatbacks, meanwhile, have been given more recline; they can now recline from 22 to 28 degrees, as opposed to 22 to 24 as was previous. They have also been given seat heaters and two USB ports, and if you plan on folding them (a 40/20/40 split remains) they now fold flatter than they did before. The rear doors now open wider, too.
It all points to Mazda establishing itself as a more upmarket brand. It was so confident, in fact, that instead of bringing along your typical CX-5 competition for us to compare the Mazda with (Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, etc.) it brought a brace of luxury models from the likes of Audi, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz.
For 2017, we have the same two four-cylinder engines: a 2.0-litre good for 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque (FWD models only; same goes for the six-speed manual option); and a 187-hp 2.5-litre unit that also makes 185 lb-ft.
Your only option here is a six-speed automatic. Asked if it thought it was missing the boat a little by not offering a CVT or higher gear count, Mazda responded by saying it didn’t want to water down the driving fun by adding a CVT, and that the six-speed continues to be the sweet spot for this powertrain.
That’s fine, but I can’t help by think if we’re talking driving fun, why not add a set of paddle shifters? You can still shift gears manually by bumping the gear lever fore and aft (forward for downshifts, backward for upshifts) but who wants to do that?
Actually, as it turns out, we made a little more use of this feature than originally planned, as we found the car to be hesitant to shift up on occasion. Especially on steeper climbs, where it can let gears hang if you’re too heavy on the throttle.
Speaking of the throttle: it’s been tuned to do more with less input, which both helps the driver better control his speed, and reduces fatigue as your right foot doesn’t have to flex as much during a drive.
Aside from the occasional hanging gear, we found the powertrain to be a responsive one; no need to wait for a turbo to spool means more instantaneous torque off the line, and while it can run out of steam as revs climb, we found this to be the case only in certain circumstances—those climbs we mentioned before, for example.
It’s while cruising that you really start to appreciate the quality of what Mazda has done. Progress is impressively silent, only really breaking the serenity as you start to tip-in, and the revs climb past the 3,000 mark. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in quiet, lithe motoring that you don’t often find at this level.
Then, as you start to slow things down, you can really feel the solidity of the interior, how tight-as-a-drum it all is, from the snug panel gaps to the chunkiness of the door close action.
The real additions for 2017 come in the form of chassis adjustments. More specifically, the steering, which has been given solid rack mounts and new rubber bushings for more direct response and more control over bumpier terrain.
We had the chance to tackle some pretty twisty roads during our drive through the San Diego foothills and we found Mazda to be speaking truth; this is a properly responsive crossover that does well to represent Mazda’s Jinba Ittai (‘driver and car as one’) ethos.
The handling responsiveness extends beyond the physical; the ’17 CX-5 also features something called “G-Vectoring Control.” Basically, as progress through the bends gets quicker, the CX-5’s torque vectoring actually steps in to help reduce body movement by imperceptibly adjusting your throttle. By doing so, weight is allowed to shift to the front wheels, helping turn-in and reducing passenger movement inside.
The CX-5 continues to serve as a great microcosm of the segment in which it resides: CUVs sell like gangbusters in Canada, and the CX-5 sells like gangbusters for Mazda, recently eclipsing the Mazda3 as the brand’s highest-selling model.
It stands to reason, then, that Mazda would do well to get this latest CX-5 right, and it has. It’s an especially impressive achievement considering the model now needs to walk the line between all-around bestseller, as well as one of the luxury highlights of the line-up, along with its CX-9 older brother.
Now, about that diesel…
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.