Third Place: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

Launched earlier this year, the CX-5 represents a bold departure for Mazda, wrapped in one of the more obscure slogans in automotive marketing history: Skyactiv Technology. So what does that mean?

Basically, Mazda's new system is a total vehicle approach -- in a word, holistic -- to engineering and design, integrating all elements: engine, transmission, chassis, bodyshell, suspension, brakes, steering, everything.

The process begins with the vehicle concept and continues through design to final production signoff, and it emphasizes two basic goals: minimizing mass, maximizing mpg. This isn't exactly new -- spurred by increasingly stringent fuel economy requirements, most carmakers are headed in the same direction.

But Mazda has taken the approach another step, and the CX-5 showcases the effort. Weighing in at less than 3,200 pounds with front-wheel drive and a 6-speed automatic transmission, the CX-5 is one of the lightest vehicles in this class.

Low mass and a fuel-thrifty 2.0-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine add up to high EPA mpg ratings: 25 city/31 highway, best in class for an all-wheel-drive compact crossover.

Unfortunately, the new engine's thriftiness comes at the expense of power. At 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, the CX-5's engine trails the other four in this fleet, and that was a prime factor in keeping the Mazda from a top spot on the scorecards: 0-to-60 mph in about 9.5 seconds is about as deliberate as it gets in this class.

On the other hand, fun-to-drive isn't limited to acceleration. There are other elements -- feline responses, laser-precise steering, limited body roll. The CX-5's developmental priority may have been fuel economy, but Zoom-Zoom -- it's how you say fun-to-drive at Mazda -- is very much part of the mix. Think SUV usefulness with Miata soul.

Our CX-5 tester was a Grand Touring model, which includes a lot of upscale features as standard equipment: heated leather-trimmed seats (picked out with attractive red stitching), power moonroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary control switches (cruise, audio, Bluetooth), dual zone auto climate control, premium audio, power front seat adjustment, and 19-inch alloy wheels.

Safety features are consistent with contemporary standards: stability control, traction control, antilock braking, blind spot monitor, and air bags galore, though a rear cross-traffic detection system is conspicuous by its absence.

Although the interior color palette ran heavily to black, the Mazda drew high marks for the quality of its interior appointments, for a high level of fit and finish, and for its sporty front seats, which provided best-in-test lateral support. There were minor demerits for the instruments -- their gray on charcoal markings are hard to read in the daylight -- as well as for a rather conservative dashboard design and one of the smaller cargo holds in the group.

On the other hand, the CX-5 emerged as one of the value leaders in this pack. Its $27,840 base price folds in a lot of standard equipment, and its $29,455 as-tested total added basically one major option -- the Grand Touring Tech Package. It includes a nav system, adaptive HID headlights with auto leveling, car alarm, and advanced keyless entry system for $1,325, certainly one of the least expensive factory nav system packages on the market.

The stylish CX-5 figures is a dark horse in the compact crossover derby, handicapped by its rather tepid acceleration, the trade for high mpg. Even so, the Mazda provides a level of dynamic response and driver engagement that's tops. And that languid 0-to-60 progress can be improved by a tenth or three by opting for a slick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, the only manual transmission option in this group.

The manual gearbox is offered only with the basic CX-5 Sport, but it enhances driver involvement and boosts highway fuel economy to 35 mpg. If fun-to-drive is important, the CX-5 is like your childhood pal who was always ready to play.



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