Most compact crossovers are useful vehicles that are about as exciting as rice pudding - serviceable, inoffensive, maybe even tasty in a bland sort of way but typically not something that will get you worked up - and then there is the new 2013 Mazda CX-5, a vehicle that mixes more than a little zoom-zoom in with its requisite versatility. As Mazda Director of Product Planning Tim Barnes put it, the compact utility segment is a category of compromise - styling compromised by utility, handling compromised by cargo requirements, fuel economy compromised by weight. But the bright idea behind the CX-5 is to triumph over as many of those compromises as possible, finding win-win solutions where none existed before.  And after driving the CX-5 in a wide variety of conditions on the road and on the racetrack (yes, we said racetrack) the newest Mazda proves that clean-sheet-of-paper thinking can result in unqualified success. 

We think the Mazda CX-5 looks great, handles great, offers excellent accommodations for people and cargo and tops that all off with class-leading fuel economy. As a matter of fact, its Skyactiv powertrain offers better highway fuel economy than even the hybrid models in the segment - all without the hybrids' high price. Is there any question why we think the CX-5 will vault Mazda into the upper echelons of this highly competitive class?

Tested on Track & Road

Letting us test the all-new CX-5 on the demanding track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca took a bit of intestinal fortitude, but the takeaway was that Mazda's claim that it engineers all of its vehicle to be fun-to-drive was validated. We doubt that anyone will rush out to create a racing series for 155-horsepower five-seat crossovers with substantial amounts of cargo room, but the exercise and the on-road drive that accompanied it demonstrated that the CX-5 is more fun to push through corners than it needs to be. We think buyers will gravitate to the new model for its great looks, high fuel economy and value price more than for its sophisticated on-road manners, but why not have it all?

As to particulars, let's start with Skyactiv, Mazda's innovative all-encompassing effort to kick up its fuel efficiency by an ambitious 30 percent.  One of the keys, boosting the engine's compression ratio to a heady 13:1, while still using 87-octane gasoline. This required a whole new approach to anti-knock, including a new header design and sophisticated electronics, and that tour de force engine is accompanied by all-new Skyactiv six-speed automatic and manual transmissions and a new body and chassis to accommodate all this newness. Car companies don't usually do things this way, preferring to fit new chassis with carryover engines, for example, but this was the only way Mazda figured it could get to its fuel economy targets.  The prime benefit of this approach is that all the good stuff - high fuel-economy tech, well-tuned suspension, and innovative styling - extends across the whole CX-5 line rather than being concentrated on a specialty sub-model.

Innovative Options Part of Plan

Mazda also decided to step away from the norm in its available options.  It teamed with Tom Tom to offer a new and especially user-friendly navigation system that you can update using your home computer.  It offers a blind-spot monitoring system on a wide variety of its CX-5 trim levels. And Bose engineers went out of their way to make the available 225-watt Centerpoint nine-speaker surround sound system not only acoustically near-perfect for each of the CX-5's seating positions, but also made certain it is as light and efficient as a system of its kind can be.

The flowing exterior design, an expression of Mazda's Kodo theme, features elongated fenders for feeling of movement and what chief designer Derek Jenkins calls "the sharpest sheetmetal creases in the industry." The trapezoidal grille - the Mazda face - is more upright and vertical, lending a more confident look, and the grille carries winglets into the headlights, echoing Mazda's wings symbol.

Inside, Jenkins says his team focused on a driver's car orientation and fine craftsmanship reminiscent of a luxury brand vehicle. The simple, horizontal dash is covered with acres of soft-touch material, and the seats feature finer grade leather and contrast stitching or three-dimensional fabric.  We particularly like the three-circle gauge cluster that eschews gimmicks to give you the information you want. Because, as Jenkins put it, "Our extensive research revealed that people like shiny stuff," the interior also features glossy, piano-black and metal accents.

With a starting price of under $21,000 for a well-equipped Sport (base) trim version and its best-in-class 29 miles per gallon in combined EPA fuel economy, the Mazda CX-5 seems very well positioned to do battle with segment rivals like Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Chevrolet Equinox. The availability of all-wheel-drive across the entire model range and its comprehensive slate of electronic safety aids are two other pluses that lead us to believe that Mazda has a hit on its hands.

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