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Its beauty is more than skin deep.

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Starting Price: $24,495 (with automatic transmission) | Build

Above Average: Handling, fuel economy, style

Below Average: Rear-seat room

Consensus: A compact SUV that’s remarkably fun to drive but also surprisingly well-rounded

450 Miles in 148 Words

The Mazda CX-5 more than holds its own in the popular world of compact SUVs. Continuing to set the CX-5 apart are its entertaining driving manners, a smooth but willing 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, and a sporty yet practical interior that’s handsome and exudes quality. The rear seat is a bit cramped for taller folks, and the ride is slightly firm, but our CX-5 Grand Touring AWD model inclulded a wide range of amenities such as GPS navigation and a rear cross-traffic alert system, plus optional adaptive LED headlights, radar-based cruise control and “Smart City” brake support. Even without these technologies, however, the Mazda CX-5 --which for 2016 has slightly revised styling and better sound-deadening -- remains the compact SUV of choice for those who enjoy the drive as much as the destination. And, oh yeah, it easily returns more than 30 mpg on the highway.

A Closer Look

Built in Hiroshima, Japan, the 2016 Mazda CX-5 puts the “sport” in sport-utility vehicle; no surprise, it’s our favorite in city and highway driving, and we find its interior among the most appealing, thanks to its top-quality materials and clean, uncluttered design. On the down side, the CX-5’s back seat is a tad short on legroom, particularly when the front seats are in their rearmost position. Infotainment is just mid-pack in our group of compact SUVs, thanks in part to an info screen that would benefit from being larger. Here’s a summary of how the CX-5 performed across key categories, followed by a closer look at each rating:

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Highway Driving

While driving across the Mojave Desert and up the long Chiriaco grade of Interstate 10, the CX-5 is quiet, composed and, most important, relaxed, able to sustain highway speeds with ease. At 60 mph, the 2.5-liter engine is running at only 2000 rpm, thanks to an mpg-friendly sixth gear. The view forward is excellent, wind noise is negligible, and not once does this high-riding Mazda feel susceptible to desert crosswinds. In passing maneuvers, the transmission downshifts to 5th or 4th exactly when expected.

City Driving

The 2016 Mazda CX-5 shines as a city runabout. The high seating position provides a commanding view of traffic, and the compact overall dimensions are appreciated on those crowded days at the beach when parking spots are scarce. U-turns are a snap in this compact all-wheel-drive SUV, and while we are proponents of the CX-5’s conventional 6-speed automatic transmission, it tends to find top gear a bit too quickly in relaxed around town driving. While that’s good for fuel economy, this means the CX-5 is often in 6th while trundling about town, so it will need to downshift a gear (or two) the next time you need a bit of acceleration. A switch on the center console calls up Sport mode, which helps matters by holding gears longer, but it’s a bit too aggressive for smooth city driving. While the CX-5’s gear changes are commendably silky, we wish the standard shift schedule would fall somewhere between the mpg-biased standard setting and the overly sporty Sport mode. 

Sporty Driving

In spirited driving, the CX-5 lets you know it’s from the same company that builds the MX-5 Miata. While the CX-5 is no match for that classic 2-seater on the twisty road up to Big Bear, this compact Mazda is boatloads of fun, relishing the twisty climb like no other SUV in this test. With precise, natural-effort steering and firm but not harsh suspension, the CX-5 corners with an impressive aplomb. Grip from the 19-inch Toyo tires is good, and the overall cornering composure is aided by anti-roll bars that allow just enough body lean to let you know you’re cornering hard. Full-time all-wheel drive takes the drama out of power-on corner exits, while also helping the CX-5 crab out of snow-covered driveways, should that need ever arise. If you want to shift yourself, move the lever into manual mode and have at it. Nudge the lever forward for a downshift, or pull it back for an upshift, just like in those expensive German sports cars. Is the CX-5’s “Skyactiv” moniker just a marketing gimmick? Say what you want, but Mazda’s method of increasing performance by improving efficiencies throughout the vehicle is very evident in the highly entertaining 2016 CX-5.

Interior Appeal

No quibbles amongst the KBB editors here; the 2016 Mazda CX-5 earns our highest rating in interior appeal. The monochromatic black cabin is tastefully complemented by splashes of brushed metal trim, and the handsome dash offers all the expected controls without looking busy or disjointed. Traditional analog gauges greet the driver, who sits in a heated leather seat with firm padding and supportive side bolsters that don’t pinch. Besides the shifter, the CX-5’s center console houses switches for the new-for-2016 electronic parking brake, plus the roller wheel and volume stick for the stereo and nav. Nothing feels chintzy inside, and although the materials are of top quality, we do have two small complaints. First, the standard sunroof, with an opening of maybe 10 inches, is more like a sunslot than a sunroof. Second, the nav/stereo screen, with its thick black border, isn’t as large as it appears (or can be); it’s hardly any larger than an iPhone 6S, which means the CX-5’s map can be tough to read from the driver seat.

Infotainment

Pairing an iPhone is easy. Entering a voice command, on the other hand, such as a destination, isn’t. The system sometimes misinterprets words, even when they’re spoken clearly. Sirius satellite radio, a no-charge option on the Grand Touring AWD model, is much appreciated; stations such as First Wave come through the Bose 9-speaker system with excellent clarity. The volume stick on the center console is surprisingly convenient, less of a reach than a conventional knob on a head unit. As for the adjacent roller wheel, what Mazda calls a “Multi-Function Commander Control,” it has great action; perhaps more importantly, it includes a “back” button that will prevent headaches when you’re navigating your way through the myriad controls of the Mazda Connect infotainment system. In addition to a few simple audio controls on the left side of the leather-wrapped steering wheel, the 2016 Mazda CX-5 has an AUX port and two USB slots on the center console, which means personal devices can be played (or charged) without Bluetooth if desired. While we appreciate Mazda’s efforts in infotainment/connectivity, its system lacks the panache or ease of use found in the Kia and Ford, leaders in this category.  

Rear Seat Room

Apart from the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (the shortest vehicle in our test), the Mazda CX-5 has the least spacious back seat in our group. Headroom is not the problem; a contoured headliner makes it possible for people who are 6-foot-2 to sit in back without touching the headliner. But rear legroom, particularly when the front seats are all the way back, is lacking compared to others in this test. Four of you can go to dinner in the CX-5, but you’ll probably want to put the taller folks in front. Overall comfort on the flat bench is good, and although the 40/20/40 split rear bench can seat three in a pinch, it’s best reserved for two passengers, with the center armrest folded down to reveal two handy drink holders. Also, the CX-5 has no air conditiong or heater vents dedicated to rear-seat passengers.

Cargo Utility

With the Mazda’s rear seatback folded flat (easy, thanks to release levers on each side of the cargo hold), the CX-5 offers 65 cubic feet of luggage capacity, a respectable amount that will swallow large boxes, houseplants and even a nightstand with relative ease. But in this group of compact SUVs, the CX-5 finishes mid-pack in cargo utility, thanks in part to a load floor that’s been raised a bit by the space-saver spare tire. On a positive note, there’s a handy 12-volt outlet on the passenger side to power portable air compressors and the like. Also, in our particular CX-5, a Grand Touring AWD model with privacy glass and an optional $300 luggage cover, cargo can be kept completely out of sight of thieves. That’s a good thing, and although the CX-5’s hatch is not powered, it’s easy to raise or lower. The rear glass, for the record, does not open independently of the hatch.  

Fuel Economy

In our mix of city and highway driving, which included a spirited climb up to Big Bear Lake at an elevation of 6,752 feet, our 2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD returned the best fuel economy of any of the all-wheel drive participants. Officially, the EPA rates the 2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD at 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. A front-drive CX-5 with the 2.5 is a bit more efficient, at 26/33/29. Interestingly, the base CX-5, a front-driver powered by a 2.0-liter engine mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, is rated at 26/35/29. That’s a bit more efficient on the highway, but its combined economy—more reflective of what you’ll get in everyday use—is no better. Our advice: Get the 2.5. It produces more horsepower (184 versus the 2.0’s 155), it’s more relaxed in everyday duty, and the mpg difference is negligible.

Resale Value

Traditionally, Mazda hasn’t had the strong resale value of Honda or Toyota. Despite this, the refined CX-5 sells well, thanks to its entertaining driving manners, its top-shelf interior, its good looks, its inherent practicality, plus its well-put-together feel. At $34,185, our 2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD is significantly pricier than the base CX-5, which starts at about $22,500. But given its athleticism, sophistication, Euro-influenced interior and generous equipment, the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD remains one of our favorites in the ever-expanding world of compact sport-utility vehicles. As always, check KBB’s Fair Purchase Price to see what people have been paying for CX-5s at dealers lately.

Inside and Out: 2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD


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