IF you're like me, a new entry into the crossover market is just background noise; they might be useful, and certainly it's the hottest-selling segment out there, but who really wants to read about yet another cute-ute?
Well, pay attention, because this isn't just Mazda's attempt to cash in on the CUV buying trend - it's their idea of what the future's going to look like. What's more, it's their first salvo in the war to keep interesting cars available to the average Joe and Jane.
How so? Well, Mazda's previous effort was the boxy Tribute - aptly-named in that it seemed to be an homage to the Ford Escape. In fact, it was basically an Escape with "Ford" crossed off and "Mazda" written on the front in crayon.
This was no bad thing, as the Escape was quite a capable little trucklet. Unfortunately, it stood out against the rest of Mazda's Zoom-Zoomy lineup like a pack-mule in the starting gate at Hasting Racecourse.
Alternately, you could pop for the pod-like CX-7, with a thoroughly engaging and Mazda-like driving experience. Drawbacks? Principally, the brutal fuel-economy you got out of the 2.3-litre turbo engine.
Here now is Mazda's latest effort, a crossover which purportedly zooms like the CX-7, packs all your stuff like the Tribute, and sips fuel like a mid-1990s 1.6-litre Protege. In a world where efficiency increasingly trumps fun-to-drive, is it good enough? Design
Take a good look at Mazda's first proper application of their new Kodo "Soul of Motion" styling. The Hiroshima-based company lost plenty of Mazda3 buyers when they went to the smiley-faced Nagare styling, so this much less swoopy treatment is a welcome change.
It's also a return to the good-looking, conservatively styled Mazdas of the past. While the blunt front-end of the CX-5 might seem a little puggish on first glance (to tell the truth, it put me in mind of the Angry Birds mobile game), it manages to dial back the cutesy factor without going for the hyper-aggressiveness that's become the hallmark of modern design.
It's also very nicely proportioned from the side, squared off and trimmed with black plastic undercladding - most of these cars will never see anything rougher than a gravel parking lot, but at least you won't have to worry about paint chips if you're bombing along a logging road.
My GT tester came standard with 19-inch alloys. While these fill out the wheel wells nicely, it has to be said that long-term intenders might want to watch for the added cost that low-profile tires in this size might add to ownership costs down the road.
Anyone who's owned a Mazda in the past decade won't be surprised by the interior of the CX-5. In black, it's the closest thing to VW-style German spartan feel that you'll get from a Japanese manufacturer.
Eschewing the split-binnacles of other more-stylish CUVs, the CX-5 is extremely conservative in its layout, a single strip of piano-black trim running across the dash to brighten things up a little.
Quite frankly, it's a welcome change from the interior design experiments of some of the other players out there - the CX-5 feels like it won't look dated in six or seven year's time, and the build quality gives the impression that it won't have gone all rattly either.
New parents who are shopping around because their ginormous rear-facing child seat no longer fits in the clapped-out compact they've had since college will find plenty of rear-seat space.
Even better, the CX-5 has 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats (and they fold almost completely flat), making for a very flexible cargo area.
With just 155 h.p. on tap to move 1,540 kilograms of all-wheel-drive cross-over around, you'd hardly think the CX-5 has any chance of living up to Mazda's fun-to-drive ethos. But that's just on paper.
Remember, this is a clean-sheet, ground-up design employing Mazda's Skyactiv brand of technologies: lightweight construction, high-compression, fuel-efficient engines, suspensions tuned for reactivity and transmissions tweaked to shift crisply and quickly. It's Lotus's "simplify, and add lightness" ideal, combined with a clever focus on cleaner-running regular combustion engines rather than chasing electric/hybrid technology.
The result is a conservative, practical, inexpensive cute-ute that has the same footprint as Honda's CRV, but can be so much more engaging to drive. But fire up the somewhat clattery four-cylinder and slot the shifter into D and you won't be overwhelmed at first.
The Skyactiv-G engine features an extremely high compression ratio (basically how much the pistons squeeze the air-fuel ratio before ignition), and uses multi-point injectors and specially formed piston dishing to make a clean, controlled burn that extracts every possible joule from your tank of gas. What it does not do is provide a great deal of torque.
But rev it up a little, and things start getting better. Somebody forgot to tell the CX-5 that it's supposed to be a buttoned-down grocery-getter.
This six-speed automatic is one of the loveliest transmissions I've ever had the opportunity to sample, and might even be better than Porsche's much-vaunted PDK, given the application. It's a conventional box, but has been tweaked and lightened, and it does a great job both at guessing your intent and reacting very quickly to manual inputs.
The steering isn't quite as good as an MX-5's, and with a higher centre of gravity, neither is the handling. But that's just the effect of physics: what's surprising is how ably the CX-5 attacks a curvy back road.
I suppose you could best characterize Mazda's CUV with a single word: willing. It wants to zip through corners, it wants to get off the highway and find a curvy back road, it makes you want to drive just a little bit farther. Even if it's your humdrum daily driver, you might find it just special enough to put a grin on your face.
There are three trim levels available for the CX-5, from basic GX to mid-line GS to top-level GT. Only the GX base is available with the six-speed manual, and only in front-wheel-drive specification. Boo!
For my $32,750 top-level GT tester (apparently a very hard car to get these days as Canadians are snapping up every one they can), Bluetooth, leather interior, rear-view parking camera and power heated seats are all standard.
The only real option to be added is the technology package, containing satellite radio and navigation.
Fuel-economy ratings are excellent across the board, with 7.8/5.7 litre/100 kilometres city/highway for the front-wheel drive, manual model, up to 8.0/6.4 l/100 km for the heavier all-wheel drive automatic. The best surprise is how close the CX-5 gets to these numbers, even with the spirited driving style it can goad you into.
Nippy handling; great-feeling steering; quick-shifting automatic; practical interior layout; great fuel-economy.
Lack of low-end power; too conservative for some; no manual available with AWD models.
The checkered flag
Practical, conservative, efficient, good value for your money and, most importantly, it drives like a Mazda should.
Competitors Honda CR-V ($25,990)
Honda also redesigned their class-leading crossover for the 2013 model year, and while it's approximately the same size as the little Mazda, it's a very different machine.
Where the CX-5 wants to carve up the corners, the CR-V would prefer if you just slowed down a little. It's actually got a little more punch from its 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, but the Honda is more of a family hauler than a sportscar-wearing-a-backpack.
Mind you, with an ultralow load floor out back, comfortable interior (about 10 per cent more capacity than the smaller CX-5) and very intelligent options packaging, it's a must-drive for segment shoppers.
Subaru Forester ($25,995)
Most crossover buyers won't even think of tackling a gravel road; the extra clearance is just to aid on-road visibility, and maybe a little snow. For those who might actually take on dirtier duties, there's the Subaru Forester.
While there's a cosmetic update coming next year, the Forester remains fresh looking. It's a B.C. favourite, and can still boast the best AWD system on the market. Strap your kayak to the roof and head wherever you want.