2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring review: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

SkyActiv technology
Lifting the CX-5's Zeal Red Metallic hood reveals the 2.0-liter SkyActiv G engine, itself mostly hidden beneath a Sky Blue Metallic engine cover. This is the same four-cylinder engine found in the new 2012 Mazda Mazda3 i, outputting 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. If Mazda's numbers are to be believed, the larger CX-5 crossover actually weighs about 30 pounds less than the Mazda3 hatchback, thanks to new lightweight building techniques that are part of Mazda's SkyActiv efficiency initiative.

Mazda SkyActiv G engine
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The SkyActiv engine cover has a nicer paint job than many cars I've owned. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The low-displacement, direct-injected engine uses lightweight, low-friction materials and is mated with a six-speed automatic transmission with both front- and all-wheel drive variants. The EPA reckons the FWD model I tested will get 32 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg in the city, averaging out to a combined 29 mpg. My empty-tank average of 27.2 mpg at the end of a week that included highway cruising, city stop-and-go, and a bit of spirited backroad motoring seems to affirm that claim.

On those spirited backroads, I learned two things: First, that Mazda's suspension engineers may be geniuses, but they're no miracle workers. Secondly, that the price you pay for the SkyActiv G's fuel economy is lackluster acceleration.

Handling and performance
Let's start with the good: the suspension tuning. The CX-5's ride is controlled and firm. I felt all of the bumps and cracks of San Francisco's streets, but the crossover didn't crash over them. Additionally, I liked that the chassis was very responsive to my steering inputs. There wasn't a lot of mush between my fingertips and the treads of the front wheels, which made it easy to guide the crossover between slower-moving traffic, around those potholes, and through the tight turns of the city. At seven-tenths on a flowing back road with minor elevation changes, you may be able to fool yourself into thinking this is a much smaller car. However, push too hard and the laws of physics will reassert themselves. The relatively lightweight crossover still features a higher center of gravity than a sporty hatchback and is subject to a bit of lean when taxed. Keep pushing and the CX-5 never gets scary, just dull.

Fortunately, the CX-5 simply isn't powerful enough to be in much real danger of outperforming its suspension. The 155-horsepower SkyActiv G engine supplies, at best, merely an adequate amount of power. There's a reasonable amount of torque at low speeds to make the crossover feel responsive in that 0 to 35 mph band where most urban driving happens. However, hop on the freeway and you'll find that the 2.0-liter engine simply runs out of steam at the 50 mph mark. Toss a moderate uphill grade or a headwind into the mix and you'll have a hard time maintaining 60 mph without dropping down to fifth or even fourth gear.

Skyactiv badge
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Widespread use of lightweight building materials means that the larger CX-5 is actually 30 pounds lighter than a Mazda3. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Part of what's happening here involves the CX-5's automatic transmission, which, like most auto-boxes on the road today, is madly in love with top gear. At lower speeds, the transmission is much more likely to stay in the meaty part of the torque curve, which is why the crossover feels so responsive around town. Pay close attention and you may even catch it downshifting as you slow for a corner. However, cross the threshold into what the CX-5's electronic brain considers highway speed and it will jump to sixth gear and hold onto it as though its very life were at stake. Goad the gearbox enough with the accelerator pedal and it will drop down and give you the power to maintain your speed, but the CX-5 just never feels as effortless on the highway as it does on lower-speed roads.

In sum
The CX-5 is a harbinger of many great things to come from Mazda. Its new styling is less polarizing than the clown faces of the previous generation. Its SkyActiv suite of technologies helps this crossover to be lighter and more agile than you think it should be and more efficient to boot. Additionally, the new suite of TomTom-powered infotainment is a step in the right direction.

However, it's not perfect. There is room for improvement. While the cabin tech has all of the right building blocks, it's needlessly complex and could do with a great deal of simplifying. More competent performance at highway speeds would also help.

2013 Mazda CX-5
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The CX-5 is a step in the right direction. It's lighter, more efficient, and a better value than you might think. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

This fully loaded 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring weighs in at $29,165 as tested. That includes a $795 destination charge and a $1,325 Tech Package that adds navigation, keyless entry and start, HID headlamps that steer slightly with the wheels, and an autodimming rearview mirror. All-wheel drive is available for an additional $1,250, but our vehicle was not so equipped.

Drivers who want to save a buck can step down to the CX-5 Touring for $23,895, which loses many comfort and convenience functions, such as the heated leather seats, power adjustments for the driver's seat, the automatic climate controls, and automatic headlights and wipers. You'll also lose the nine-speaker Bose audio system in favor of a basic six-speaker rig. And those who hold fast to the "less is more" Mazda Miata school of car shopping can drop down to the CX-5 Sport for $22,095, ditching the Bluetooth connectivity, blind-spot monitoring, the rearview camera and 5.8-inch touch-screen display, HD Radio, and the split-fold rear seat, while stepping further down to a four-speaker stereo and cheaper seat upholstery. The Sport trim level has the distinction of being the only trim level that's available with a six-speed manual transmission, for $20,695.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Mazda CX-5
Trim Grand Touring FWD
Power train 2.0-liter SkyActiv G engine, direct injection, 6-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 26 city, 32 highway, 29 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 27.2 mpg
Navigation Powered by TomTom, optional
Bluetooth phone support Yes
Disc player single-slot CD w/ MP3 decoding
MP3 player support Analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio
Audio system 9-speaker premium Bose audio
Driver aids Blind-spot monitoring, rearview camera
Base price $27,045
Price as tested $29,165

What you'll pay

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