The 2016.5 Mazda CX-5 is a mid-year update to a fun little SUV with a playful, puppy dog face. It's no secret that the CX-5 is one of my favorites, if not the favorite, in this vehicle class and it's not just because looking at it reminds me of the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Actually, it's because driving the CX-5 reminds me of the Miata.
When I say this small SUV reminds me of the compact roadster, I'm not saying that it handles like a sports car. What I appreciate about both cars is a sort of purity of purpose and a focus on appropriate driving dynamics. Allow me to explain.
The CX-5 is powered by Mazda's 2.5-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder engine, which makes a peppy 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. The 2.5-liter is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Additionally, prospective drivers will have the choice of either front or on-demand all-wheel drive; the latter being useful for regions with four distinct seasons.
Fuel economy is good, but not the best. Its 26 combined mpg (24 city and 30 highway) for the all-wheel drive model is basically on par with the competition from Honda, Toyota and Ford, but won't win any green awards. Opting for front-wheel drive bumps the EPA's estimate up to 29 mpg combined.
A six-speed manual transmission-equipped "Sport FWD" trim level persists for those few who like to row their own gears. However, that manual transmission is mated to a smaller engine, a 2.0-liter version of the SkyActiv mill that steps down to 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque, which sort of snuffs out the fun, making it more of a low-cost option.
The CX-5 really shines when driven, which is good because, well, it's a car. Mazda has proven that it has a knack for knowing what an "engaging drive" actually means, what we're actually looking for when describing a car as "sporty" and delivering that experience with its vehicles.
The steering is direct, but not twitchy, and delivers the right amount of responsiveness to inputs, making the SUV feel fun around a bend and stable during evasive maneuvers. The suspension is firm and communicative, but also compliant over all but the most severe potholes. All of this works with the peppy engine options that feel well matched with the CX-5's chassis to deliver a driving experience that won't trick anyone into thinking they've purchased a sports car. That being said, it is still capable of generating grins and inspiring confidence.
So, how is this small SUV like Mazda's iconic roadster? Neither is concerned with being the fastest or the most powerful car in its class; rather, the aim is to be pleasurable to pilot and easy to approach. Both the CX-5 and MX-5 get the job done with a minimal amount of gadgetry and complication. And that's what I like most about the Mazda CX-5; it's a car that produces the core of driving before blowing its bells and whistles.
Speaking of bells and whistles...
Mazda Connect tech
Like the chassis and powertrain tech, the Mazda Connect infotainment and navigation system that lives at the center of the CX-5's dashboard gets the fundamentals right.
The central color screen is directly touch-sensitive when the vehicle is parked, but controlled with a physical knob on the console when moving to minimize distraction. Indeed, much of Mazda Connect's strength lies in what it doesn't do. There aren't many features and functions beyond simple telephony, navigation and audio playback, so there's not a lot to be tempted to tinker with while behind the wheel.
That's not to say that the dashboard is some tech-free wasteland. Mazda Connect can be connected to the Web via integration with a selection of phone apps, mostly limited to listening to audio.
However, Mazda Connect's strength is also one of its biggest weaknesses. Lacking popular and useful technologies such as Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or MirrorLink will, at best, dissatisfy some drivers or, at worst, tempt them to reach for their phones anyway. I get that Mazda wants to keep it simple with the dashboard tech, but connected tech doesn't get much simpler than Apple and Google's systems. The lack of Android Auto is particularly confusing as Mazda has been listed as a technology partner with Google since the software launched.
Driver aid features include a standard rear camera for models with automatic transmissions, basically all models but the Sport FWD, and standard blind spot monitoring for the Grand Touring. An optional Technology package adds Smart City forward collision mitigation braking with pedestrian detection and auto-leveling LED headlamps that steer with the front wheels to illuminate curves. The i-ActivSense package rounds out the Grand Touring's suite of advanced driver aid systems with radar adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning (but not intervention), active high-beam headlamps and enhancements to the forward pre-collision system to help warn the driver when following too closely.
What's this 2016.5 nonsense?
The 2016.5 model is a mid-year refresh to the 2016 model. Changes have been made, but nothing important enough to justify a full model year change.
It basically comes down to tweaks to packages and trim level. For example, I already mentioned that all CX-5 models with automatic transmissions now get standard rear cameras. The Touring and Grand Touring models also now come with standard navigation, and the mid-tier Touring model now also features standard heated seats.
Additionally, pricing across the board shifts to the various trim levels, packages and options to accommodate for changes in content. So, base prices for each trim level go up by about $430-480 (with the exception of the Touring FWD, which is surprisingly exactly the same) while prices for the packages that would have included navigation or a rear camera have dropped.
It's a car, not a gadget
On paper, the CX-5 doesn't really stand out. Its power and fuel economy are neither the best nor the worst in its class. Fortunately, you don't drive it on paper. On the road, the 2016.5 Mazda CX-5 feels like more than the sum of its numbers. It's a car that's OK with simply being a good car and that doesn't place a big emphasis on gadgets and gimmicks.
The 2016.5 Mazda CX-5 starts at $21,795 for the 2.0-liter Sport FWD trim level with its manual transmission, but I have a feeling that most buyers will enter negotiations at $23,595 for the Sport FWD with the automatic gearbox. Pricing climbs to $28,570 for Grand Touring trim and $29,870 for the Grand Touring AWD model.
Signature Soul Red Metallic paint adds $300 and the Grand Touring Tech and i-ActivSense packages add $1,155 and $1,500, respectively, to the bottom line. Add a $900 destination charge to reach the as-tested, nearly-loaded price of $33,725.