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A few years ago I sat in a presentation where Mazda engineers showed how the throttle response of a CX-5 crossover compared to that of a Porsche, a Lexus and an Audi. Why, I asked in slightly politer terms, would they waste our time on that instead of comparing the CX-5 to its actual competition, like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V? Because, a PR rep replied, Mazda didn't want to remain a mainstream brand but instead hoped to become a luxury contender.
At the time, that was a big stretch for the CX-5. But now that the compact crossover has a fancy new Signature trim level, with a powerful turbo engine under the hood and lots of lovely appointments, it's a little easier to consider the compact crossover as a near-premium vehicle.
White is unquestionably the worst color for the 2019 CX-5, hiding the clever surfacing that makes this crossover so pretty and making the rear look especially flat and uninspired. Still, Mazda's entry is by far the handsomest among the mainstream compact-crossover class, with an athletic stance. The sloping nose treatment that was introduced with the 2017 model-year refresh still works very well, even if the massive grille is a little too noticeable on a white-painted car. Exterior upgrades on the Signature trim are limited to dark-silver 19-inch wheels and a liftgate badge reading "Sg," which sounds more like a chemical element than a car trim pack. That doesn't feel like enough visual distinction for what is the range-topping (and most expensive) trim level, but alas.
The Signature trim level is fully loaded on the inside, meaning it has every conceivable feature from the CX-5 options list. Goodies include heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, a Bose sound system, a power liftgate, heated rear seats and a head-up display. Interior niceties include ambient lighting in the footwells, extra LED room lighting, Nappa leather upholstery, genuine wood trim on the door panels, illuminated sill plates and a Signature-exclusive leather-wrapped steering wheel. But you won't find features like wireless phone charging, a kick-to-open liftgate or remote start, all of which are starting to become commonplace on highly-contented rivals. (Remote start is offered only as a dealer-fit accessory.)
All of the cabin materials look and feel very nice, especially that wood trim. It's just a shame the spartan dashboard design leaves a lot of empty black space; more wood or more chrome trim would help to break up the somewhat dour look. (Leaving the sunroof shade open does brighten things up a lot.) The plush Nappa leather upholstery is finished in a dark shade which is called Caturra Brown but looks nearly black.
Front-seat passengers will have zero complaints about space. Second-row legroom figures fall behind the best in the class, though I found plenty of room to sit in the back comfortably enough. Cargo space is also far from best-in-class, with the Mazda offering 30.9 cubic feet with the seats up and 59.6 with them lowered. That's compared to figures of 37.6 cubic feet with the seats up and 75.8 cubic feet with them lowered in the cavernous Honda CR-V, for instance, or 39.3 and 70.0 cubic feet in a Nissan Rogue.
Mazda's in-car technology is great to use but not as swift or simple as the competition. The 7-inch infotainment system, for instance, takes an age to boot up; it routinely takes a minute or so for satellite radio to start playing after you start the engine. Though the screen is, technically, touch-sensitive, most of the touch functions are locked out as soon as you start driving. Instead, you operate the MazdaConnect interface through a rotary jog dial on the center console.
The system's menus are simple enough but loading different pages of information is often very slow. Simple operations like zooming the navigation map or setting along with selecting radio presets are unacceptably obtuse and difficult. Once you've set up the infotainment system with your preferences, it works great -- but I keep finding myself wishing for the swift, simple touchscreens found in rival Chrysler, Hyundai and Kia vehicles. The system now (finally!) also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; owners of older CX-5s can pay to have their car retrofitted with the phone connectivity tech.
For charging, there are two USB ports in the front center console and two more in the rear. But the rear ones are mounted inside the middle armrest, along with the rear heated-seat controls; if you have three people riding in the second row, those functions will be inaccessible. There's a reason most automakers locate heated seat controls and USB ports elsewhere.
A color head-up display shows not only speed but also speed-limit info, stop-sign icons as you approach an intersection, and small arrows when a vehicle is in the CX-5's blind spot. There's a 7-inch color trip computer in the cluster, too, but despite its physical size it shows only a few lines of information at a time; pages include fuel-economy, trip information, active-safety data and more.
Mazda's trim strategy tends to restrict active-safety technology only to higher, pricier models, though my loaded Signature tester fortunately has everything available: adaptive cruise with stop-and-go, pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, auto high beams along with front and rear parking sensors. The features all work well enough though the CX-5 notably lacks lane-centering steering on the highway and automatic reverse braking, safety gear you'll find on some rivals.
In 2019 it is no longer enough to simply have a backup camera, and Mazda's loses points for having poor resolution and clarity. There are grid lines overlaid on the camera output, but unlike competitors the lines don't move as you turn the steering wheel, making them a whole lot less useful. The 360-degree camera system, offered only on the Signature trim, is a nice-to-have, but its usefulness is eroded by its poor optics.
The Signature trim level (along with the slightly cheaper Grand Touring Reserve) features Mazda's 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four engine instead of the 2.5-liter naturally aspirated mill in other CX-5 models. It delivers 250 horsepower (or 227 hp if you use 87-octane gas) and 310 pound-feet of torque, the latter deliver from just 2,000 rpm. The engine comes standard with all-wheel drive. Mazda says CX-5s so equipped will get to 60 miles per hour in 7.3 seconds or 1.5 seconds quicker than equivalent non-turbo models.
The engine transforms the way the CX-5 accelerates and passes. No longer do you need big throttle openings and big revs to make progress in traffic, as is the case with the rev-happy but torque-light 2.5-liter engine. While acceleration in the regular CX-5 is class-competitive and more than adequate, the turbo mill makes life easier by offering more-than-adequate power levels.
Still, it doesn't exactly explode off the line. For such lofty (at least, considering the class) horsepower and torque figures, the turbo engine feels deliberate and measured in its power delivery. The CX-5 may be quicker, torquier and all-round faster with the turbo engine, but the base engine drives with a lot more pep and zing. Part of the reason for the relative lethargy is likely due to the fact that the automatic transmission has just six forward speeds in an era when most competitors offer eight or even nine.
Of course, the downside to the turbo engine's extra power is reduced fuel economy, with the CX-5 Signature posting EPA ratings of 22 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway. That's almost the worst efficiency you'll find among the competition (a Ford Escape 2.0T AWD is a bit thirstier still), although it's not too far off the numbers posted by, say, all-wheel-drive versions of the BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLC300.
The CX-5 remains a delight to drive, with a well-judged ride-and-handling mix that errs slightly on the sportier side of the class. The crossover handles well with little floatiness, and though it can be a little brittle over bumpy roads, there's nothing about the ride quality that will put off most shoppers. The steering is reasonably quick and has a lovely natural, progressive feel to it. The floor-hinged throttle pedal makes it easier to make precise speed adjustments. The brake pedal has a firm and progressive action, helped by the fact that turbo models receive larger front brakes than other CX-5s.
All told, the Mazda CX-5 is a lot more satisfying to drive than most of its competitors. It doesn't quite have the sparkle of the earliest second-gen CX-5s, as the 2017 refresh included a softer suspension and weight-adding sound deadening actions. But it still has a mature and, yes, fun demeanor that's good enough to consider comparing the Mazda to the way some rival compact crossovers from true luxury brands drive. Yes, this powertrain makes the CX-5 good enough to finally compete in that near-luxury space Mazda promised back in 2017.
For most shoppers looking for a compact crossover, the Mazda CX-5 Signature is not the model to go for, because it's thirsty and expensive; pricing starts at $37,885. (You can also get the 2.5T engine with the slightly less-fancy CX-5 Grand Touring Reserve, which is $35,865.) On the other hand, the Signature is a really interesting alternative to buying an equivalent crossover from a luxury brand, as you'll get far more equipment for your money with the Mazda -- badge cachet aside.
The Mazda CX-5 remains one of the better options in the class because it drives so well and has great design -- in all trim levels, not just this Signature one. The turbo engine significantly improves the way the crossover drives in all situations, and the goodies included on the Signature trim level are lovely to have. But this pricey vehicle sits in an awkward position: it's perhaps a bit too fancy for mainstream shoppers and yet lacks the badge cachet to sway people away from buying, say, a BMW X1. Regardless, the 2019 Mazda CX-5 is easily our favorite in this class and will no doubt continue to be the crossover that Roadshow staffers recommend to buyers most often.