Continuing a Tradition

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2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD. All photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2013 Mazda CX-5

Over twenty-five years ago when my brother took delivery of a pre-owned 1979 Mazda 626 coupe – it spelled the end of a family tradition.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, the Japanese import was an integral part of the California lifestyle. Up and down the West Coast, Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas were as common as Chevrolets, Fords and Dodges. They had since proven their worth through reliability and overall value. It was only a matter of time when a Japanese car would take the place of an American one – including our own household.

On the heels of Toyota, Nissan and Honda were Subaru, Mitsubishi, Isuzu and Mazda. Some might say that their products were less reliable, retained less value or too quirky to be part of the mainstream. Yet, they added more pressure to North American automakers to step up their defense against this wave of Japanese automobiles.

Mazda would be the first non-North American brand to have been owned by a member of the Stern family. Eventually, that 626 became mine after my brother took delivery of a pre-owned 1984 Honda Civic. Needless to say, that gold 626 coupe left a huge impression upon me.

Since then, every Mazda I drove raised the bar the old 626 left behind. They always had a sporty feel inside and out. Some were soft in the middle, while others flexed their abs anywhere you chuck it. Regardless of how much influence Ford had over the company from Hiroshima, Mazda's approach to creating automobiles is to maximize the heritage that stemmed from the installation of Wankel rotary engines through the re-creation of the classic inexpensive roadster.

The latest Mazda stemming from the old 626's lineage arrived in what I would consider an unlikely package – a crossover.

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In my mind, a crossover has to be a competent family hauler with enough cargo to trek across the Dakotas for a week's vacation. A Mazda crossover needs to have a few more ingredients to keep up its heritage. It also has to shake convention.

Upon leaving the Midwest Automotive Media Association's Fall Rally in the Northwest Burbs of Chicago, I was given the keys to Mazda's latest attempt at making a relevant crossover – the CX-5.

I always hoped that a crossover would be as equal to its passenger car siblings. That would mean the CX-5 would embody all Mazdas that came before it – from the RX-2 through to the Miata. Tall order, but did the CX-5 accomplish exactly that?

The first impression of the CX-5 stems from the first full iteration of Mazda's new design language: "KODO – Soul of Motion." It starts right up front with the "signature wing" grille forming the focal point of a very dramatic front end. The remainder of the CX-5 simply flows from there. This crossover is quite handsome with a balance between its compact size and dramatic shape.

Some may argue that the CX-5's overall design may be derivative from its competition. If you believe this is true, take a walk back to the front of the CX-5 and rethink this a bit more. Do another walk around and see where the KODO language goes. The fluid shapes that channel airflow provides a deeper silhouette from every angle. In all, it is a handsome vehicle to look at.

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It may appear small on the outside, but the driver will step inside a roomy and straightforward cabin. This top-line Grand Touring model offered up leather upholstery and supportive front seats to make driving the CX-5 a pleasure. Though firm to the back, the front seats provided enough bolstering to get through the turns. Rear seat passengers get welcomed accommodations with a big, but firm seat that locks you in. Though the cargo area is already cavernous, the rear seat can by folded three ways with the middle back folding down for long, thin cargo.

In front of the driver is would be seen as a rather conservatively designed dashboard – for a Mazda, mind you – in the CX-5. It is, however, very functional and ergonomically correct. Three big dials greet the driver behind a nice, thick and multifunctional steering wheel. The right dial acts as a trip computer and fuel gauge, while the left and center takes care of engine revs and speed respectively.

HVAC controls are easy to use on the lower center stack with dual zone climate control. Switches throughout the CX-5 were exceptional to the touch. A huge plus is the level of quality of materials and switches inside the CX-5's interior – the best enjoyed in a Mazda, period.

The upper center stack houses Mazda's new TomTom-powered navigation system. It is a very easy system to get through, including the ease of connecting a Bluetooth-enabled phone and setting radio stations for both terrestrial and SiriusXM satellite bands. There is Bluetooth audio connectivity to play your music files, as well as USB and auxiliary jack options for your iPod or MP3 player. Sound comes through Mazda's nine-speaker Bose Centerpoint speaker system – a beautiful noise to have along for the ride.

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The Mazda3's Skyactiv 2.0litre engine appears under the hood of the CX-5. It is exactly the same 155 horsepower four-cylinder mill as its Zoom-Zoom brother, but with a bit more mass to pull. In this class, consumers demand at least 20 more horses to work with, especially if you are considering towing up to 3,500 pounds. The 3,426-pound CX-5 can only tow up to 2,000 pounds.

A six-speed automatic is connected to the Skyactiv engine. The problem with this combination was how it managed the long haul. While driving from outside of Chicago back to the Twin Cities, the CX-5 could not relax as most of its competition would along this route. It had to maintain the revs at a higher-than-usual rate to keep up with traffic and lacked smooth transitions on uphill sections of the highway.

For the most part, the Skyactiv driveline, combined with all-wheel drive actually works in town and across the metro area. Though responsive when the throttle was pressed, the CX-5 was happier hopping from work to home to the club and at the store. It is quite eager to run when managing the daily grind.

Mazdas are known for great driving dynamics. The CX-5 felt like a Mazda in several areas. Ride quality is solid, given the lighter weight and quiet nineteen-inch Toyo A23 tires. Those Toyos provided plenty of grip on both wet and dry surfaces. The suspension absorbed road imperfects and bumps without compromising the cabin. On curves and turns, there was some lean, but it was controlled by a combination of McPherson struts up front and a multilink setup out back. Basic cornering showed no drama up front as it tracked its way from rural Interstates to in-town traffic.

Steering is weighted heavily, but for good measure. You can accomplish tight turns with plenty of effort from the wheel. On-center feel is good in the CX-5, keeping the compact crossover under control through both the normal and the curvy parts of the road. Stopping power is just right with enough stopping distance at both normal and panic stops.

Having the Skyactiv badge on the liftgate denotes the ability to get better fuel efficiency than its competition. The overall fuel consumption figure of 25.1MPG is not bad, but you can achieve better given the engine performance and its weight. It is, however, better than most in its class.

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The CX-5 seems like a good proposition with its size, performance and the promise of efficient driving. Prices begin at $20,995, with a manual gearbox available for the Skyactiv driveline. However, you will not be able to engage a clutch when you get into the Touring model, but you gain almost everything else. In this top-line Grand Touring AWD model, the sticker reached $30,715.

All of this talk of Skyactiv and KODO may seem very mystical, but the CX-5 is a sign of a forging reality in the marketplace. Small crossovers are the bane of the automotive mix in our market. Whenever the choices expand, the consumer gets a headache.

To fully approach the CX-5, take in consideration two mindsets: Mazda enthusiasts and everyone else. For Mazda enthusiasts, the CX-5 is a treat that embodies the soul of the lineup – the Mazda3 and MX-5 Miata – while creating its own history. It is also a preview of coming attractions – namely the new generation Mazda6 and Mazda3.

For everyone else, it is a wrench in your plans. It may not be as spacious, advanced designed, powerful or popular as its competition, but what this CX-5 does is work. If you do not need to tow anything and would like to throw a week's worth of camping in the back for you and your significant other…or, take three of your friends out on the town somewhere…the CX-5 does the job quite well.

For me, the Mazda CX-5 works as a smooth riding, easy to use and distinctive little buddy for commuting to work and back and anything else that needs to be done afterwards. It is just as sporty as it is useful in plenty of situations.

That certainly sounds like that 1979 626 coupe our family bought twenty-five or so years ago.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Mazda North American Operations.

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