The "zoom-zoom" has been muted but Mazda is still poised to win a huge Australian SUV audience with its sensible, fuel-efficient CX-5.
This is a family car worth waiting for and delivers on a promise of low ownership and running costs, style, practicality and affordability. Despite the petrol engine feeling a bit anaesthetised - at sharp odds with Mazda's sports-driven zoom-zoom catch cry - this SUV does pretty much everything right. Not something its rivals will want to read. The five-seater wagon replaces Mazda's popular CX-7 but the tip is that the newcomer will almost double its sales.
Mazda says the CX-5 channels a lot of the factors that last year made its Mazda3 the best-selling car to private Australian buyers. That includes a bit of style, a bucketload of standard features, the strength of the Mazda name and the keen pricing. Only the petrol was offered for testing at the Canberra launch last week. The 2-litre petrol version is on sale now but you'll have to wait another two weeks for the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel that has a $3000 premium. Buyers undecided about which fuel they want to use in their next car are advised to wait the two weeks and compare before laying down your cash.
Prices start at $27,800 for a front-wheel drive, six-speed manual Maxx model. Standard gear includes a four-speaker, Bluetooth-equipped audio, reverse camera, six airbags, sat-nav and even tyre pressure monitoring. Prices rise in accordance with features and top out around the mid-$40,000 mark with the diesel automatic, leather padded Grand Touring. Best value is the petrol Maxx Sport automatic ($32,300) with the two-wheel drive version being the most practical for city and suburban owners. That's all in the same paddock as the rivals but I'd argue that the feature list in the Mazda is stronger and the clincher is the CX-5's better fuel economy. Mazda offers a Tech Pack with lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and high-beam control only on the Grand Touring models for an extra $1990.
The styling is, unfortunately, a bit predictable as Mazda strives to appease all possible buyer types. It follows the theme of the Mazda3 - everybody loves these but ask someone to describe one for identification in a carpark and the only answer you're likely to get is "blue". The CX-5 is bigger in the flesh that you'd think, thanks to subtly chamfered edges, abrupt and high tail and the wedge-shape of the side glass. The snout-like grille is its only point of difference, but even then it's a bit like the previous Hyundai Santa Fe or the dog-van in the movie "Dumb & Dumber".
Inside it's also a lot of Mazda3 and even a touch of the well-built, clinical colours and switchgear of a mid-spec Volkswagen - that's a compliment, by the way. Leather upholstery is standard in the Grand Touring but the cloth of the cheaper models is actually more comfortable. Cabin room is very good and rear seats fold flat - either 60/40 or 40/20/40 dependent on model - while boot space is excellent. The spare wheel is marked "temporary" but is actually a proper tyre that has no speed or distance limitations like most other space-saver tyres.
The biggest news is that the CX-5 is the first Mazda to sport all the company's "new wave" SkyActiv technology. This includes a new approach to design and engineering of the drivetrain, suspension, platform and body and will be progressively introduced into new Mazda models. As an example, the 114kW/200Nm petrol engine runs an astonishingly high 13:1 compression ratio in its engine - most rivals are around 9:1 - to ensure a clean burn of the fuel mix while maximising power output. If the jargon is hard to swallow, consider that it's sufficient to reduce the SUV's fuel consumption to 6.4 litres/100km from the 2WD CX-7's figure of 9.4 l/100km. Put that in dollar terms and it's a saving of about $650 a year in fuel. It's helped by a stop-start system that turns off the engine when the car is stationary.
The new wagon's lightweight, high-strength steel body is 153mm shorter, 32mm narrower and 65mm higher than the CX-7 it replaces, yet though it has a marginal 50mm shorter wheelbase, it boasts a bigger boot and more rear seat legroom. It is also significantly lighter than the CX-7 at 1475kg (2WD Maxx automatic) compared with the CX-7 2WD automatic's 1589kg. That goes a long way to ensuring the CX-5's performance is up to par with the outgoing SUV, putting its 114kW/200Nm 2-litre SkyActiv petrol engine up against the CX-7's 120kW/205Nm 2.5-litre petrol.
This is a five-star rated car with six airbags, electronic stability control and is accompanying brake assist and traction control. It adds hill-start assist and even in its base form has a tyre pressure monitoring system, rear vision camera and a spare tyre that will go the distance.
The CX-5's unusual high-compression 2-litre petrol engine is almost identical to the new Mazda3 SP20 version and shares a quirk - it never feels very responsive. Part of that is the long accelerator pedal but most is the purpose-design "linear" power flow. It's aggravated by engine run-on after the loud pedal is released. But apparently that's the plan and is responsible for the excellent fuel economy.
Of course, forcing the tachometer needle to live in the 4000-6500rpm band - as I did - shakes off the lethargy and the CX-5 becomes a lot of fun - particularly as the chassis is superbly taut and the suspension is just about perfect.
CX-5 project manager and engineer Hideaki Tanaka understands and confirms the petrol engine's softness is deliberate. If you wan t response and more instant performance, buy the diesel, he says. Ride comfort is also excellent, tested over smooth bitumen and some rough, high speed tracks.
The all-wheel drive promises more grip but the front-wheel drive is actually a more nimble, more fun drive because the car really benefits from the 70kg-odd weight reduction. The electric steering is also spot on, blending the need for city-parking lightness with open-road cruising without having any notchiness in the transition. I'd say the engine feel won't be an issue for most buyers and for the rest, they'll get used to it after a few months of ownership. Overall, the CX-5 retains the zoom-zoom DNA - just turns the volume down a bit.
Mazda says the CX-7 fought hard against other SUVs in the "medium" category but couldn't match their sales - at least until its runout in January when it sold 1167 units. The CX-5 will ensure a 1000 a month sales figure, says Mazda Australia marketing manager Alistair Doak. The category is led by the heavyweights Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail and Subaru Forester (which may be replaced in this category by the new XV) who also each sell around the 1000 a month mark.
Aside from matching its rivals on price, the CX-5 adds some extra standard equipment and the petrol-fuelled CX-5 trounces its opposition at the bowser. The two-wheel drive CX-5 petrol automatic compares with the similarly-specced RAV4, for example, that claims 9.1 l/100km, while the X-Trail drinks 8.4 l/100km and the Subaru XV - which is all-wheel drive - is 7.0 l/100km.
But fuel economy isn't the only attraction. Mazda has also targeted ownership costs by specifying standard unleaded fuel for the petrol engine - some rivals need expensive premium unleaded petrol - though hasn't opted for a low-price, fixed service schedule as found on the RAV4.
MAZDA CX-5 MAXX
Price: from $27,800
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service interval: 6 months/10,000km
Safety equipment: six airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC
Crash rating: 5 stars
Engine: 114kW/200Nm 2.0-litre 4-cyl petrol
Body: 5-door, 5 seats
Dimensions: 4540mm (L);1840m (W); 1710mm (H); 2700mm (WB)
Transmission: 6-spd manual; front-wheel-drive
Economy: 6.4 l/100km; 91 RON; 149g/km CO2.