Driven: 2018 Mazda CX-5. Affordable, Family Fun

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: Mar 22, 2018

Just because you’re on a diet that doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu. Similarly, just because you have kids doesn’t mean you can’t drive something fun.

We as a society have moved from sedans and minivans to mid-size crossovers for our family haulers for a lot of good reasons. They’re convenient offering plenty of passenger space and easy access to storage through the rear hatch. They’re capable with more ground clearance than a passenger car and available all-wheel drive for inclement weather. They’re confidence-inspiring thanks to a driving position that gets the driver up higher for a better view of the road.

Behind the wheel of the Mazda CX 5

One thing most mainstream crossovers are not, however, is very much fun. That’s what makes the Mazda CX-5 so special in this category. It offers everything you need for the family, but it doesn’t forget about the driver. No, you won’t confuse it for an Alfa Romeo Stelvio or BMW X4 M40i, but it is capable of bringing a smile to your face after you drop the kids off at soccer practice. Toggle the CX-5 into sport mode, the throttle becomes a bit more responsive and the six-speed automatic transmission (no mushy CVT here) holds its shifts a little longer.

With both hands on the standard leather-wrapped steering wheel, you can take advantage of the fully-independent suspension – McPherson struts up front and a multi-link set up in back – which is set up with firmer springs and more aggressive damping than others in the category. The electric power-assist steering isn’t overly boosted, with proper on-center feel and predictable turn in. When equipped with all-wheel drive, torque vectoring minimizes understeer typically experienced in front-drive crossovers. By putting up to 50% of the power to the rear wheels, it helps prevent the front end from washing out when you’re hustling through tight curves.

The engine also gets involved here, with something Mazda calls G-Vectoring control. Unlike some systems that apply brake pressure at each wheel independently to keep things in line, when the sensors feel the car losing traction, there’s a subtle reduction in engine power which transfers the weight to the front increasing cornering grip. It works so smoothly it’s almost unnoticeable while enhancing driver confidence and passenger comfort.

The 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder engine has been improved for 2018, producing the same 187 horsepower, but torque is up just one pound-foot to 186. The big news is a bit of electromechanical wizardry that improves efficiency. Mazda’s SkyActiv system now includes cylinder deactivation that shuts off the two outer pistons between 25 and 50 miles per hour while the car is being driven economically. This improves low-speed efficiency by 20%, so if you do a lot of in-town driving, you’ll see a significant reduction in your fuel bills.

In addition to being efficient, it’s a very willing engine. 0-60 acceleration happens in just a tick over 8 seconds which is quick enough to get you up to speed on an entrance ramp but won’t set any records at Great Lakes Dragaway. It would be better if Mazda would find a seven-speed gearbox with a shorter first gear. Where it really shines is at speed in sport mode when you’re hustling through traffic or carving up a winding back road. The algorithm quickly understands your intent and holds the transmission in a lower gear longer, keeping the engine solidly in the peak power range between 3,500 and 6,000 rpm adding to the overall sports car feel of the CX-5.

Inside, the word is focused. Decked out in black and white with chrome accents, Mazda eschews a lot of the adornments and complexity you find in its competitors. My Grand Touring model was equipped with the standard 7-inch touchscreen, an optional satellite radio, and navigation. You can interact with these systems either via the screen or a rotary controller on the center console. All actions are intuitive and precise. There aren’t a lot of features in the system, a few apps, some vehicle settings, monitoring options, and of course Bluetooth phone interface. You can also activate most of the system with voice commands, but unfortunately, at this point, you can’t enter destinations on the navigation via voice. Hopefully, that will be an upgrade down the road.

The leather seats in the Grand Touring model are comfortable, supportive, and heated. My car was also equipped with a heated steering wheel, something I’ve come to really appreciate on cold mornings. In back, leg room is near the top of the class, and again with the high trim level, the outer two seats are heated. The Bose premium sound system is also a nice surprise. For just an $800 upgrade, you get 10-speakers and a whole lot of distortion-free sound. I could use a little more bottom at low volume, but overall it delivers. There are four power outlets in the CX-5, two 2.1 amp USB ports and two 12v plugs. Fit and finish are first class, and even the plastic trim bits don’t feel cheap. While I wouldn’t call it luxurious, the CX-5 in Grand Touring trim is definitely a step up.

Outside, Mazda’s KODO design language is on full display. Distinctive lines and well integrated curved surfaces help it stand out in a category where it’s hard to tell one small crossover from another. The signature Soul Crystal Red Metallic paint is worth special mention as well. The depth of color and what it does in the sunlight is remarkable. Yes, it adds almost $600 to the price tag, but it’s worth it. LED headlights are standard on the CX-5, as are safety features like blind-spot monitoring and autonomous emergency braking. Step up to Touring and Grand Touring trim and you also get radar cruise control and lane departure warning with lane-keep assist.

Mazda has positioned the CX-5 consistently with the rest of its lineup. It’s the mid-size crossover for people who love to drive. If it had been around 15 years ago when I had kids at home, it probably would have ended up in my driveway.

2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD
Five-passenger, four-door, mid-size crossover
Base price: $24,150
Price as tested: $33,910
Major options: All-wheel drive ($1,300); Grand Touring Package – 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning with lane keep assist, automatic headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats with 8-way power driver’s seat and 2 position memory, power liftgate, power glass moonroof, Bose premium audio, heated steering wheel ($5,495), GT Premium Package – head up display with traffic sign recognition, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, windshield wiper deicer ($1,395)
Engine: 2.5 Liter inline four-cylinder 16-valve overhead cam with cylinder deactivation
Transmission: 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode
Power: 187 HP @ 6,000 RPM
Torque: 186 lb.-ft. @4,000 RPM
Curb weight: 3,693 lbs
0-60: 8.2 seconds
Top speed: 126 MPH
EPA MPG: 24 city, 30 highway, 26 combined

Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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