Mazda CX-5: The sports car that thinks it's an SUV
The Mazda CX-5 is still the most fun-to-drive family SUV, says William Scholes
OVER the last few weeks, this slot in Drive has been occupied by SUVs of various size, price and poshness, writes William Scholes.
This is to be expected. As we've explained at length elsewhere, we can't get enough of SUVs and crossovers these days.
They are fast-becoming the family car of choice, and it is easy to imagine how the humble family hatchback might become an anachronism within a decade.
But however accomplished the latest SUVs are, for all their high-riding comfort, perceived practicality and kid-friendliness, they tend to leave the keener driver nonplussed.
If you really enjoy your driving, most SUVs are the equivalent of a motorised shrug of the shoulders; it is hard to escape the feeling that driver enjoyment comes a long way down the manufacturer's priorities.
There is a sense in which this is increasingly the direction of travel for most cars.
In a digital age, increasingly complex electrical 'driver assist' systems are just one of the extra layers that serve to insulate the driver from the more analogue sensations of what their car is actually doing by, for example, filtering out what it is trying to tell them through its tyres, steering, seat and pedals.
And compared to a saloon or hatchback, SUVs, because of their higher centre of gravity and chunkier kerbweights, are particularly prone to a numb driving experience.
There are several notable examples where car-makers have risen to the challenge of making an SUV that handles and drives with aplomb rather than like a plum pudding.
Porsche's Macan and Alfa Romeo's Stelvio are two of the larger models that standout, but if you are after something fun but family-sized, then the Mazda CX-5 is just about your only credible option.
Mazda focuses on the driver with admirable commitment, whatever part of the market one of its cars is aimed at.
You are immediately struck by the vibrancy and energy of the Mazda; if a Sportage or Qashqai are shod in a pair of sensible and sturdy walking shoes, the CX-5 is wearing running spikes
The same DNA that makes the company's MX-5 roadster such a hoot to drive and a paragon of tactility, can be felt in Mazda's other cars, from the little 2 hatchback to the big 6 estate.
And so it is with the CX-5, the company's offering in a sector dominated by cars which are thoroughly competent in a broad range of areas but which lack driving pizzazz: Nissan Qashqai, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Volkswagen Tiguan, and so on...
The first CX-5 arrived in 2012, heralding Mazda's Next Big Idea, its so-called Skyactiv design philosophy.
This essentially aims to create a virtuous circle by making a vehicle - its body, engine and gearbox - as light and as strong as they can be to benefit efficiency and performance, and - here's that Mazda distinctive - to make it fun to drive.
I admired the CX-5 so greatly that I bought one. Three years on, and with more than 46,000 miles under its tyres, I would buy another one.
Mazda served up a new CX-5 last year. Given that the original was so good, it wisely left the best stuff alone and instead targeted the most obvious areas for improvement.
I drove the car on its launch last year, but recently spent a week with it on Northern Ireland roads, with all the variations and potholes that implies.
The test car was a front-wheel-drive Sport Nav model equipped with the 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel engine.
Getting behind the wheel after time in a rival from another manufacturer, you are immediately struck by the vibrancy and energy of the Mazda; if a Sportage or Qashqai are shod in a pair of sensible and sturdy walking shoes, the CX-5 is wearing running spikes.
This vim is repeated in the way the Mazda is able to stitch together corners and tackle a demanding road; for a car of its size, there's a rare fluidity and balance to its movements. The suspension - particularly the way it copes with crests and bumps - and body control are distinguished.
It all means that if you are in the mood, the CX-5 can do a passable impression of a well-sorted hot hatch.
The new CX-5 also does a better job of the more prosaic everyday stuff than the old car.
The single biggest improvement, at least for this owner and his regular passengers, is a quieter interior.
Peculiar acoustics meant those sat in the rear of the original CX-5 might as well be sat in a different car, so hard was it for those in the front to hear them and vice versa.
But now back-seat passengers and those in the front can hold a conversation without having to resort to shouting or saying "Pardon?" all the time. Those in the back can even hear the radio properly.
As you would expect, there is a raft of more up-to-date technology aboard the newer car and Mazda has also upgraded the quality of the interior trim.
There are bigger and cheaper family SUVs than the CX-5, but none of them have the Mazda's fun-to-drive credentials
This is in keeping with the CX-5's pricing, which positions it somewhere between more mainstream offerings from Kia, Ford, Hyundai and so on and the overtly 'premium' offerings from BMW and Audi.
Outside, the CX-5's design has evolved into a sharper-edged suit of clothes than its predecessor. It remains one of the finest looking SUVs of any sort, particularly in Mazda's trademark 'soul red' metallic paint.
Compared to rivals, the CX-5's range is relatively limited. There is a single 2.0-litre 163bhp petrol engine and the 2.2-litre diesel can be had with either 148bhp or 173bhp.
The most powerful engine can be only had in combination with four-wheel-drive; the 148bhp unit is either front- or all-wheel-drive; while front-wheel-drive is your only choice with the petrol engine.
A sweet-shifting six-speed manual gearbox is standard, and the diesel engines can also be ordered with a six-speed automatic 'box.
Mazda offers just two, well-equipped, trim levels, which it calls SE-L Nav and Sport Nav.
Prices start at £23,995 for a petrol SE-L Nav and stretch to £33,395 for a 173bhp diesel with four-wheel-drive, automatic gearbox and Sport Nav trim.
There are bigger and cheaper family SUVs than the CX-5, but none of them have the Mazda's fun-to-drive credentials.
In this latest, more refined iteration, the CX-5 is also now a convincingly premium offering, and because it is a Mazda, it's properly built.
There's much to recommend the CX-5 even if driving verve isn't high on your priorities; and if you want your family SUV to make you feel good when you punt along a favourite road, look no further.
AT A GLANCE
Mazda CX-5 2.2 150PS Sport Nav
Price: £28,695. As tested £29,255, with 'snowflake white' paint £560
Engine and transmission: 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 148bhp, 280lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 127mph, 0-62mph in 9.4 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 56.5mpg (EU combined), 42.4mpg (real world), 132g/km
Car tax: £200 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 28 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (95/80/78/59), 2017