IN the ever-expanding galaxy of family SUVs, the Mazda CX-5's star has long shone brightly, writes William Scholes.
The CX-5 first arrived a decade ago and immediately set itself apart from the competition by how sweetly it drove. There was enough of the legendary MX-5 roadster's DNA coursing through its veins - in its snappy gearshift, the fluidity of its responses, the consistency of its controls and even engines that enjoyed being revved - to make it the smart choice for punters who actually enjoyed the craft of driving.
Great styling was another element that set the CX-5 apart, while it ticked all the more prosaic boxes required of a family car in this sector, with plenty of room for passengers and luggage.
I was so smitten by the CX-5 that I put my money where my mouth is and bought one - a 180bhp 2.2-litre diesel with four-wheel-drive in Sport Nav trim; I still miss that car...
A major revision in 2017 tweaked the styling and brought a raft of other improvements, the most welcome of which were big steps forward in the quality of the interior and refinement.
As is the Mazda way, there has been a series of minor updates since then, but a bunch of more substantial changes arrived earlier this year. Thus, we have all the excuse we need to reacquaint ourselves with the CX-5.
If you're a keen observer of all things Mazda, you'll probably spot the new grille along with revised bumpers and lights front and rear. It's subtle stuff, but effective nonetheless.
Engine choices are familiar and include a 2.0-litre petrol with 163bhp and a 2.5-litre petrol with 191bhp and a 2.2-litre diesel with either 148bhp or 182bhp.
Mazda continues to plough its own furrow here. Rivals offer hybrids and plug-ins, but you'll not find even a mild-hybrid in the CX-5 line-up. And the petrols aren't turbocharged, which just about everyone else does. Nor can you have a CX-5 with Mazda's trick Skyactiv-X engine.
This makes the engine line-up seem, on paper at least, old fashioned. But it's worth considering that in real-world use, these Mazda units are at least as frugal as the electrified hybrids found elsewhere. When the CX-5 was first launched, Mazda spoke about how the engines were 'right-sized' to the vehicle, and that largely holds true.
That being said, even Mazda isn't resisting electrification altogether - it does have mild-hybrid versions of the Mazda 2, 3 and CX-30, there's the electric MX-30, a rebadged Toyota Yaris which yields a full-hybrid version of the Mazda 2 and, last but not least, the new CX-60. This plug-in hybrid SUV is larger than the CX-5 and is due to arrive on our roads in September.
But back to the CX-5; as ever, its mix of petrol and diesel engines can be paired in various combinations with either a sweet-shifting six-speed manual or a smooth six-speed automatic gearbox and front- or all-wheel-drive.
Five trim levels are now offered, rising from the entry SE-L to range-topping GT Sport via the intriguingly-named Newground and more obvious Sport and Sport Black.
The Newground model gives the CX-5 an ever-so-slightly rougher and tougher look, with front and rear silver underguard trims matched to silver lower body side skirts, black door mirrors and 19-inch black alloy wheels.
There are lime green accents within the grille - an odd colour choice, perhaps, but there you are... - and this green theme is echoed inside on the air vents and the piping on the seat trim. I wasn't convinced - it feels like it would be a better colour fit for a small, cheap car - but teenage occupants seemed to like it.
The Newground gets a waterproof board in the boot floor, too. You can reverse this to show a less resilient finish, but I liked the utility of the more rugged side. Maybe it should be offered on all Mazda models?
Although its styling embellishments convey the impression that it's a more rufty-tufty CX-5, the Newground is in fact offered only in front-wheel-drive and with the 2.0-litre 163bhp petrol engine. One of the all-wheel-drive set-ups would seem more consistent with the cosmetic changes, I think.
However, that's not to take anything away from just how nice the CX-5 Newground is to drive. On paper, that engine is no ball of fire, but the way it goes about its business and works with the rest of the car means you don't really notice.
Put it this way - it's not a lot quicker in acceleration terms to the similarly-sized Subaru Forester we drove recently (there's about a second in it from 0-62mph, the 163bhp Mazda doing it in 10.5 seconds and the hybrid Subaru in just under 12 seconds) but it feels a whole lot more energetic.
The CX-5s feels light on its feet too and remains the most fun-to-drive family SUV out there. That it does the 'boring' stuff too - for example, the boot is an ample 522 litres, swelling to 1,638 litres if you fold the seats - only bolsters its appeal.
The quality of the interior (lime green accents notwithstanding...) is a highlight, putting the Mazda ahead of rivals from Volkswagen, Ford and so on. It's at least as good as anything in the 'premium' class offered by BMW, Audi and Volvo.
Mazda is also one of the very few car-makers to get the balance between touchscreens, digital displays and physical buttons and knobs just right. The driving position - and the excellent steering wheel - are spot on, too.
Competition is intense in the family SUV sector - there really is something for everybody - but the sweet-driving, upmarket and practical CX-5 remains at the very top of the class. The latest Kia Sportage is an excellent car and deserves serious consideration, but I would still nudge towards the CX-5. Make mine a diesel automatic...
AT A GLANCE
Mazda CX-5 Newground
Price: £29,145. As tested: £29,725, with metallic 'Zircon Sand' paint £580
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, front-wheel-drive, six-speed manual gearbox; 163bhp, 157lb ft
Performance: Top speed 125mph, 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds
Fuel consumption: 41.5mpg (official WLTP combined); 38.7mpg ('real world' test)
CO2 emissions: 153g/km
Car tax: £585 in first year, then £165 annually
Benefit in kind tax rate: 35 per cent
Euro NCAP safety rating: Five stars (2017 test)