Can efficiency-boosting SkyActiv technology help the Mazda CX-5 raise the crossover bar?

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Car makers frequently mention the phrase ‘all-new’ when describing their latest model. The reality is that usually much of the mechanicals and switchgear has seen service elsewhere. But when its maker says the Mazda CX-5 is ‘all-new’, it really means it.

It was the first model in Mazda’s range to feature the full suite of SkyActiv technologies – Mazda’s far-reaching attempt to drive up efficiency through the use of lightweight components and efficient powertrains. In 2008, Mazda said it would find a 30 percent improvement in the average fuel economy of its range by 2015.

Underpinning the CX-5 is a clean-sheet, scaleable platform

The bold and interesting part of a fairly industry-standard plan is that, to begin with, the firm has opted not to leap on the expensive and complicated hybrid bandwagon, but instead refine and gently rethink the conventional internal combustion blueprint.

That might raise eyebrows among other Japanese car makers who have nailed their colours firmly to the hybrid mast. But on the surface it appears Mazda could be on to something: official figures as low as 119g/km and 61.4mpg on the combined cycle are impressive for anything, never mind a high-riding SUV.

Those figures are derived from the Mazda CX-5’s low-power diesel engine driving the front wheels through a manual gearbox. Compared to that, the rest of the range seems costly to run, although next to its rivals it remains pretty parsimonious.

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At the heart of the Mazda CX-5 range sits an advanced 2.2-litre diesel engine, which has an exceptionally high compression ratio resulting in improved fuel efficiency and torque. A similarly advanced petrol engine is also offered, but is destined for niche appeal on these shores.

Both engines are mated to either a compact and lightweight six-speed manual gearbox or an efficient auto. Power is transferred to the front or all four wheels, depending on specification.

This review will endeavour to find out if Mazda has succeeded – not only in its self-proclaimed task, but also in delivering a product well rounded enough to thrive in a segment populated by high achievers such as the Nissan Qashqai.


Mazda CX-5 badging

Innovative design and engineering are at the heart of Mazda’s SkyActiv strategy. It is an all-encompassing label applied to fuel and weight-saving improvements made to the chassis, body, engines and transmissions of not just the Mazda CX-5, but an entire range.

If that weren’t enough, the CX-5’s exterior has been shaped using Mazda’s latest ‘Kodo – soul of motion’ design language, which introduces a wide-mouth grille that will characterise the firm’s family face for some time to come.

As is becoming the norm, the CX-5's steering rack is electrically assisted

Mazda claims the CX-5 is one of the most aerodynamic compact SUVs around, with a drag coefficient of 0.33.

Underpinning the CX-5 is a clean-sheet, scaleable platform which, thanks to the increased use of high-tensile steel, is stiffer and lighter than the brand’s previous architecture.

The suspension is divided between MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement at the back. The latter has been mounted higher than usual to improve damper efficiency. As is becoming the norm in this class and others, the steering rack is an electrically assisted system.

The real beneficiaries of the SkyActiv R&D budget are the powertrains. Along with two heavily revised transmissions (a smaller, lighter six-speed manual and a tweaked six-speed automatic), the engine line-up is refreshingly simple and fiendishly clever: there’s one 163bhp 2.0-litre petrol and one 2.2-litre diesel unit split into 148bhp and 173bhp variants.

Despite their differing capacities, they share a basic structure (allowing them to be built alongside one another) and, remarkably, the same compression ratio.

The upshot of Mazda’s meticulous attention to detail is simple: a class-leading combination of power and economy. The 148bhp version tested will serve up 280lb ft of torque from 1800rpm, achieve 61.4mpg combined and emit just 119g/km of CO2.

The petrol CX-5 is only available with the manual transmission and front-wheel drive, with the lower-powered diesel the cheapest way into an automatic CX-5. For a 4WD automatic, the 173bhp diesel is necessary.


Mazda CX-5 interior

For all of Mazda’s mechanical endeavours, the Mazda CX-5 would stand no chance of success if its interior were not up to the critical small family standard. Plenty of equipment and respectable build quality help it to pass muster, but fairly unimaginative architecture and less-than brilliant materials mean the car is in danger of appearing cheaper than its price tag says it ought to.

The prevailing sight from the driver’s seat, save a clear and sensibly laid-out instrument cluster, is the streamlined swathe of dashboard that tapers over a set-back multimedia centre. The touchscreen functions well enough, even if the menu system and the unit itself look a little old-fashioned.

Launch models feature free sat-nav. The touchscreen functions well enough

Beneath it is the heater switchgear, which turns with a gratifyingly solid soft click, while below that, on the centre console adjacent to the handbrake, is a selector wheel and buttons that replicate the controls on the touchscreen. Why? Aside from cluttering up the cabin with more buttons than it requires, there’s no decent reason for the duplication.

The expendable dial also takes up space that would be better used by a second cupholder; it’s unusual for a car of this size and purpose to have only one and is indicative of a general lack of storage compartments.

Fortunately, the CX-5 does a better job of accommodating people than it does clutter. A generous 2700mm wheelbase translates into plentiful legroom in the back, and a 503-litre boot is ample. Mazda continues to persevere with its 40/20/40 rear-seat split: it’s handy for elongated loads, but it tends to preclude carrying a third rear passenger in comfort.

It’s practical, then, and functional enough to service a family’s needs, but Mazda has been nowhere near creative or stylish enough to produce a class-leading cabin.

There are three trim levels to choose from - SE-L Nav, SE-L Lux Nav and Sport Nav. The entry-level model includes 17in alloys, parking sensors, cruise control, auto wipers and lights, dual-zone climate control, and Mazda's infotainment system complete with 7.0in touchscreen, sat nav, DAB radio and Bluetooth and USB connectivity. 

The mid-range SE-L Lux Nav adds a panoramic sunroof, a leather upholstery, heated front seats and electrically adjustable front seats, while the range-topping Sport Nav model adorns your CX-5 with 19in alloys, adaptive LED headlights, a reversing camera, keyless entry and a Bose sound system.


Mazda CX-5 side profile

All too often, when faced with a four-cylinder diesel engine and a reputable set of manufacturer’s economy figures, we’ve been underwhelmed by the experience on the ground. The Mazda CX-5 emphatically does not fall into that category.

It is a measure of the 148bhp 2.2-litre diesel’s performance that for a moment it appears briefly in the same sentence as the mighty 2.0-litre lump that helps to make the BMW 3 Series a five-star car when it first came out in 2012. A higher-power version of the same engine, which makes 173bhp and 309lb ft, impresses in isolation, but the effectiveness of the entry-level diesel brings its appeal into question.

The engine's turbo-heavy tug is lusty and assertive

In either of the diesel engines, there are three factors to highlight: outright speed, refinement and frugality. We clocked 9.4sec to 60mph in the low-power diesel, which is close to Mazda’s claims, but what sets it apart is its tractability and genuine sense of verve on the move. The turbo-heavy tug is lusty and assertive, and while its peak twist fades away, a healthy power band sees the engine into high revs with little reduction in enthusiasm.

The result is a fine set of figures. Not only does the 148bhp 2.2-litre CX-5 outperform the equivalent Kia Sportage across the board (50-70mph in sixth in 9.7sec compared with 12.2sec for the Kia is a standout figure), but within the confines of our one-mile straight it also pulled from beneath 20mph in fourth and up to 100mph without requiring a gearchange.

First-rate flexibility offered by both diesels is delivered hand in hand with strong mechanical refinement. The typical diesel hubbub has not been eradicated, but that low compression ratio figure helps to ensure a laudable drop in vibrations. Even at low revs there’s little judder from the drivetrain.

An early drive of a CX-5 fitted with the optional automatic gearbox showed it to be a competent performer. It was alert and quick, with little responsiveness having been sacrificed for the luxury of not changing gear yourself.

Finally, there’s the economy. We banked 54.7mpg on a strict touring run in the 148bhp diesel, which is inevitably short of the official figure. But when you consider that the 320d managed ‘only’ 56.8mpg in a slippery saloon silhouette, it’s not hard to see why the SkyActiv lump has been so well received.

Unusually, the petrol variant makes a strong case for itself. It is responsive and exceptionally refined and, thanks to a significant weight saving, its 9.2sec 0-62mph time makes it the joint fastest in the line-up. But despite producing lower CO2 emissions than the high-output diesel with an automatic gearbox, it is destined to be a niche product.


Mazda CX-5 cornering

Although Mazda’s marketing department would have you believe otherwise, the thrust of the SkyActiv agenda is on making efficiency gains rather than helping you to corner the Mazda CX-5 like Kamui Kobayashi.

Shaving weight and increasing rigidity are undeniably of benefit to a car’s dynamics, but the CX-5 nevertheless sticks with credibly competent rather than invigorating.

Shaving weight and increasing rigidity are of benefit to the car's dynamics

Chiefly, that’s because the model remains a high-sided SUV with all the usual trade-offs and, while it may have been built with one eye on the kerb weight, so has most of the competition. Our benchmarked Kia Sportage may have been on the block back in 2010, but our scales revealed that, even with four-wheel drive, it was only 60kg heavier than the Mazda.

Doubtless that kind of poundage is hard-won in the longer CX-5, but it’s not enough to make the car feel any lighter than most of its mainstream rivals. Instead, confident roadholding, dutiful steering and adequate body control keep the Mazda fluid and predictable at speed.

That’s as much as can be expected, and perhaps more than has been proffered by Mazda on the comfort front. Unfairly handicapped by bigger 19-inch wheels that come as standard on upscale models, the CX-5 tends to range unhappily on its suspension as though it’s searching for a mislaid equilibrium.

Find a particularly smooth section of asphalt and it will settle down, suggesting that either it would benefit from two more inches of compliance in the tyre profile (our guess) or that it has been poorly tuned for the UK’s pitted bitumen. Either way, the car in our hands was more generally passable than outright praiseworthy.


Mazda CX-5

There are two lines to draw here. Behind one are the Mazda's admirable running costs. As we’ve mentioned, the Mazda CX-5 is capable of deeply commendable economy and its CO2 emissions are remarkable for the segment.

The headline-grabber is the 148bhp 2.2-litre CX-5 with a manual gearbox driving the front wheels. The Skoda Yeti 1.6 TDI Greenline is the only car able to trade toe to toe with the Mazda on this footing, but it offers nothing like the same performance. On the other hand, an entry-level Yeti Greenline costs nearly £10,000 less.

Petrols are cheaper, but they’re unlikely to be popular

That’s partly to do with the strength of the yen, which hampers the price competitiveness of many Japanese-built models. The range starts at a little over £21,000, but you’ll need another £1500 to step into an entry-level diesel.

Once you’re there, though, there’s a fairly painless progression from SE-L models – which features nearly every conceivable extra bar sat-nav – to Sport, which adds those controversial 19-inch wheels and leather upholstery over the two other models. The high-output diesel is available only in Sport trim, and the only low-power unit you’ll find is the eco-friendly 119g/km model.

So in your common-or-garden diesel trim, the CX-5 is slightly more expensive than a Volkswagen Tiguan. No, that model doesn’t measure up on emissions, economy or equipment, but it’s better looking, far more pleasant inside and comes with a formidable VW badge attached.

There’s also the Kia Sportage. The Korean SUV is our beaten benchmark for part of this test, but it’s also eye-catching and capable of matching the CX-5’s kit list for far less.

But you shouldn’t lose sight of those impressive running costs: aside from the 119g/km model, the rest of the range –  petrol model included – flutter between 136 and 144g/km. All of the diesels have official consumption figures in the 50-60mpg range, so reckon on real-world economy of around 10mpg less.


Mazda CX-5 rear quarter

Perhaps it was inevitable that as Mazda’s technological thrust is not overtly revolutionary, neither is the Mazda CX-5 as its result.

The new SUV should earn its place on any buyer’s shortlist, but it is not revelatory enough to better the models against which it is pitted in the compact crossover class.

All-new CX-5 bristles with worthy technology but scrimps on the charm

What Mazda has produced is a very fine diesel engine. Efficient four-cylinder units may well have become the tip of the industry’s spear, but there are few – possibly none in the mainstream –  that equal the SkyActiv unit’s broad range of capabilities. And then there is the surprisingly efficient and refined petrol engine.

Were those engines mated to a classier interior, more engaging chassis or plusher ride, the CX-5 might be more deserving not only of class honours but also of its price tag.

As it is, Mazda has produced a spacious, well equipped crossover that goes faster and farther and pollutes less than the opposition.

But for some, that will be more than enough to justify compromises made elsewhere in the CX-5 package.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mazda CX-5 2012-2017 First drives