The Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring Punches Above its Weight Class

2017 Mazda CX-5

I recently got to spend a week driving the 2017 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring.  For my first new car review, I was excited to get some seat time with this uniquely positioned player in the midsize SUV segment.  I’d been noticing the newly redesigned CX-5 on the road for months, and I was anxious to see if the vehicle lived up to the expectations set by its elegant road presence.

2017 Mazda CX-5

What I liked

As I’ve already hinted, I love the styling of the CX-5, inside and out.  While other Japanese manufacturers have gone a bit crazy in this department lately, Mazda has used restraint, sticking to a tasteful evolution of its Kodo design language.  My example benefitted from its Soul Red Crystal Metallic paint, a $595 option, which only serves to accentuate the CX-5’s muscular exterior lines.  Inside was more of the same – the light grey-and-black interior, unique in this segment, was easy on the eyes, making the cabin a nice place to be. Ultimately, I found the inside of the CX-5 to be functional, uncluttered, and unquestionably sophisticated.

2017 Mazda CX-5

I also couldn’t get over how crisp the buttons and switches felt.  The push-to-open overhead sunglass compartment releases with a gentle ‘clink-clink’ before calmly gliding open – operation here is nothing short of pure joy.  I also took note of the four-way hazards button; on and off with delightful precision.  HVAC vent adjustment dials are wrapped in rubber, and the vents themselves emit a hearty ‘thud’ when reaching their limits of adjustment.  Window switches are trimmed in aluminum and feel heavy, while the windows themselves glide open and closed with a confidence-inducing ‘swish’ and ‘thump’.  Overall, much of Mazda’s switchgear and interior fit and finish is approaching a level on par with the German automakers that usually set the industry standard.

2017 Mazda CX-5

As far as midsize sport utility vehicles go, the CX-5 brings with it a relatively immersive driving experience.  It isn’t fast, but handling is nimble.  Steering is light at low speeds and appropriately heavy at high speeds, and the ride is taut while still absorbing bumps and other road imperfections.

2017 Mazda CX-5

What Could Be Improved

With its 187hp, 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, the CX-5 wheezed through the high mountain passes along northern Utah’s Wasatch Front.  The engine sat at high rpms with little left in the powerband when ascending these steep canyon grades.  A diesel version of the CX-5 is currently undergoing EPA testing (can’t be too careful, these days…) and should debut in 2018; a first for the segment. I suspect it will bring with it more urgent acceleration when the gas pedal is depressed, and it’s increased torque figures will be a welcomed addition.

While Mazda is clearly trending toward near-luxury levels of design and refinement, there’s one area that could still use improvement – interior carpeting.  The current material is too thin, and it doesn’t conform to the contours of the floorpan as precisely as in the higher-end vehicles that the CX-5 aspires to be.  An improvement here would go a long way.

Thirdly, while I found the Mazda Connect infotainment system to be competent, Mazda has yet to incorporate either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto into any of the vehicles across its lineup.  The company has stated that these systems will debut soon, and that existing vehicles featuring the Mazda Connect system will be retroactively upgradeable.  But the time for these systems is now.  Buying a car is a difficult, complex choice, and customers weigh this feature heavily when making their decision. The CX-5’s competitors from Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and Volkswagen all offer the technology.  Mazda would be wise to expedite the process so that customers who demand this technology will keep the CX-5 in their consideration set.

2017 Mazda CX-5

Who’s this Car For?

The Mazda CX-5 generally targets the massive contingent of American shoppers looking for a midsize SUV.  But here’s the catch – it’s nicer than the competition.  Even in their highest trim levels, I wouldn’t have felt special driving a RAV4 or Escape down historic Main Street in Park City, Utah.  I would have felt comfortable and safe and sensible, but not special.  In the CX-5 Grand Touring though, I felt like someone who’d achieved something in life.  Mazda states that 20% of CX-5 sales come from the top-of-the-line Grand Touring trim level.  This is telling – there’s clearly a market for this vehicle in this configuration – especially given the proliferation of mid-$30,000 ‘entry-level’ luxury vehicles on the market in recent years.  While the CX-5 doesn’t offer an all-important and marketable third row; it elevates the societal standing of the driver by offering a unique presence anywhere it goes, which sets it apart from much of its competition.

It isn’t crazy to think of the CX-5 being cross-shopped with the Acura RDX, Buick Envision, or even the likes of the BMW X3 and Audi Q5. But here’s the issue – members of the general public will still require further conditioning in order to lump Mazda in with the luxury players, whether these perceptions are accurate or not.  So until Mazda releases a vehicle with say, rear-wheel drive, some kind of high-power rotary engine, and a name that rhymes with ‘RX-Shmine’,  I think it’s more realistic to expect cross shopping with the standard volume players – Honda, Ford, Toyota, Subaru, and the rest.  Either way, I think buyers will be pleasantly surprised by the CX-5’s value proposition when comparing it to other midsize SUVs across the board, luxury or not.

2017 Mazda CX-5

Conclusion

I was genuinely disappointed to have to give this vehicle back at the end of my week behind the wheel.  During my time with the CX-5, I took it on a few canyon drives, and twice found myself drawn to the luxurious surroundings of Park City, where aesthetically, it wasn’t out of place among the new Audis and Lexuses littering the town. On the stat sheet, the CX-5 looks to be right in line with its competitors – they all offer similar tech, similar interior space, and similar fuel economy.  But it’s the intangibles that set the CX-5 apart – the dramatic styling, stately interior, elevated driving experience, and Mazda’s exceptional feature design and interior quality.  In the end, the CX-5 Grand Touring’s strongest selling points are in these intangibles. In most compact SUVs, you simply get to your destination; in the CX-5, you arrive.

 

Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.