Forget the Tribute.
That car was a failure, really, marketed as a "Zoom-Zoom" crossover from Mazda yet wasn't different at all from the Ford Escape.
Well, they've certainly learned, and now Mazda gives us the CX-5; a compact crossover that doesn't just replace the Tribute of old, but the larger CX-7 as well.
After a few days behind the wheel, I can sum it all by saying this is more like it. Much.
I won't get much into the style, but when I first saw the CX-5, it thought looked fresh. The CX-5 was well designed, but I feel it's a little behind when compared to the current leader in looks, Kia, and at par with Hyundai (Sidebar: Odd, isn't it, that the Koreans are now the benchmark for style?).
Inside, however, it's a different story. While it is behind the Sportage and Tucson in terms of creativity in interior design, it does feel rather good. Conventional as the design may be, the materials seem pretty good, and the switchgear (buttons, knobs, dials, etc) feel good to the touch. Actually it seems Mazda wanted to generate a driver-oriented interior more reminiscent of BMWs than its actual competitors. The front seats give great support, and the leather wrapped wheel and shifter just feel great in your hands.
Features-wise, the CX-5 does come well and truly loaded. For the price (more on that later) the CX-5 is equipped with a dual-zone automatic climate control system, a 2-DIN touchscreen LCD audio system (no DVD or AVI playback though) with USB and iPod compatibility, and a very useful trip computer. Also standard kit is a Bluetooth handsfree system, cruise control and steering wheel audio controls. I do find it odd that they placed redundant buttons on a touchscreen system, but thats about it.
I also particularly like the versatility of the CX-5. The rear seats (no 3rd row, much like the competition) fold flat, and the tonneau cover joins the tailgate when you open the back, making it easier to load and get gear from the back.
Unlike the ever-forgettable Tribute, however, Mazda went to work on developing the CX-5's drive, and if you're anything like me, you'll love it too.
At the heart of the CX-5 is an all new engine from Mazda; a 2.0 liter DOHC 16-valve motor that produces a very healthy 165 metric horsepower and 210 Newton meters of torque. Impressive figures, and coupled with the 6-speed manual tranny in this variant, I'm sure I'll have a lot of fun with it later on. Patience.
First off: efficiency. The CX-5 actually headlines Mazda's very latest tech: SKYACTIV-G. Rather than go for hybrid powertrains (with major drawbacks such as weight and price), Mazda opted to take their internal combustion gas engines back to the drawing board, rethinking the way they achieved performance and fuel economy. The new 2 liter unit has higher compression ratios more comparable to diesels (13:1, more or less) than typical gasoline motors, and has direct injection.
The improvements don't stop there, as SKYACTIV is an all-encompassing philosophy on the car itself, not just the engine. Weight -long the bane of crossovers- has been dramatically shed, giving the CX-5 a kerb (curb) weight of just 1,375 kilos. Putting that in perspective, it's significantly lighter than the Tucson and the Sportage, yet it's 100mm (more or less) longer.
The fuel economy figures I was getting speak for themselves. I tried out the CX-5 at the worst traffic that EDSA has to offer (rush hour and rain), and ended up with 18.4 liters consumed per 100 km of heavy traffic, translating to 5.4 km/l. Not bad considering the needle didn't go above 20 km/h the whole time.
After I filled up the tank, I took the CX-5 on to the open highway; the Skyway, actually. With a 100 km/h average cruising speed (cruise control on), the trip computer told me I was consuming just 6.3 liters per 100 km, or 15.9 km/l. Naturally I was doubtful about the result, so I fueled up again and recomputed based on the added fuel and distance travelled (123.5 on the trip meter, divided by 7.543 liters added) and ended up with a fuel economy figure of 16.37 km/l. The computer was off the mark... in a good way.
As expected, the ride quality doesn't lean towards the comfortable side, instead leaning for better agility. It's not overly harsh, but firm enough to give the car better cornering abilities without sacrificing comfort too much.
Now that efficiency and ride comfort are out of the way, let's get to the nitty gritty. How does it drive?
The powertrain that we enjoyed for its laudable efficiency performs very well when you start giving it everything its got. The 6-speed manual feels very, very similar to the one found in the MX-5 with its short throws and positive feel. Mazda claims a 0-100 km/h of around 9.2 seconds, and there's no real reason to doubt it. Top speed is rated at 200 km/h.
And then there's the handling. I actually have high hopes for the CX-5, as Mazda used a new type of high-tensile steel that improves body rigidity yet reduces weight. In the corners up in the mountains, it didn't disappoint; even if it was pouring rain.
It may have a high center of gravity, but keeping the weight down certainly had a great effect on the handling. The CX-5's reflexes are quite quick from one corner to the next, and the handling is progressive towards the limit; it just doesn't feel like it could get away from you unless you really didn't know what you were doing. It's no sportscar, but given the constraints of a crossover body, what they delivered is a product worthy of Mazda's mantra. Zoom zoom.
There is an issue with the CX-5: the sticker price. At PhP 1,392,000, it's at the high end of the spectrum for a manual-version of a front-wheel drive crossover. The question stands: Is the Mazda CX-5 worth it?
Let me put it this way. The car looks good, the features are good, quality, room and space are good. But it's the response of the engine, the positive feel of the manual transmission and the nimbleness afforded by a relatively bigger crossover that lend us to believe that if we laid down the keys of the CX-5's competitors on a table, the Mazda's keys would be the first to go. Efficiency is just a great bonus.
In this class of car, one that is extremely competitive on many fronts, getting your product right is key. But, more importantly, it's about making your product unique amongst the rest; for Mazda, well, it's the driving experience.
With the CX-5, Mazda didn't just pick a lane to stick to. They went out to really own it.