When credit was cheap and before fuel prices started their upward spiral, sport utility vehicles enjoyed a heyday of ever-expanding waistlines and big, thirsty engines. After the economic crash resulted in a Hummer hangover, a new breed of vehicle was born. Crossovers offered a smarter, more efficient combo of sedan drivability and SUV cargo capacity.

Though the cutesy Miata roadster flirted with the limelight during its early years, the Mazda brand has never been too flashy or trendy, and their concern with optimizing efficiency can be traced to an engineering quest they began in 2007 called "Skyactiv." This suite of technologies explores engine and chassis advancements designed to help Mazda make its cars 30 percent more fuel-efficient by 2015.

While fully realized Skyactiv models have already sold in Europe, the first true expression of this technology in the U.S. is the new 2013 Mazda CX-5. Thanks to a weight-conscious design, the CX-5 is around 575 pounds lighter than the CX-7 that it replaces. A front wheel-drive, manual transmission CX-5 Sport model starts at $20,695, rising all the way to an all-wheel drive, automatic transmission-equipped Grand Touring version, which costs $28,295. The CX-5 competes against the likes of the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Kia Sportage and Toyota RAV4. While this segment isn't short of relatively economical offerings, Mazda has worked hard to boost fuel economy and remove the inefficient stigma from the crossover class.

Stellar fuel savings

Skyactiv technologies help the Mazda CX-5 achieve an impressive 35 mpg on the highway, giving it the best highway fuel economy of any SUV on U.S. roads. How'd they do it?

For starters, obsessive detail was paid to trimming weight throughout the CX-5. Everything from smaller bolts to smarter packaging and lower drag engine components enable the entry-level model to weigh in at a measly 3,208 pounds. Loaded with premium options, the heaviest CX-5 tips the scales at 3,426 pounds.

Without getting too technical, a host of engine modifications also work together to squeeze more from less. For instance, thanks to a special fuel injection system, the CX-5's 2.0 liter engine can warm up more quickly, which boosts fuel economy; bigger exhaust manifolds work more efficiently to dump spent gasses out of the engine; a 13:1 compression ratio - the world's highest in a gasoline-powered passenger car engine - runs on 87 octane fuel; the list of engineering bullet points goes on.

Front wheel drive, manual transmission models get 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway; a six-speed automatic transmission drops those figures to 26/32 mpg. If you opt for all-wheel drive (which comes with a mandatory auto gearbox), expect 25/31 mpg.

Interior options
Beneath its sheetmetal, the Mazda CX-5's cabin - at least in the higher trim level-equipped models we tested - felt thoughtfully designed, with satisfying interior finishes and pleasantly livable surface materials.

The CX-5 comes in three trim levels: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring, each of which can be ordered with all-wheel drive. The entry-level model ranges from $20,695 to $23,345; Touring, which Mazda expects will get the biggest slice of buyers, goes from $23,895 to $25,145; Grand Touring starts at $27,045 for front-wheel drive, and $28,295 for all-wheel drive.

Standard equipment on the Sport includes 17-inch alloy wheels, pushbutton start, remote keyless entry, and cruise control. A Bluetooth package is available for $400.

Touring adds a 6-way power driver's seat, blind spot monitoring and 5.8-inch color display with a rear camera, among other items. The $1,185 technology package adds a Tom Tom-based navigation system, rain sensing wipers and adaptive front lighting; a moonroof and 9-speaker Bose system are also available for $1,130.

Grand Touring includes goodies like 19-inch alloy wheels, leather, a 9-speaker Bose stereo and a power moonroof; a $1,325 technology package includes Tom-Tom navigation, advanced keyless and start, auto-leveling HID headlamps and adaptive lighting.

On the road (and track)

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca bears the name of the manufacturer responsible for the CX-5, and that fact alone reveals a lot about this crossover's intentions. It's no racecar, but the CX-5 was certainly designed to be more entertaining to drive than the average crossover.

It would have been easy to discount the CX-5 right off the bat: our test drive started at the famed track, a challenging circuit that can make even sports cars feel underequipped for the 2.2 mile task at hand. All factors considered, this Mazda behaves quite well in this environment. Its steering feels responsive and clearly conveys what the suspension is up to. While some body roll is evident, it never wallows or feels out of control.

The all-wheel drive version feels a bit heavier and more reluctant to turn around the track, but nonetheless offers enough stability to negotiate the course with confidence. Several runs with the front-wheel version reveal a spunky, balanced drive, in spite of its nose-heavy weight distribution. Thanks to careful suspension tuning, the CX-5 manages to perform better than most crossovers deserve to - and that's saying a lot, considering the recent crop of car-like offerings.

The only area we felt was lacking was the engine. While it achieves commendable fuel economy, this direct-injected 4-cylinder produces only 155 horsepower and 150 ft-lbs of torque, a modest amount that requires patience during the track's uphill stretches and straightaways.

On central California's mountainous roads near Laguna Seca, the CX-5 proved its mettle in real world surroundings. While its modest engine still leaves a little to be desired, this is a surprisingly satisfying car to drive aggressively, with generous grip and enough responsiveness to encourage quick driving on windy roads.

After several hours behind the wheel, the Mazda CX-5's quiet and nicely finished cabin made our mini-road trip all the more enjoyable. Considering it doesn't disappoint on the race track, holds its own on challenging roads, boasts up to 64.8 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seats folded and is capable of up to 35 mpg on the highway, we'd say the CX-5 is about as well-rounded as crossovers get.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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