Pros: Affordable; fun to drive; good fuel economy

Cons: Lackluster interior; uncomfortable front seats; slightly underpowered base engine; manual transmission only offered on the base model

What's New: The 2014 Mazda CX-5 adds a 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine to the Touring and Grand Touring trims. The new engine offers more horsepower and torque than the 2.0-liter engine, which is still standard on the Sport trim. Also new is Mazda's Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) collision mitigation system.

When it launched the CX-5 last year, Mazda's newest compact SUV was hailed as the long overdue replacement for the aging Mazda Tribute and the now discontinued Mazda CX-7. While critics generally raved about the CX-5 model's styling, fuel economy and road manners, its standard 2.0-liter engine was roundly panned as being somewhat anemic. Mazda has remedied this problem by replacing the 2.0-liter engine in the Touring and Grand Touring trims with an all-new 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine touting 184 hp (29 more horses than the 2.0-liter) and standard 6-speed automatic transmission.

Mazda built the CX-5 from the ground up to be as efficient as possible while maintaining the brand's fun-to-drive mentality. In this regard, they have succeeded admirably. The CX-5 sits at the top of the list in handling among small crossovers and delivers the best fuel economy in the category. In fact, it delivers some of the best fuel economy we've seen, even compared with some smaller vehicles.

While its interior is Spartan, reflecting Mazda's focus on simplicity, and lacks a bit on comfort, the overall CX-5 package is satisfying in all the right ways. Essentially staking its future on the CX-5 and on the growing popularity of small crossovers in general seems to have paid off, as Mazda says the 2013 CX-5 made up 15 percent of last year's total sales.

Comfort & Utility

We tested two CX-5 models: a CX-5 Sport with manual transmission and front-wheel drive ($21,990) and a fully loaded top-of-the-line CX-5 Grand Touring with automatic transmission and all-wheel drive ($30,785). Both provided generally comfortable rides, striking a good balance between nimble sportiness and supple cruising. After a week of driving both, including one 3-hour highway drive in the Grand Touring, the front seats were the only comfort gripe we developed. Overly hard with pronounced seatback seams, they left our hindquarters numb and shoulder blades rubbed raw. If we owned this vehicle, we'd have to invest in a good set of comfortable seat covers.

The CX-5 Sport interior suffers from a serious case of oversimplicity, especially with the low-end stereo system. Looking across the dash is an uninspiring endeavor. Given that the exterior of the CX-5 is aggressive, sporty, modern and even breathtaking from some angles, it's a shame the same emotion doesn't translate to the inside. Upgrading to the touchscreen information and entertainment system and dual-zone climate control on the Grand Touring is a bit of an improvement, but it does little to help the situation given that the upgraded components are still wrapped in the same blandness as the low-end components. Even so, the CX-5 model's interior is certainly functional and offers enough nooks and crannies to stow most readily needed gear -- that's more than can be said for the 2014 Ford Escape -- and is generously supplied with soft-touch materials.

In the rear, the hatch has a couple of functional Easter eggs that are likely to make a positive difference in daily use. I like the way the privacy screen can be attached to the rear gate and lift with it as the gate opens, allowing excellent access to the hatch without having to remove and/or stow the privacy screen. The second row of seats is offered in two folding configurations: the 60/40 split (standard on the Sport) and the 40/20/40 split (standard on the Grand Touring). Of the two, the 40/20/40 split offers an ingeniously functional middle pass-through that allows for the storage of long items such as skis or studs while maintaining the use of both 2-row seats.

Technology

The CX-5 lacks a bit in technology in comparison to rivals such as the Ford Escape or even the Honda CR-V. However, at the more than affordable base price of around $22,000 and fully topping out at around $31,000, the CX-5 is not pretending to be anything it's not. The base stereo found on the Sport is passably modern (even though it looks like it came directly from the 1990s) and can connect to a smartphone to play back music, including a Pandora stream, but that's about it. As you walk up the trims from Sport to Touring to Grand Touring, added standard features and available options include blind spot monitoring, a 5.8-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, a Bose surround sound audio system, a rearview camera, a TomTom navigation system, adaptive bi-xenon front headlights, keyless entry and remote start. While all the elements are there to make the fully upgraded CX-5 tech package feel modern, they aren't well integrated and come off looking like last year's model.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Mazda3 was the first vehicle to contain some of Mazda's new SKYACTIV design philosophy. Now, the CX-5 is the first Mazda to fully embody it. Mazda explains SKYACTIV as melding efficiency and fun by removing unnecessary weight, using high-strength steel to increase rigidity, creating engines that explore the boundaries of efficiency while remaining spirited and designing transmissions that transfer energy from the engine to the wheels in the most direct way possible.

Combined, these elements should result in cars that handle splendidly, accelerate smoothly and quickly and sip fuel. If the Mazda CX-5 is a sign of what's to come from the SKYACTIV philosophy, the future of the brand appears quite bright. The ultimate benefit of merging all the SKYACTIV elements in the CX-5 is that when the stiff, lightweight frame is combined with either the 155-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine or the more powerful 184-hp 2.5-liter unit and efficient transmissions the car returns some incredibly good mileage while remaining very fun to drive.

The CX-5 with the 2.0-liter engine and 6-speed manual transmission is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at an already high 26 miles per gallon city/35 mpg highway, but in a week of testing, our CX-5 Sport with manual transmission returned an average of 32 mpg city/38 mpg hwy. Those numbers would be considered good even for a front-wheel-drive compact car with a smaller engine. The addition of all-wheel drive and an automatic transmission hurts fuel economy a bit, as should be expected; the EPA rates that configuration at 25 mpg city/31 mpg hwy. AWD models have a slightly larger (about half a gallon) fuel tank to help them achieve the same range as the FWD models.

Where the 2.0-liter engine sometime strains and struggles to reach cruising speeds above 65 miles per hour, the 2.5-liter motor has no such trouble. With only a modest reduction in fuel economy (25 mpg city/32 mpg hwy with FWD and 24 mpg city/30 mpg hwy with AWD) we think this is definitely the right engine/transmission combo for the CX-5, especially if additional passengers or heavy equipment are to be a part of the car's regular driving routine.

Safety

The 2014 Mazda CX-5 model's six airbag complement is relatively low compared with some current vehicles that carry as many as ten. Even so, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the CX-5 its highest rating of Good for frontal offset and side impact crash tests, roof strength and rear crash protection and named it a Top Safety Pick.

With impressive handling capability, the CX-5 responded deftly to simulated emergency maneuvers including high-speed lane switching, dodging obstacles and emergency braking, both on the highway and in town. Although it doesn't have some of the more high-tech handling features of some competitors, the CX-5 does have today's standard assortment of traction control, dynamic stability control and ABS.

For those CX-5 models equipped with a manual transmission, standard hill launch assist ensures there will be no rolling backward while you search for first gear while accelerating from a stop on a hill. Optional blind spot monitoring and rearview camera help counteract the CX-5 model's somewhat significant blind spots.

New for 2014 is Mazda's Smart City Brake Support (SCBS), which is part of the Technology Package. SCBS is designed to operate at low speeds between three and 19 mph and uses a laser sensor mounted at the top of the windshield to detect objects in the vehicle's path. The system can help prep the brakes for emergency stops, or, if the driver fails to slow the vehicle in time to avoid a collision, SCBS will activate an automatic braking system.

Driving Impressions

We found the CX-5 to be the best-handling small crossover currently on the market. The steering is light and direct but not too twitchy for everyday driving. It feels planted during hard cornering and seems to follow the driver's will accurately. The CX-5 is comparable to many smaller and more tuned sports cars in overall feel, which is quite an accomplishment for a vehicle of this size and stature. While the 2.0-liter engine was occasionally a bit underpowered -- namely on steep uphills and while passing at highway speeds -- it has plenty of low-end grunt to get up and go. Although power really kicks in when the engine revs above 3,000 rpm, the CX-5 has no problem pulling around town at 1,100 to 1,200 rpm in the highest gear, thanks in part to the excellent transmissions. The 2.5-liter showed a much more aggressive side, although it still doesn't have the punch found with many V6 and turbocharged SUVs.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Escape: Completely redesigned last year, the 2014 Ford Escape has never been better. Its handling is close to that of the CX-5. With multiple engine choices and a much more modern interior and technology package, the Escape is the CX-5 model's strongest competitor.

Honda CR-V: As the small-crossover class leader, the CR-V certainly has its share of fans and is value packaged, but it lacks fun and personality and doesn't handle nearly as well as the Mazda.

Subaru Forester: The Forester is all-new for 2014, comes standard with AWD and has better fuel economy than the AWD CX-5, plus the Forester can be had with a turbocharged engine.

Chevrolet Equinox: The Equinox has been around for some time now and is starting to look a bit long in the tooth. Although it's well designed and has been rated as a solid performer, the Equinox suffers on the fuel economy front.

AutoTrader Recommends

If you're looking to spend as little money as possible on a great-handling, incredibly fuel-efficient and functional small crossover, the base CX-5 Sport with manual transmission and front-wheel drive is the best value around. For those who want a fully upgraded all-wheel-drive vehicle that still returns pretty amazing fuel economy but can handle not having all the latest technology, the CX-5 Grand Touring is also a relative bargain. While we like the Touring trim's smaller wheel size and cloth seats, its unfortunate buyers have to move to the Grand Touring to get such desirable features as heated seats.

AutoTrader

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