The 2014 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover is a huge improvement over both the Mazda Tribute it replaces and the discontinued CX-7. Right off, we like the exterior styling that stays faithful to the Mazda corporate "face" with a sleek front end and deep air vents on the lower sides. There are three trim levels -- Sport, Touring and Grand Touring -- and, from first glance, the CX-5 gives you a let's-go-have-some-fun feeling.

Uninspired Within

Inside, the CX-5 has a few shortfalls. First, the front seats are really hard, and they have exposed seams that can be irritating to the touch. Also, the dashboard, control layout and overall personality of the CX-5 interior are mostly lackluster. This cabin simply doesn't generate the enthusiasm that the exterior of the vehicle does.

The interior is functional, but the audio system in the base Sport appears outdated. Available options bring some tech-savvy spirit to all the blandness, but this cabin still needs a significant makeover. There are such gadgets as a Bose Audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and a TomTom Navigation system, but they really aren't very well integrated.

The news is a little better in back, where there's a choice of folding rear seats. Upper trims get a convenient pass-through feature that allows skis or fishing rods while maintaining seating for two. Another nice touch is that the privacy screen over the cargo area moves up with the hatch when you open it.

Agile and Efficient

Two engines are available in the CX-5. There's a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder and a new 184-hp 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, which is the powertrain we recommend. The 2.0-liter engine is anemic compared to the 2.5 and struggles to reach highway speeds when carrying several people and their cargo. Front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are available and, depending on the trim level, there's a choice of manual or automatic transmission, too.

Designed with Mazda SKYACTIVE technology, the CX-5 delivers a spirited, carlike driving experience and plenty of agility, all without a fuel economy penalty. It may be the best handling, most fuel-efficient crossover out there.

Fuel economy for the CX-5 is quite good, ranging from the 2.5-liter's 24 miles per gallon city/30 mpg hwy to the 2.0-liter's impressive 26 mpg city/35 mpg hwy.

Affordably Priced

The price of admission is just over $21,000 for the entry-level Sport, making it a budget-friendly crossover. The redesigned Ford Escape is the closest CX-5 competitor, and the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Chevy Equinox match up closely, too.

The Final Say

The 2014 Mazda CX-5 is a real player in the compact utility category, with its good looks and fuel-sipping ways. There isn't much excitement inside the CX-5 cabin, but if you can get over that, there's some serious bang for your buck once you turn the key and drop it into gear.

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Jessica Shea Choksey is an automotive journalist and former writer/reporter for the PBS/Discovery Channel television series "MotorWeek." She began her career in journalism as an editor for numerous magazines and publications mainly outside of the automotive field. Jessica currently resides with her family, in Southern California.

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