Now entering its third year of production, the 2015 Mazda CX-5 continues to climb the sales charts, quickly becoming one of the most well-reviewed and desirable compact crossover SUVs around. While the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 still dominate as sales-volume leaders, neither has the sporty handling or clean, uncluttered instrument panel of the CX-5, nor can they match its impressive highway fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon. The CX-5 is also one of the few crossovers that still offers the option of a manual transmission.

While we generally rave about the CX-5's styling, fuel economy and road manners, its standard 2.0-liter engine wouldn't be our first choice, although it's the only way to achieve the advertised 35-mpg fuel economy figure. Less anemic and only slightly less fuel-efficient is Mazda's 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine and 6-speed automatic transmission found in the Touring and Grand Touring trims. Supplying 29 more horsepower than the stock 2.0-liter, this engine is a much better fit and helps the CX-5 expand upon its zoom-zoom credentials.

What's New for 2015?

Mazda's advanced keyless entry feature is now standard on the Touring and Grand Touring trims.

What We Like

Affordable; fun to drive; good fuel economy; simple but elegant dash and instruments; supportive seats; Bose audio

What We Don't

Slightly underpowered base engine; manual transmission only offered on the base model; heated seats and side mirrors only available on most expensive trim; navigation option somewhat slow with poor voice-command functionality

How Much?

$22,375-$33,655

Fuel Economy

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 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the 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. All-wheel-drive (AWD) models have a slightly larger (by about half a gallon) fuel tank to help them achieve the same range as the front-wheel-drive (FWD) models.

Where the 2.0-liter engine sometimes 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.

Standard Features & Options

Mazda offers the CX-5 in three well-equipped trims: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. All three can be equipped with AWD, but only the front-drive Sport trim can be had with a manual transmission.

The CX-5 Sport ($22,375 in FWD and $25,025 in AWD) includes a 6-speed manual transmission, a 2.0-liter SKYACTIV engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, an AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers and USB audio input, cloth seating, auto-off headlights, intermittent wipers, an intermittent rear wiper/washer, keyless entry with push-button start, cruise control, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel with audio controls, a multi-information screen with a trip computer and power functions for the windows, door locks and mirrors.

The Touring trim ($25,795 in FWD and $27,045 in AWD) adds a 2.5-liter SKYACTIV engine, 6-speed automatic transmission with sport shift mode, advanced keyless entry and start, fog lights, a 6-way power driver's seat with manual lumbar support, a blind spot monitoring system, a 5.8-in full-color touchscreen display with a rear backup camera, an AM/FM/CD stereo with HD radio and six speakers, Pandora Internet Radio capability, Bluetooth, SMS text message delivery and reply, a voice-activated menu, rear privacy glass, upgraded cloth seats, a 40/20/40-split folding rear seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

The Grand Touring trim ($28,800 in FWD and $30,050 in AWD) adds leather seating, heated front seats, 19-in alloy wheels, Bose Centerpoint surround sound audio with nine speakers, a power glass moonroof, heated side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, an 8-way power driver's seat with power lumbar control, automatic headlights and SiriusXM Satellite Radio.

Optional equipment for the Sport trim includes the Bluetooth Audio package that adds Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, steering wheel controls, a color touchscreen with Pandora Radio capability, SMS text messaging and voice control. The Touring trim can be equipped with the Moonroof and Bose package, while both the Touring and Grand Touring trims offer a Technology package that adds TomTom navigation, Smart City Brake Support (SCBS), rain-sensing wipers, adaptive bi-xenon headlights and an auto-dimming mirror with HomeLink.

Safety

The 2015 Mazda CX-5's six airbags is a relatively low number compared with some current vehicles that carry as many as 10. Even so, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 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.

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 an anti-lock braking system. Mazda's Smart City Brake Support, which is part of the Technology package, 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.

Behind the Wheel

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 its 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.

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

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Escape -- The 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 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's Advice

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 FWD is the best value around. For those who want a fully upgraded AWD 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 and side mirrors.

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