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2019 Mazda CX-5 Review: Posh and Poised, But Tech Needs Tuning

Verdict: The CX-5 moves oh so close to premium with a new engine option and two fancier trim levels, but falls short due to the multimedia system’s lack of polish and a not-quite-premium ride.

Versus the competition: While less spacious than some rivals, the CX-5 offers higher style and head-of-the-class handling, even with the base engine. More available luxuries and an optional turbo engine sweeten the deal for 2019.

Mazda turns up the heat on its ambition to be a premium brand with not one but two new higher trim levels for the 2019 CX-5 compact SUV. Both new trims get the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine found in the Mazda6 sedan and CX-9 SUV.

The CX-5’s two new trim levels come on top of 2018’s Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trims: a Grand Touring Reserve and a new top-of-the-line Signature. The Signature gets every available feature, including the turbo engine and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. The Grand Touring Reserve is a sort of Signature Light, getting most of that trim’s features — plus the turbo and AWD — at a more midrange price for those who balk at the $5,000 jump from the Grand Touring to the near-$40,000 Signature. The Signature I tested came to $39,325, including Mazda’s flashiest red paint ($595) and a few add-on accessories, such as a cargo cover.

That’s rich for any mainstream compact SUV, but the CX-5 is not the only one in that realm. At a recent Cars.com comparison of seven fully loaded compact SUVs, both the Volkswagen Tiguan and Jeep Cherokee topped $40K, and the CX-5’s styling, interior and driving manners are more than a match for them. As for being a bargain alternative to luxury small SUVs, the new Signature trim level comes oh so close, but falls short in a few areas.

Exterior

If looking good is the first step on the road to a premium image, the CX-5 nails it. Its Mazda Kodo design, updated for a 2017 redesign, is refreshingly stylish — and not just against the low bar set by its compact SUV rivals. The Mazda’s dramatic, upright nose and large grille are underscored by a full-width “smile” of chrome trim that ties in the standard LED headlights. Shapely sculpting of the sides and liftgate works in a minimalist way, without superfluous decoration. The top three trim levels get 19-inch wheels, with handsome smoky chrome rims on the Signature; the 17-inchers on the two lower trims look a little lost in the CX-5’s large wheel openings.

Interior

The CX-5’s interior materials play above the price range, and the Signature adds a special feel with Nappa leather and authentic bits of wood trim. There are also upscale satin-finish accents, a quality headliner with wrapped pillars and a dash of piano black — all without overdoing it. The Signature mixes black with dark brown leather that’s almost black in some lighting, decidedly brown in others. It was just enough variation to relieve the monotony of all black, though the lighter option in other trim levels opens up the cabin more. I appreciated the interesting shapes and attention to detail on the interior, such as the air vents, knobs and switches (with the exception of the too-small volume knob). But you don’t have to spend Signature money to treat yourself to a quality cabin. Each trim level sports good design and materials that seem to give you a little extra. The interior is also very quiet, which adds to the sense of quality.

The front seats are comfortable and well-bolstered for lateral support. I appreciated the padded edge on the wide center console, where my knee rested. Some passengers found the front seat bases a little too bolstered; only your behind can judge. Heated and ventilated seats, as well as heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel, are standard on the top two trim levels and optional on the Grand Touring. Headroom is ample, even with the smallish rectangular moonroof.

Quality doesn’t fall in the rear seat, where you’ll find padded armrests and soft-touch finishes on the doors. While there’s plenty of headroom in back, legroom is just enough. With the driver’s seat in position for me, at 6-foot-2, I could sit behind it comfortably. There’s a high seating position back there and the seatback has a slight recline, but there was no leg space to spare as there is in rivals such as the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue.

The Skunk at the Premium Party

The CX-5’s new engine might be faster, but its multimedia system is still slow to start up, respond and move through menus. It takes more steps than it should for functions such as tuning, and the 7-inch display feels stingy in this age of 8-inchers and up — including in the latest Mazda6 sedan. The CX-5’s system detracts from the SUV’s otherwise upscale feel. New Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration helps, overcoming many of the system’s limitations by commandeering it with familiar phone interfaces, but you can’t get it on the base model.

Unlike some critics, I like the knob controller on the console. It’s better than trying to hit the right spot on a touchscreen in a moving car (the screen responds to touch only when the CX-5 is stopped). I would, however, like to see the shortcut buttons around the knob moved up by the screen; where they are now makes you look down from the road to hit the right button.

There’s a pair of USB ports in the front and two in the rear (except on the base trim level), but the placements are unusual. The front pair is in the storage bin at the rear of the center console under the armrest, but the device tray where I’d normally leave my phone is at the front, with only a 12-volt outlet. The backseat’s pair is in a mini console built into the fold-down center armrest. There’s also a shallow covered storage bin there that’s suitable for cables, plus cupholders and (in higher trim levels) the seat-heater switches. You’re out of luck if the middle seat is occupied, but I think the clever design is worth the trade-off (of course, I don’t regularly carry three in back). Wireless phone charging is not available.

A 360-degree camera system has been added for the Signature, along with front and rear parking sensors, but it has four less-than-seamless camera views that were less precise and useful than, for example, the new system in the Hyundai Tucson. And the backup camera lacks predictive grid lines that show where your fenders will go as the wheel is turned.

On the plus side for tech, the available head-up display is bright and sharp, including speed, safety, cruise control, navigation, and speed-limit and stop-sign information. A 7-inch configurable display sits between a pair of analog gauges, though the area actually devoted to configurable information is limited. Ten-speaker Bose premium audio is standard on the top three trim levels.

How It Drives

With the 2017 redesign, the CX-5 was already an upscale standout among rival compact SUVs, but as we noted in our 2017 Compact SUV Challenge, it was held back by the powertrain’s modest power and lack of refinement. That’s changed for 2019 thanks to an optional turbocharged 2.5-liter engine that’s good for 227 horsepower on regular gas (250 hp on 93-octane premium). The difference versus the standard high-revving 187-hp, 2.5-liter engine, which takes a heavy foot, is more than just some extra grunt at startup or in passing: While the turbo’s acceleration isn’t neck-snapping — it was less than I expected for its specs — its smooth power delivery with minimal lag and a nicer exhaust note transform the CX-5 experience. The base engine is competitive with rivals, but the turbo is for buyers looking for more than adequate. It’s standard on the top two trim levels, along with Mazda’s performance-enhancing torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system; the turbo isn’t available on other trims.

Both engines have a well-tuned and positive-shifting conventional six-speed automatic that’s more fun — and more pleasant — than the continuously variable automatics in rivals such as the CR-V and Rogue. But I wonder how much the experience would be improved by a well-sorted eight-speed, such as the excellent transmission in the Tiguan.

The turbo exacts a price at the pump, even if you don’t feed it premium. Turbo AWD CX-5s are EPA-rated 22/27/24 mpg city/highway/combined on regular gas, while the base engine delivers 26 mpg combined with AWD and 28 with FWD. Compare them here.

What hasn’t changed for 2019, regardless of engine or trim level, is the agile chassis that can make you (almost) forget you’re in an SUV. It handles well, with very good body control. The steering has smile-inducing precision and feel. Braking is strong and controlled, though the pedal feels a little soft on initial pressure. A trade-off for the controlled handling, however, is a firm ride, amplified by the 19-inch wheels and lower-profile tires on the top three trim levels. The ride may be too firm and busy on city streets for some, though I wasn’t put off by it.

Cargo and Interior Storage

Interior storage is average, with a large under-dash device tray, a covered center console bin and a large glove box, but small lower-door bins. Cargo space is adequate at 30.9 cubic feet behind the backseat and 59.6 with the rear backrests folded; that falls short of compact SUV leaders such as the Honda CR-V’s 39.2 and 75.8 cubic feet, respectively. Flexibility is enhanced, though, by a 40/20/40-split, folding backseat. A power liftgate is available, but hands-free operation is not.

Safety

The CX-5 has a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety thanks to top scores for crashworthiness and the best available headlights and front crash system. All other headlight systems, however, got the next-highest rating, as did the base forward collision warning system.

The base CX-5 Sport comes with a low-speed front collision system as well as blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. Optional on the base and standard otherwise is a more advanced collision system with pedestrian detection, as well as adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, automatic high beams, lane departure warning and lane keep assist. Notable versus many rivals, the CX-5 does not offer lane-centering steering assist or reverse automatic braking.

Families with small children should note that while the 2019 CX-5 handles safety seats for older children adequately, using a rear-facing infant seat requires moving the front passenger seat so far forward that most adults won’t fit comfortably. See our Car Seat Check here.

Value

While the new top trim levels are the shiny new toys in the lineup, the base CX-5 still offers stylish design and excellent driving manners. Pricing starts at $25,395 (all prices include destination) for the front-wheel-drive Sport — the same as a base Honda CR-V and less than an entry-level RAV4 ($26,595). Most buyers, however, will want to go a step up to the Touring, starting at $27,660, which adds many desirable features. The sweet spot for value, however, might be the Grand Touring, which starts at $31,090. It gets you a nicer interior with leather seats and a lot of features (even more if you add the $1,625 Premium Package), and it can be had with the more economical standard engine and front-wheel drive.

The new trims, with the standard turbo engine and all-wheel drive, are fancier and more fun, but they’re more expensive, both at the dealership (starting at $35,915 and $37,935) and at the pump. They make more sense if you’re also considering a premium SUV, coming much closer than previous CX-5s to making it seem dumb to spend more for a status brand, at least if conspicuous spending isn’t your thing.

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