Mazda is trying to lasso luxury buyers again. That isn’t a news flash: The Japanese automaker mulled launching a separate luxury brand decades ago, and in subsequent years offered premium sedans like the 929 and Millenia. The push has returned of late with a new high-end trim level that now graces a few Mazda models. It’s called the Signature, a range-topping variant that debuted on the CX-9 SUV before spreading to the Mazda6 sedan and, eventually, the CX-5 SUV.
Signature editions boast Nappa leather upholstery, genuine wood trim and top powertrains. The most recent, and arguably most differentiated, example comes on the CX-5, whose Signature grade gets an exclusive new drivetrain option: a turbocharged diesel 2.2-liter four-cylinder, dubbed the SkyActiv-D, that adds $4,110 to the price. With a starting price of $42,045 including destination — well beyond the factory-loaded ceilings of popular models like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 — the diesel rockets the CX-5 Signature compact SUV into a luxury pricing orbit.
Does it have the high-end chutzpah to match its premium price? To find out, we stacked one up against one of our favorite entry-luxury SUVs, the Volvo XC40.
Although a few inches shorter, the XC40 has similar dimensions otherwise, including the wheelbase. Our example, a well-equipped 2020 XC40 T5 Inscription with all-wheel drive, checked in at $47,395 as-tested — just 7 percent more than our 2019 CX-5 Signature SkyActiv-D equipped with some $2,300 in extra options and accessories ($44,335).
Production Editor Brian Normile and I drove the two SUVs on back-to-back handling loops and assessed cabin quality and technology along with a roster of practical matters: cargo and passenger space, visibility, cabin storage, safety and more.
Our results aim not so much to show the strengths and failings of each SUV as our head-to-head contests usually do, but to determine whether the CX-5 makes the luxury grade, with the XC40 serving as a comparably priced reference. Because the winning formula for any luxury vehicle includes a healthy dose of universal qualities — things like visibility, passenger room and storage space — we delved into that, too.
Making the Grade
In terms of luxury features, the CX-5 has a lot going for it. Cabin materials are top-notch even for the price; the Nappa leather lives up to its high-grade reputation, and premium materials adorn most other surfaces. An important distinction: Signature grades exhibit little drop-off in materials quality once you get to the backseat, a cost-cutting measure in many of its non-luxury competitors. All told, it’s competitive with the XC40.
We also found no significant differences between two SUVs in other inherent basics. We judged little difference in cabin noise levels, handling, braking and visibility. The CX-5’s diesel four-cylinder (168 horsepower but 290 pounds-feet of torque) performed well enough versus the turbocharged four-cylinder in the XC40 that comparative drivetrain performance was a wash overall. (The Volvo revved more energetically, as to be expected from a gas engine, but the CX-5’s prodigious torque got the SUV moving sooner.) Connectivity features also tied, with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and HD radio standard in each SUV. The CX-5 offers a generous four USB ports — more than in most two-row SUVs, including the XC40 — plus a household-style outlet to boot, but it lacks wireless smartphone charging, a staple among luxury vehicles.
Mazda even excelled in some areas of testing that highlight an important quality about any vehicle, luxury or not: It should still function as intended. By our measurements, the CX-5 had more as-tested rear cargo space than the XC40; it also had remote levers in the cargo area to fold the 40/20/40-split backseat for additional ease of use. When it comes to our Car Seat Check, neither SUV did that well, but the CX-5 faltered less in our testing than the XC40.
In short, the CX-5 is a competent, premium-feeling SUV. It ticks a lot of boxes for what a luxury SUV should be.
The problem, though, is that the CX-5 merely checks most boxes instead of excelling in any or all of them. It has smartphone connectivity, but that comes from a 7-inch multimedia screen where 8 inches is more the price of entry, and many luxury models (including the XC40) have bigger displays. Seven inches is on the small side for most classes of vehicle; propped alone on the dashboard, the screen is surrounded by a bulky frame and looks extra-isolated. It’s also a touchscreen only when the car is stationary; when it’s in motion, you’re forced to use a clunky, unintuitive knob controller. Conversely, the XC40 has a 9-inch touchscreen with an intuitive setup that Volvo has refined since it debuted in the XC90 — a setup for which we had early praise.
Although materials are generally good, some surfaces in the CX-5 aren’t as padded or premium-looking as they should be. Leather quality notwithstanding, the seats feel short on cushioning and the cabin feels a bit cramped — a shortcoming noted in a recent Cars.com comparison of its own class. The XC40’s seats aren’t exactly a paragon of comfort, but they’re less constricting than the Mazda’s. And Volvo’s interior is rife with intelligent design touches — a removable center-console trash receptacle, a bag hook on the glove compartment door, little storage cubbies front and rear — that make it a better place to be. The CX-5 expends little effort to seem more functional or interesting.
Even though it has less cargo space than the Mazda, the XC40 has significant underfloor storage, with a cover that folds into a divider with grocery hooks. More than most of its luxury peers, Volvo’s SUV excels in surprise-and-delight features like these. The CX-5 lacks enough on that front.
Luxury cars tend to have more sophisticated ride quality and the CX-5’s suspension has a certain degree of polish, but it’s also just plain firm by any measure. Even without Volvo’s optional adaptive shock absorbers, our XC40 provided a controlled, comfortable ride. The CX-5, by contrast, felt needlessly busy.
More From Cars.com:
- Mazda Unveils 2019 CX-5 Signature Diesel: Premium Oil
- 2019 Mazda CX-5 Earns Sixth Straight Top Safety Award
- 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature: Luxury Contender or Pretty Good Pretender?
- 2019 Mazda CX-5 Adds Turbo Engine, New Trims
- 2019 Mazda CX-5: 10 Things We Like (and 4 Not So Much)
Is the CX-5 Signature Diesel a Luxury SUV?
Ultimately, the answer is a qualified no. This was an acid test for Mazda, pitting the CX-5 against a runner-up for Cars.com’s Best of 2019 award. Had we compared it against a lesser entry-luxury SUV — say, the Infiniti QX30, Lexus UX or outgoing Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class — the comparison would show the CX-5 in a better light. But, as the well-worn sports trope goes: To be the best, you have to beat the best. That the CX-5 put up a good fight shows its potential, but too many warts — some in light of what a luxury SUV should be, others that would be problems for any SUV — weigh it down.
The good news? Many of them are fixable without a full redesign. An overhauled multimedia system, softened ride and some interior tweaks could really launch the Signature grade into the compact luxury class of SUVs. For now, it remains merely a solid compact SUV with premium aspirations.
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