2019 Mazda CX-5 First Drive Review

Mazda takes a giant step up with the 2019 CX-5 crossover

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 is the best example yet of how Mazda is working to become a premium brand.
The 2019 Mazda CX-5 is the best example yet of how Mazda is working to become a premium brand.
The 2019 Mazda CX-5 is the best example yet of how Mazda is working to become a premium brand.

Highs

  • Powerful and responsive turbocharged engine
  • Upgraded suspension delivers a solid, sporty ride
  • New interior trim steps up quality
  • Upgrades to Mazda’s Predictive AWD
  • New G Vectoring Control Plus

Lows

  • Big engine available only in the top trims

If there’s one thing you can say about Mazda, it’s that this company isn’t afraid to take a big risk. Back in 1989, the conventional wisdom said that there was no market for a two-seat, small displacement convertible sports car, but Mazda brought out the Miata and created a legend. Even farther back, Mazda gambled on being different with the rotary engine, and made it work for decades.

That spirit is still alive, and the niche automaker from Hiroshima has now stated its most audacious goal ever. Mazda plans to become a premium brand, in the class of Acura, Lexus, Infiniti, and so on. That’s a tough goal, and most automakers (like all those others listed) take a handy shortcut by creating a new brand with a fresh upscale image. Mazda’s plan is to do it with the name it has.

That’s great, but this is a first drive review of an SUV, right? The compact crossover SUV is the bread and butter family wagon of our era, and Mazda made its reputation on sports cars, so what are we really talking about? To put it simply, if you’re going to go big you might as well do it with the car that the most people are going to buy. When you experience the 2019 CX-5, you can see where Mazda’s going because it is definitely a solid cut above the economy brands. Whether it can compete with the premium Japanese brands or the Europeans remains to be decided.

The basics of the new CX-5 are easy. This is a mid-cycle update, and Mazda has updated some underlying functions across all trims, and added two new trim levels and a new engine package to the existing vehicle. The big news is that the new Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trims bring premium-grade luxury and the 2.5-liter turbocharged engine previously offered in the mid-size CX-9 SUV and Mazda6 sedan to the CX-5.

The starting price for the Sport trim front-wheel-drive CX-5 with a normally aspirated engine will be $25,345 inclusive of destination fees. All trims are available with all-wheel-drive for an additional $1,400. The top Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trims include all-wheel-drive and the turbocharged engine, retailing for $35,865 and $37,885 respectively.

Interior and exterior design

The CX-5 is a good-looking SUV, and reflects Mazda’s obsession with design. The CX-5 retains the Mazda product family look with lithe and sinuous shapes that derive from the company’s Kodo design language. You don’t have to sacrifice interior space or accessibility to get a sexy look with the CX-5.

If you are using Mazda’s native navigation system, you can use CarPlay or Android at the same time to play music or exchange text messages.

New for 2019, Mazda is putting LED headlights and a roof-spoiler on all CX-5 trims as standard equipment. New exterior features on the top trims include 19-inch wheels, a new sunroof, and power-folding mirrors.

If you buy the more basic trims, you’ll get the standard Mazda interior, which is functional and business-like. There’s no effort for those trims to be more than they are, and they didn’t try to fake anything with cheap bling. Leather upholstery starts in the existing Grand Touring trim, but the models you want to check out are the new Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trims. Grand Touring Reserve gets front seat ventilation in addition to heated front and rear seats. The steering wheel is heated, too. The top Signature trim gets soft Nappa leather upholstery and layered wood trim in addition to all the heat and ventilation features.

2019 Mazda CX-5 First Drive
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

There’s a long list of all the little touches you get in the new luxury trims, but the ones that stand out are the frameless rear-view mirror, LED interior lighting, and Mazda’s Active Driving Display head-up system. You may have seen the Mazda’s first HUD before with a little screen that pops up on the dash, but the new one projects up onto the windshield like all premium brands do.

The CX-5 feels spacious inside. It offers 30.9 cubic feet behind the second-row seats, and 59.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. Headroom, hip and shoulder space, and knee room are not noticeably different from other contenders in the category.

Tech features

Mazda has also spent some time working the tech side, and it needed to make this effort. The CX-5 is late to the party with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, but Mazda makes up for that by allowing the phone-based apps to be compartmented with respect to the native functions. What that means is that if you are using Mazda’s native navigation system, you can use CarPlay or Android at the same time to play music or exchange text messages. That’s not the case with most vehicles.

The basic display is a 7.0-inch touchscreen, mounted high on the dash for visibility. Mazda doesn’t make you use the touchscreen, however. There’s a rotary dial-and-click interface on the console as well. Mazda’s engineers stated that it takes a couple weeks of ownership to really get used to the dial functions, but that once mastered they are quicker and safer than using the touchscreen. The screen is also used for the newly available 360º bird’s eye view monitor included at the Signature trim level.

The driver’s gauge display also gets a 7.0-inch screen this year, and this is included at the Grand Touring trim level and higher. This screen replaces the center gauge and is configurable with several different displays. The fuel, temperature, and tachometer gauges on the sides remain mechanical.

Driving impressions

To test the 2019 CX-5, we went north to Whistler, British Columbia, because the turbo engine isn’t the only news on this SUV. Mazda has also updated the i-ACTIV AWD system and the CX-5’s G Vectoring Control system.

The i-ACTIV system uses vehicle slope monitoring, outside temperature, wiper status, and wheel speed to predict icy conditions.

The turbocharged engine is included in the Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trim levels, and not available apart from those trims. The new engine is rated at 310 pound-feet of torque and 250 horsepower when running on 93-octane gasoline. You’ll get 227 hp if you run the CX-5 on 87-octane regular, which is nice because it gives you a choice. As Mazda’s chief engineer Dave Coleman said, “if you can’t buy 93-octane where you live, you’ll get something between 227 and 250 hp.”

All CX-5 models include a six-speed automatic transmission, but the turbo six-speed is different from the basic one. Mazda engineers told us they optimized the gear ratios to work with the torque from the turbo engine. The short answer to the question in your mind right now is yes, it works. This SUV doesn’t need more gears.

The CX-5 turbo drives like it has a big V6 under the hood. Mazda’s engineers did their homework and came up with an ingenious solution to achieve that. Where other automakers have gone to twin-scroll turbos as a compromise to reduce turbo lag, Mazda’s system uses several small exhaust ports that function like putting your thumb over the end of a garden hose to increase flow velocity. That spins up the turbo right off of idle. Then the main exhaust flow takes over and keeps the boost going.

2019 Mazda CX-5 First Drive
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

An added advantage of this design is that it encourages more complete exhaust scavenging from the cylinders, increasing engine efficiency. You’ll experience this as smooth, effortless power from a standing stop because all 310 lb-ft. of torque are available by 2,000 rpm. Honestly, you can forget you’re driving a turbocharged vehicle.

The other thing you can forget about is Mazda’s predictive i-ACTIV all-wheel-drive. This system has been sharpened and updated to be better than before. Around Whistler, we were variously driving over loose snow, packed snow and ice, and wet pavement. The CX-5 responded to all of it like we were on new pavement in the summertime. The i-ACTIV system uses a combination of vehicle slope monitoring, outside temperature, wiper status, and wheel speed to predict icy conditions, and pre-engages the rear wheels to ensure smooth traction.

There’s none of that tinny, bouncy feeling that you can find in economy crossovers.

Another upgrade has been made to Mazda’s industry-exclusive G Vectoring Control system. This feature reduces engine torque output very slightly as the driver tips into steering. It’s like a featherweight touch of the brakes going into a curve. The effect shifts weight forward onto the front wheels to deliver a crisper turn-down at speed. The new feature that makes this system into GVC+ is that Mazda has added a little brake drag on the outside front wheel as you exit a corner.

This all helps reduce power-on understeer. You’ll never feel any of this happening. You’ll just notice that the CX-5 is little more precise and responsive in its handling than other SUVs.

The last thing to mention is that all 2019 CX-5 models receive new front suspension geometry, new dampers, and new top mounts for the front struts to give the vehicle a flatter cornering attitude and better weight transfer characteristics. What you’ll perceive is that the CX-5 rides like a much more expensive SUV than it is. There’s none of that tinny, bouncy feeling that you can find in economy crossovers, nor any of the wallowing in corners you can find in some luxury models. It turns out there are advantages to building sports cars for decades.

Lastly, the CX-5 with the turbo engine has to give up something, but it’s only a few mpg. EPA estimates are that the turbo trims with AWD will return 22 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. The best the CX-5 gets with front-wheel drive and the base engine is 25 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.

Rivals

The CX-5 competes in a crowded field, including the segment’s top sellers from Honda and Toyota. But a quick test drive will show that the CX-5 stands well above the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, or even the Nissan Rogue. The base prices on all these vehicles are about the same, and while the new trim levels of the CX-5 take the top price higher on the Mazda, you’ll get something for your money.

More interestingly, the top CX-5 price is comparable to the starting price of premium competitors such as the Infiniti QX50, Lexus RX350, and Acura RDX. While all of these offer more horsepower than the Mazda, perceived performance is comparable and only the Infiniti offers all-wheel drive at a comparable price to the Mazda. The Lexus and the Acura include all-wheel drive, but at a higher price.

Peace of mind

Mazda’s basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles, but the powertrain warranty is for five years or 60,000 miles. Additionally, every new Mazda is eligible for a three-year, 36,000-mile roadside assistance program. Additionally, Mazda products routinely earn Top Safety Pick or better ratings from IIHS.

The standard advanced safety features on the 2019 CX-5 include blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, and low-speed smart city braking support. More safety features are available in various trim levels, including adaptive headlights and high beam control, lane departure warning and lane keeping assistance, smart brake support automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality.

How DT would configure this car

The base CX-5 is a good SUV, and most people would be happy with whatever trim level they can afford. That being said, the turbo engine and i-ACTIV AWD system are what puts this SUV ahead of the crowd, so the Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trims are the vehicles to have. The price difference between those trims is $2,000, and the top Signature trim adds only the wood trim, Nappa leather, special steering wheel, frameless rear view mirror, and the 360º bird’s eye monitor. It’s easy to justify either decision; it just depends on how much luxury matters to you.

Conclusion

The 2019 CX-5 is a watershed vehicle for Mazda. Because it’s by far the company’s biggest seller in North America, this SUV matters more than the Mazda6 mid-size sedan or the Mazda3 compact in establishing Mazda’s claim to compete with the premium brands. But that’s where it’s going. If past performance is an indicator of future prospects, Mazda may surprise the world again.

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