Behind the Wheel

2020 Mazda CX-5 Review: A two-row crossover that makes an engaging, budget-friendly statement

The 2020 Mazda CX-5 has a lot to like.

Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

These days, just about every carmaker sells a whole range of crossovers. There's a simple explanation for it of course: people buy them by the truckload. But strip the badging off and line them all up and it'll be hard to tell them apart.

To the non-enthusiast, the Ford whatsit is just like the Chevy whatsit which looks like the Honda whatever or is that the Toyota whatever? I can't tell.

They're alike on the inside, too. Steering wheel, high seating position, all-wheel drive (maybe), some luxury accoutrements depending on where it fits in the segment, leather, rinse, repeat.

2020 Mazda CX-5The model's sculpted exterior is most different from other crossovers at the front, but it's back is not unattractive.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Does it matter which one you buy? At once, absolutely and absolutely not. The Ford whatsit you wouldn't hate having might come from a great dealer, in which case, go buy that. Or Kia might have a great Cyber Wednesday deal running or you might inexplicably like the shift knob in the BMW X# Competizione M Sport GranTurismo and that's what turns your head.

Or maybe you just want a crossover with luxury features that's comfortable, has terrific handling and performance, and great design, in which case you should head straight to your local Mazda dealer and plunk down thirty-thousand-and-something dollars for a Mazda CX-5 and skip all the other stuff. That's what I'd do.

Mazda is the rare carmaker that makes excellent vehicles across the entire range, so you can't go wrong. My tester CX-5 came in an intoxicating Soul Red Crystal Metallic with a Caturra Brown interior. I don't know what makes Soul Red different from regular red, or what a Caturra is, but Mazda's built a fetching crossover. The new Mazda3 is a looker and the CX-5 has the same lineage.
It's aggressive but not shouty, taut but not tense. It's sporty and luxurious. It's driver-focused but refined for everyone else too. It is, to put a point on it, all things to all people.

Except for that infotainment screen. It's a weak point, I'll admit — and so will Mazda, I suspect. It sticks out of the center of the dash, which is fine. It's a good size, and Apple CarPlay looks great on it. You can just reach it, but it's not a touch screen (except when it is). And the stock infotainment system is incredibly annoying.

2020 Mazda CX-5The touch points of the CX-5 tester were more premium than the price of the SUV would let on.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Generally you control it with a knob and button setup down in the center console behind the shifter (the volume knob is down here too, which is annoying for five minutes and then kind of delightful). It's not the best way to control an interface, but it's serviceable and much preferred to the horrendous touchpad that Lexus insists on installing in all its vehicles these days. But then, once in a while, and only in CarPlay, it works as a touchscreen. But not always.

Yet, this is a mere quibble because the rest of the car is fantastic. My tester priced out at $38,655 in the Signature trim and is filled with nearly every feature on my must-have list, including 360-degree camera, parking sensors, heated and ventilated front seats (and heated rear seats, too), a terrific heads-up display, adaptive cruise, an active lane-keeping assist, and a bunch more.

The Signature also includes standard AWD and a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 250-horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque engine, and is a total peach. It even runs on standard fuel, although derated to 227 horsepower. Fuel economy with the bigger engine is hurt a little bit, running 22 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, while the smaller non-turbo variant that comes standard in the CX-5 runs 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque but at 24/30 city/highway with all-wheel drive.

2020 Mazda CX-5Buttons, knobs, and the steering wheel are all easy to reach from the driver's seat.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

A few weeks ago, I tested a 2019 Mazda3 hatchback around the racetrack at the Monticello Motor Club and it was a riot. A note to those who love powerful cars: it's way more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. The Mazda3 was controllable and predictable — exactly what you want in a performance vehicle, and the CX-5 has the same sort of feel. It's much more car than SUV, and in this trim, is part sports car too.

It reminds me of a budget Porsche Macan a bit. Sporty luxury with quality and refinement to spare, only at a much more reasonable price. All those other crossovers might seem basically the same, but the CX-5 stands out. I guess that's why Mazda is selling so many of them.

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The CX-50 is surpsingly capable off-road.

Mazda

I have driven all of the Mazda vehicles that have been sold in the US market over the past three decades. On everyday roads and on racetracks. I’ve appreciated their “zoom-zoom”. Good power. Punchy torque just where it was needed. Well-balanced and sporty handling. A bit of growl for the versions that called for it. Plus, tasteful-but-modest styling and more or less elbow room, depending on the model. Mazda’s have been made for sports-car enthusiasts and to ferry families. But, I had never known a Mazda called an “overlander”. Until now.

2023 Mazda CX-50Towing capacity extends to 2,000 pounds.Mazda

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 moves this traction-sophisticated automaker into the lands where the pavement ends and now takes the brand ‘off-track’. Although it’s not a new thing for many of today’s carmakers to add a backcountry model or two to their lineup, it’s new for Mazda. I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to check out this all-new crossover built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform that is shared with the smaller CX-30. This 5-passenger utility is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5 that rides on the previous generation’s underpinnings. The CX-50 has been crafted with a roomier second row and more cargo room for the goods and gear that weekend warriors and adventurers want to carry.

The CX-50 comes with a choice of two engines: a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter turbo-charged powerplant with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; both shift through a six-speed automatic transmission. The sport ute can tow up to 2,000 lbs. with the naturally aspirated motor and up to 3,500 lbs. with the turbo-charged mill and Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) that brings a tow mode as well as Normal, Sport and Off-Road. The newest Mazda model has been made for North America only and is built in Alabama. It is the first Mazda vehicle with auto start/stop that can be deactivated.

2023 Mazda CX-50Mazda is a master of upscale interiors. Mazda

The new crossover starts at $26,800 and comes in S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus with the base motor. Turb-charged versions come in Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus that tops out at close to $42,000. A long list of technology and safety features are standard or available. Mazda says that Meridian, a fourth turbo trim will arrive soon with even more off-road cred; it will be set up with 18-inch black wheels AT, hood graphics and other backcountry goodies.

When you look at the CX-50, the first thing you’ll notice is exterior styling that speaks to its adventure-ready mission. Muscular bodywork, such as extra cladding, wide fender flairs and larger, more aggressive tires mean that this crossover has been designed not only to give a nod to the looks of a rugged crossover but to provide enhanced traction and a tad more suspension stretch for motoring over uneven terrain and along bumpy dirt roads. Planted on its haunches with functional air vents, it eschews minivan styling with a low and wide footprint that allows owners to have easy access to high-strength roof rails for loading gear on top; the roof has been made stronger than other Mazda crossovers to accommodate heavier loads, such as a roof-top tent. A panoramic moonroof- a first for Mazda- and attractive antiglare hood graphics and are tasteful additions.

The interior is attractive and roomy, with horizontal lines and “cleanable” surfaces as a nod to outdoor endeavors. Our Turbo Premium Plus model had bright orange reverse stitching that popped the cabin that has been crafted with uplevel trims and materials and brought heads-up display. A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch version. A wireless charging pad and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. Of note, is the rear power and programmable liftgate to the wide and deep rear cargo compartment, with a load floor that flush with the liftgate opening to help slide heavy items in and out of the back. An available line of cargo accessories makes stowage easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 is family roadtrip ready.Mazda

How did it handle over the 200-plus miles of our ride and drive? The Turbo Premium Plus CX-50 offers a lot like; many of its driving attributes are consistent with Mazda’s tuning and handling priorities across its product line. Traveling along coastal highways, carving mountainous twisties with tight turns and accelerating on flat and straight well-graded pavement, it has great Mazda manners: i.e., there is enough power and torque in the right bandwidth to move it well; precise steering with a slightly heavily-weighted leather-wrapped steering wheel and well-modulated brakes, especially with towing a 3,500-lb. load. We enjoyed using Sport mode for carving corners, as it brings elongated shifts from the six-speed automatic; a crisp response comes when sport shifting in “manual mode” and provides a quick throttle response.

We tried out the Off-Road mode on a course that included flat and uneven dirt roads, as well as hill climb and descent. Although there is no downhill descent control system, the brakes worked well, along with manual gearing. Of note, Mazda would be wide to add downhill descent engineering for steeper and slicker terrain. We were able to test the difference between Normal and Off-Road over a special section of the course with sandy corners and a winding track at a speed of 30 mph showing the improved traction in the Off-Road programming and the aid of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that brings a bit of magic to transfer torque to the wheels where it is needed to keep the intended track-think of it like an enhanced traction control program that helps with steering and yaw control.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 comes with off-road driving modes. Mazda

Other aids for off-road and backcountry travel are: the i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system that is standard equipment on all CX-50s, with a 50/50ish power transfer front to back; 8.6 inches of ground clearance; an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle; and an optional 360-degree camera system.

*EPA reports: base motor fuel economy 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option gets 23/29 mpg and can run on regular or premium fuel.

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The IIHS may increase the speeds it uses to test advanced driver aids.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently announced that it is considering changing the speeds it uses to test vehicle-to-vehicle front crash prevention systems. The agency currently tests the systems at 12 and 25 mph, but says that the speeds don't accurately represent the types of crashes the safety tech is meant to prevent.

Front crash preventionwww.youtube.com

Automatic emergency braking (AEB) is designed to notify of a possible collision and help respond with automatic application of braking. Just like a human using the brake pedal, it can stop the car, but higher speeds make it difficult to stop in time. The new tests would be conducted at 35 to 45 mph, which is the range where a large number of rear-end crashes occur. As Automotive News noted, an IIHS study showed 43 percent of rear-end crashes occur at speeds of 45 mph or less, so it's important to have a test that shows how well the tech performs at those levels.

A whopping 85 percent of 2022 vehicles earned a "Superior" rating in the current testing regime, so the IIHS will remove it from 2023 testing and Top Safety Pick award evaluations. Their view is that, since the majority of vehicles meet the criteria, it's no longer an accurate way of evaluating performance. In its place, the agency introduced a night test for automatic emergency braking systems that will begin next year.

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