A real car that looks and feels way more expensive than it actually is. A real car that drives better than the vast majority of non-performance, regular commuter cars out there, crossover or otherwise. A real car for real people that’s so attractive, so good that it makes you think, “Is this a scam?”
As far as I can tell, it’s not a scam. Just a great freakin’ deal.
2023 Mazda CX-5 Signature Review Specs
- Base price (Signature as tested): $27,975 ($42,795)
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | 6-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 227 @ 5,000 rpm on 87 octane (256 hp on 93 octane)
- Torque: 310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm (320 lb-ft on 93 octane)
- Curb weight: 3,856 pounds
- Seating capacity: 5
- Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
- Cargo volume: 30.0 cubic feet
- EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city | 27 highway | 24 combined
- Quick take: For the money, you can’t really find a crossover that’s much better.
- Score: 9/10
Slotting in between the three-row mid-size CX-9 (a vehicle that will soon be replaced by the upcoming CX-90) and the subcompact CX-30, the Mazda CX-5 is the Hiroshima automaker’s two-row compact crossover, competing against stuff like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, and Volkswagen Tiguan.
This generation of CX-5 may have been around since 2017, but, in my view, its design has aged gracefully. Modern car design often characterizes itself by being divisive, but evidently, nobody bothered to tell Mazda this. Aggressive yet elegant, striking but not flashy, the CX-5 is the compact crossover other compact crossovers tell their owners not to worry about. A subtle facelift in 2022 brought in a slightly different front bumper and revised head- and taillight signatures while this swanky Rhodium White Metallic color is new for 2023.
High-art car design extends into the cabin. Clean, classy, decently built, and comprised of what I’d declare as the most luxurious materials in this class, the Mazda CX-5 is a pleasure to sit in. All of the buttons and switches feel nice to use, and all of the knobs are shiny and knurled. Finishes are near-luxury grade—arguably even surpassing some lower-ranking so-called “luxury” brands out there. I’m a sucker for the gray wood trim that lines this Signature model and matches the floors of my apartment, while the restrained use of piano black, chrome, and subtly brown, stitched leathers are a real delight to behold. Attention to detail is high, with tiny stuff like seat adjustment switches that honestly would not look out of place at all in a Lexus or Acura product. Generous material choices extend to the back seat, too, with soft plastic adorning the tops of the doors.
Even the gauges and infotainment UI are pleasantly minimalist and look very high-end. Purely on aesthetics, I think Mazda’s software is among the prettiest-looking systems out there. The one big caveat with it, though, is that it isn’t a touchscreen. Exclusively controlled by a BMW iDrive-style knob complete with physical button shortcuts for the most important functions, it isn’t a bad input device after a short initial learning period. I completely understand why Mazda did this—using a touchscreen while driving is generally a bad idea—but it would have been nice if the thing still reverted to a touchscreen when the car is stationary à la Genesis.
Rear seats are fairly spacious for the class, with a huge space underneath the front seats that allow rear passengers to stick their feet in and really stretch out. Back seats are heated as well in trims Premium Plus Package and up, but the buttons to control these are located in the middle-seat flip-down armrest, which means you won’t be able to use them when rolling with a full house. Cargo capacity is appropriately generous, with the vehicle able to accommodate a six-drawer dresser with the seats folded during testing.
The CX-5’s upmarket engine is a 2.5-liter turbo-four making 227 horsepower and a more-than-healthy 310 lb-ft of torque on 87 octane fuel (i.e. the same amount of torque as a Honda Civic Type R). Spring for 93 octane and the CX-5 returns 256 hp and 320 lb-ft. All-wheel drive is standard across the board—as is the six-speed automatic—but less expensive models come with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter making 187 hp and 186 lb-ft.
Driving the Mazda CX-5
The CX-5 being tested here is the turbocharged model, of course. As the stats suggest, it packs more than adequate acceleration for normal driving. A sport mode tells the six-speed automatic transmission to hold gears longer, maintaining higher revs, at which point the 2.5-liter indeed sounds better and burlier than the comparatively droney, almost drole 2.0s that power most of this car’s rivals. (Although, admittedly, that’s not a very high aural bar to clear.) As a commuter mill, this engine is pretty great. Extremely quiet and smooth at idle, you’d almost think it was turned off while stopped at a light.
Par for the Mazda course, the CX-5’s handling impresses by segment standards. Don’t expect it to feel like a Hyundai Kona N-killing, out-and-out performance crossover—as it sits, it’s much too smooth and refined to qualify as that—but rather a regular car that drives extremely intuitively. The steering is well-calibrated and well-weighted while the brakes are easy to modulate and do not exhibit a whiff of sponginess. New G-Vectoring Control intelligently shifts torque around to minimize unnecessary inputs and driver fatigue. The ride is about as comfortable as any other crossover of this grade. Outside of ride height, there isn’t a lot in its drive that reminds you that you’re in a crossover rather than a sedan.
The CX-5 is certifiably not-bad when hucked around a twisty road, and feels about an alignment, loud exhaust, limited slip diff, and sticky set of tires away from being a Kona N-beating hot cross. Mazda just refuses to do the Mazdaspeed thing these days, though, and that’s a shame. This chassis feels inherently light and responsive, steering is positively solid, and the whole thing just feels quietly competent and reasonably nimble. A far cry from the relative snoozers that populate the rest of this segment.
Hell, it even has rear fender bulges you can see in the mirrors. Very Miata. Very sport.
The Highs and Lows
Fancy schmancy-feeling trim and an uncannily athletic driving demeanor add up to a car that feels way higher-end than it is—without being nearly as convoluted or overwhelmed with doodads as an actual modern luxury car. There are no 600-inch Hyperscreens or crystal-nub switch shifters to contend with here. Just a basic car with basic controls done extremely, extremely well. For crossover buyers who like to have nice things but also aren’t crazy about the image (or cost or complication) an actual luxury car might project, the CX-5 is kind of an ideal daily driver.
Those familiar with actual luxury cars, however, might be skeptical of the one less tangible aspect of the luxury car experience (other than badge clout, that is): sound insulation. Admittedly, the CX-5 probably isn’t quite as quiet inside as the equivalent Lexus or Mercedes but, to my ears, the difference is not night and day.
As good as the CX-5 is, though, there remain a few—albeit very minor—areas where things could be improved. The seat bottoms aren’t as cushy as they could be since my butt started to get slightly numb after about an hour of driving. Regular breaks on long trips (which you probably should be taking anyway to keep yourself mentally fresh) are recommended and an easy fix, though. I griped about this with the Subaru Forester so it’s only fair that I gripe about it here: the shift lever feels flimsy. The main backup camera display doesn’t appear to have the guiding lines that move as you steer despite there being some in the overhead view. Instead of a touch-sensitive handle, doors are unlocked from the outside via a little black button.
Finally and most irritatingly, the tailgate is powered but there’s no button that lets you close the tailgate and lock all doors while you’re at it like so many other vehicles do. You have to press the tailgate close button then, with a bunch of groceries in hand, walk all the way back to the driver’s door and press the black lock button on the door handle. Yes, you can set it so that the doors lock automatically when you walk away with the key fob, but my inherent trust issues prohibit me from relying on that without half-expecting the car to be gone the next morning.
Mazda CX-5 Features, Options, and Competition
The 2023 Mazda CX-5 starts at $27,975 for the base 2.5 S model but the top-of-the-line Turbo Signature car tested starts at $40,925. There’s quite an extensive trim walk with many price levels and options to choose from but features exclusive to the Signature include the swanky brown leather, what Mazda claims is genuine wood interior trim, and a 360-degree camera system. The Signature also appears to be the only CX-5 to come with body-colored fenders.
Competing products include the aforementioned Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Hyundai Tucson but also an entire laundry list of others like the Subaru Forester, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, and Kia Sportage. For what it’s worth, the CR-V, Tucson, and Sportage are significantly newer than the CX-5. I have personally driven the current-gen Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester and, on weeklong impressions alone, the Mazda easily trounces them both as an item I’d like to park in my garage and a car I’d actually want to drive every day.
Mazda’s compact crossover may be the most sporting of all the mainstream compact crossovers, but owners should be ready to pay a bit more at the pumps as a result. Per the EPA, the turbocharged CX-5 gets 22 mpg in the city, 27 on the highway, and 24 combined, which is consistently worse than its biggest counterparts from Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. After 460 test miles, I observed 21 mpg. An auto start-stop system works fairly well and is standard on all but the base trim.
Value and Verdict
It’s often said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but with the Mazda CX-5, I’d wager there is indeed such a thing. Compared to the relatively drab-looking, drab-driving, and similarly priced competition, I struggle to come up with reasons not to get this. What’s the catch here, Mazda? Is it longevity? Do the knurled knobs fall apart and the paint starts to fade at 50,000 miles or something?
Hopefully not, because the CX-5’s first impressions are mightily impressive. Its design and interior finishes feel about a full price bracket above its direct rivals while it drives with the competence and backroad fervor of a reasonably sporty sedan. An honest-to-god, near-luxury experience for a mainstream price, the Mazda CX-5 is a compelling daily driver for those who are realistic about their needs but refuse to give up on their wants: a genuinely nice car.
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