2019 Mazda CX-5 Review: Best Compact SUV Gets Turbo, CarPlay

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Mazda pulls away from the competition with the midlife refresh of the CX-5 compact SUV for 2019. This is the only compact sports crossover you can buy for less than $40,000 fully equipped, with all-wheel-drive, turbo motor, room for four adults, and a quiet, upscale interior. For 2019, the third year of the current-generation of Mazda’s best-seller, it finally integrates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto after two years of promises.

At the same time, Mazda quietly offers a complete safety suite — just without a catchy name, which Honda and Toyota have — standard except on the entry model (where it’s optional): adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, emergency collision warning, and braking. A loaded Signature edition CX-5 at $38K still comes in five grand less than a stripped Audi Q5 or BMW X3. All this from Japan’s second-smallest carmaker.

To Mazda, the CX-5 is the company: One of every two Mazdas sold in the US this year will be a CX-5, nearly 150,000 of them in all, and Mazda may sneak past 300,000 total sales on Dec. 31. Every automaker talks the talk about class-above features, meaning nicer leather than you expect, or plastic trim that doesn’t look plastic-y. Mazda walks the walk, too. It is a premium car that sells for $25,345 (front-drive CX-5 Sport, including shipping) to $37,885 (loaded all-wheel-drive CX-5 Signature). The average selling price of a new car this year is around $36,000 and few offer Mazda’s driving dynamics. This from a company where the chief development engineer in the US used to be a journalist. Really. (And a racer and car nut, too.)

I tested an early production 2019 CX-5 in the snow, slush, and a few icy patches of Whistler, BC. Equipped with Toyo winter tires, it was sure-footed both on the roadways and on a special snow-handling course Mazda set up. On the patches of dry road, the 2.5-liter turbo engine was quicker and less buzzy than the non-turbo four. Both get just a six-speed automatic, but that also means the transmission is less likely to hunt for the right downshift gear when you’re trying to pass on a two-lane roadway, which is guaranteed with a nine- or 10-speed. You’ll see 0-60 times of 6.5 to 7.0 seconds, or about a second faster than the non-turbo CX-5, without much loss of fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, 24 mpg combined versus 24/30/26 mpg for the non-turbo AWD, 25/31/28 for front drive.

CX-5 transitioning at speed from snow slalom to sweeping turn. The downed cone was not ours

Bill and Khiem’s Excellent Adventure

Along with my drive partner, Khiem Dinh of MotoIQ and late of the Faraday Future engineering team, we displaced a lot of snow on the off-road-handling course, but not the car. It is virtually impossible to spin the car in the snow — we tried — and possible to carve though slalom cones and make emergency stops or steer-arounds (simulating a jaywalking pedestrian who pops up in your path) at reasonable speeds. If you buy the AWD Mazda for the $1,400 surcharge, you get automatic engagement of the rear wheels and torque vectoring, part of the Mazda Predictive i-ACTIV AWD feature. To predict and react to slippery conditions, the car uses rudimentary artificial intelligence — are the wipers on? Headlamps on? Is the car on an incline? What’s the outside temperature? What feedback is the electrical power steering getting? — along with steering-angle wheel-slip sensors. It works.

The CX-5 uses the second-generation of G-Vectoring Control (GVC), a Mazda-only feature that stabilizes the car entering and exiting turns. As development engineer Dave Coleman explains, drivers of all skill levels tend to over-steer into a turn, back off, then turn back in, essentially see-sawing through a turn. Entering a turn, GVC imperceptibly reduces engine torque (power), weight shifts forward, the front wheels grip just a bit more, and the driver carves a more accurate turn. Now with GVC Plus, the exit from a turn is also smoother as the car effectively feathers the outside front wheel’s brake, helping the car pivot to straight-ahead driving. Since you can’t turn G-Vectoring Control on and off except in test cars, which also plot the driver’s smoothness around a test course, you don’t know what a neat feature it is. Surprisingly, no other automaker has yet licensed Mazda’s software or tried to work around its patents. Shame.

Cruising along, listening to the premium 10-speaker Bose audio system, the cockpit on the top Signature trim level is a match for the world’s best compact SUVs, with Caturra brown seat leather (Caturra is a Brazilian coffee bean) and matte-finish dashboard wood inlay. Many automakers claim to have so-called class above features. (“Okay, blindfolds off, panelists. Did you realize you were riding in a Ford Five Hundred, not a Rolls-Royce Phantom?”) Mazda is the automaker that does it best with seating and dash materials, extra sound-damping insulation, lower friction shock absorbers this year, and a tweak to the cargo-bay carpet mat to reduce road noise.

The second row is comfortable and roomy, with two USB adapters in back on all but the entry trim line. The cargo bay is reasonably sized, but no match for the top mainstream compact SUV, the 2019 Toyota RAV4, 31 versus 38 cubic feet.

The only downsides to the CX-5 are an aging infotainment system, a small volume knob that’s a bit slippery (a rubber coating would help), the lack of now-common Qi wireless charging, and the lack of rear side sunshades offered on the Mazda CX-9 and several premium SUVs. You may also be annoyed to find that upgrading your 2017 or 2018 CX-5 to Apple CarPlay/Android Auto will set you back $500, but at least one automaker is offering a retrofit. ExtremeTech’s editor, Jamie Lendino, bought the wiring harness for $190 and disassembled/reassembled the center console in lieu of paying two hours for shop labor.

The Signature trim line (only) has the Caturra Brown leather. Truly class-above.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Trim Walk

For 2019, Mazda added two trim lines, or grades, at the high end. Every model has auto-off LED headlamps and a LED license plate lamp, blind spot detection, G-Vectoring Plus, and a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with 187 hp and 186 pound-feet of torque.

Sport, $26,754 (including $995 shipping and all-wheel-drive; front drive is $1,400 less). It lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto but does have two front USB jacks. We recommend this trim line only with the driver assists in the $625 i-ActivSense Package: lane keeping assist, full-range adaptive cruise control and Advanced Smart City Brake Support with pedestrian detection, plus high beam control, auto on/off headlamps, and auto-intermittent rain-sensing wipers. The Sport rides on 17-inch wheels with 65 series that are less likely to get dinged by winter potholes.

Touring, $29,010. This is the sweet spot for cost-conscious CX-5 buyers. All the safety/driver assist features are standard. The optional preferred equipment package ($1,375 for 2019 with Bose audio, sliding moonroof and power liftgate) no longer has navigation, so you use the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto navigation that came with your phone.

Grand Touring, $32,440. The top trim for the first two years of the second-generation CX-5, it includes steerable headlamps, leather seats, a 7-inch multi-information display embedded in the center of the instrument panel, and (new for 2019) three years of traffic-and-travel info broadcast over the satellite radio receiver (even if you don’t subscribe to the radio part). The wheels are 19 inches with 55-series tires. The only option is the same preferred equipment package. It no longer offers a head-up display (“active driving display”) or heated rear seats.

Grand Touring Reserve, $35,865. New for 2019, it switches to the SkyActive-G 2.5T Dynamic Pressure Turbo engine, is AWD only, includes auto-folding door mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, and the HUD with traffic sign recognition. The front seats are heated and ventilated, the steering wheel is heated, as are the outboard rear seats. But if you’ve gone this far, an additional two-grand gets you the whole enchilada:

Signature, $37,885. The extra 6 percent gets you surround-view cameras, front and rear parking sonar (all useful), multiple extra forms of cockpit lighting, and the Caturra-brown Nappa leather seats.

Mazda’s Commander infotainment emulates BMW iDrive with three function buttons and a control wheel. The volume knob is too small and too slippery.

Should You Buy?

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 stands apart in the crowded field of compact SUVs, those less than 190 inches long and with two rows of seats. It is the most serious mid-price sports sedan (that happens to be an SUV). It’s cool enough for people with goatees, fun enough for new dads and moms who still want a performance car, and for mid-life buyers, the CX-5 is the perfect antidote for male menopause. Basically: Buy this car.

The Touring is the best choice among the three CX-5’s with the normally aspirated (non-turbo engine) because you don’t have to pay for navigation when you already have a phone. The Grand Touring provides a little more luxe. At the high end, go with the Signature because of the outstanding cockpit leather and wood, and the extra driver assists: surround cameras, front-rear sonar.

Among the competition, the 2019 Toyota RAV4 is the best all-rounder and the hybrid edition is only $800 extra. The Honda CR-V is almost as sporty as the Mazda, but try the infotainment system before you buy. The 2019 Subaru Forester (different from the 2018 model) has proven snow-country capabilities. The Nissan Rogue is solid and has ProPilot Assist semi-autonomous driving. Others to consider: the Kia Sportage and HyuTucsoncscon (cousins), VW Tiguan, Chevrolet Equinox (which offers a 42-mpg diesel version) and GMC Terrain (cousins), Ford Escape, and Jeep Cherokee. Also consider the 2019 Acura RDX, the most affordable premium compact SUV.

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