No disrespect to the majority of compact SUVs on the market, but they don’t exactly put a good foot forward when it comes to displaying how exciting compact SUVs can be. They’ll help you get to work safely, comfortably, and on time, which are all good things, but they’re incredibly boring. Boring, at least when it comes to compact SUVs, is a disease that can be cured in the form of a Mazda CX-5 antidote.
Not everyone agrees with Mazda’s recent decision to shift toward being an upstream brand, but that’s a discussion for another day. What the move does is essentially put the brand’s cars, like the CX-5, into a neat little segment of their own. When I sprung into the CX-5 for the first time, it was only a few weeks after testing a Mercedes-Benz GLB 250. The first thought that popped into my head was that the CX-5 feels and looks just like the Mercedes, without the tech. High praise for an affordable option from a mainstream Japanese brand.
The CX-5 won’t necessarily fill your neighbors with envy after a glance, but the SUV can turn any boring task into an enjoyable, fun experience. For instance, just as the coronavirus went into full swing and N95 masks became $100 items on Amazon, I had to take a trip down to Washington, D.C. to get some much-needed, handmade masks.
Normally, I would begrudgingly complete this trip. Getting into the nation’s capital is a nightmare. Traffic is always terrible, there’s no other way to get there except in a straight line (in a reasonable amount of time), and no matter how fast I manage to go, I’m always looking at spending at least an hour and 15 minutes in the car. Clearly, this wasn’t a trip I wanted to go on, because in a normal compact SUV, it would be like any other tedious commute. In hindsight, I didn’t have anything to worry about.
Leaving Baltimore with Washington, D.C. programmed into Google Maps reveals that there’s traffic on I-95 S. What a surprise. Cockroaches and Twinkies aren’t the only things that will be around in the case of an apocalypse; traffic will be around, too.
Even if there’s traffic, the CX-5’s cabin is such a nice place to spend some time, you won’t really mind that the 55 mpg speed limit seems like a cruel joke. Other compact SUVs feature rough plastics, peculiar designs, and strange button layouts as the primary method for standing out. Forget about all of that malarkey. The CX-5, especially in the range-topping Signature trim we tested, trades all of that stuff for the real deal. You’re getting real Nappa leather upholstery, genuine layered wood trim, and a black cloth headliner. Crisp dials, stylish air vents, and buttons that feel like they’ve been plucked from a far more expensive vehicle further help the CX-5’s credentials as a real luxury SUV.
Luxury isn’t the only thing the CX-5 gets right. The darn thing performs like something alien to the compact SUV class. The CX-5 Signature is only available with the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that cranks out 250 horsepower. To get that power, you’ll have to use 93 octane fuel, but it’s worth the extra few cents. Even more impressive than the CX-5’s horsepower figure is the amount of torque it generates: a stout 320 pound-feet.
On the good stuff, the CX-5 feels quick. Not just quick for a compact SUV, but downright quick. Small gaps in traffic rapidly close with a quick thump on the throttle. Mazda stuffed a boisterous engine into a luxurious package to ensure you have one heck of a good time.
After a long yet comfortable jaunt down, Washington, D.C. finally comes into sight. Driving through the empty city doesn’t feel right in the sense that it’s nearly abandoned. The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial keeps a watchful eye over an empty National Mall. The Smithsonian buildings are closed, parking is abundantly available by the Capitol, and no one’s enjoying the splendor of the cherry blossoms in full bloom. It’s all so strange.
The CX-5 doesn’t seem to mind. Zipping between lights, drawing the eyes of a few onlookers and police officers on cruisers left to patrol the near-empty streets. It has to be the gorgeous shade of Soul Red Crystal Metallic, which happens to be one of the best reds on the market.
A quick pit stop later and masks in hand, we swing the SUV’s nose around to head back to Baltimore. This time, I’m not dreading the journey, but looking forward to being able to spend more time in the CX-5, even finding odd times to engage the vehicle’s Sport mode on off- and on-ramps.
More time also means taking a closer look at the CX-5, which does reveal a few flaws. The cargo area, which is now carrying a few boxes of shelf-stable and frozen food, is just shy of being able to hold pandemic shopping sprees at Costco and Harris Teeter. The infotainment system needs a major update, especially the part where the touchscreen feature is locked out while the car is in motion, requiring you to control the system with a troublesome dial and irritating buttons. We’d hardly call these deal breakers, but small blemishes.
The CX-5 is the kind of car that spoils everything else for you. After driving one, or even catching a glimpse of one in a decent color, everything else in the segment becomes a disappointment. No other compact SUV excites, pampers, or feels as special as the CX-5. With a few tweaks, it very well could move up to fight alongside the big boys from Germany in the luxury segment. You almost start to wonder whether Mazda purposefully made a few errors along the way with the CX-5. If it didn’t, the SUV would certainly be the automotive equivalent of perfection for eight out of 10 drivers.
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