"Tight" is not an adjective I normally use to describe an SUV. How the word stuck in my mind is hazy, as I either first encountered the term reading about NASCAR suspension settings a long time ago, or in the book Chasing Lance when author Martin Dugard described racing a rental car up the Alps while covering the Tour de France.
In any case, "tight" here isn't to describe the cabin space of the Mazda CX-5, which is quite roomy for a compact. "Tight" is the golden mean, possibly the Holy Grail of engineers in creating that perfect blend of suspension tautness and comfort, of agility and stability. It extends to that feeling of granite-like solidity, that if the car rolls over a bump, the suspension soaks it up exempt from shudders and flexing. "Tight" is that feeling as if the car is hardwired to your brain, that the steering, the brakes, the drivetrain are extensions of yourself. Heady stuff? This has been the territory of BMW for years, and now there's a more affordable alternative in the CX-5.
It is hard not to immediately like this crossover, and that's coming from someone who's driven practically every SUV in the country. SUVs are "safe" family car choices. They have the ground clearance for minor floods, and lots of space for groceries. And they don't make you look like a mommy like an MPV does. Like the Mazda 6, the CX-5's svelte shape connotes movement even while standing still, with an expressive front clip that gives the look of a viper about to strike. The interior is vintage BMW with simple white-on-black instrument gauges, and intuitive knobs and buttons for the stereo and climate control. Black and silver are the dominant colors all throughout, and the amber lighting for the climate control panel down below wouldn't look out of place in a Bimmer.
Getting the perfect driving position is a breeze with electric adjustments for fore/aft height, and there's enough built-in lumbar and side support to keep you in place when you're having fun in the mountains. The three-pod instrument panel is even perfectly framed by the thick-rimmed, small-diameter steering wheel, this time evoking the one you'd find in the MX-5. This is all very pleasing stuff for discerning drivers, especially when you'll be spending hours in this thing.
The top-dog CX-5 now gets a 2.5-liter, direct-injection Skyactiv drivetrain whose chief benefits are direct injection, 185hp and a nifty start/stop function. If the system has enough battery juice to power the accessories, it will kill the engine when you're stopped in traffic, quickly restarting it the moment you step on the gas. I got 9-10km/L in mostly city driving, which is pretty good for a moderately large displacement, four-cylinder engine.
Give it some open road and the CX-5 is a willing partner in crime, the six-speed transmission quick and smooth in its performance. It lacks paddle shifters, but it's fun rowing gears in the manual gate. For instant downshifts, you can bury the accelerator pedal and activate the kickdown switch in the last inch of travel--just like in a BMW. The engine itself makes nice noises at the upper range of the tach--a nice, metallic vroom that makes you feel better about burning all that gas.
Out on the curves, the CX-5 has a mildly front-heavy demeanor when pushed hard. The nice thing about the all-wheel drive is you can get on the gas right after clipping the apex. At its limits, the Mazda feels taut and transparent in operation, never giving you the feeling that its tail would step out unless you really wanted it to. The body still rolls, but it quickly settles down after the turn and doesn't porpoise after bumps and hard stops. By the way, traditionalists will rejoice at Mazda's decision to place a traditional handbrake in there, just like God intended all driver's cars should have. What are the odds that you'll ever need to yank it and effect a J-turn to escape would-be kidnappers? Very low to nil, but it's nice to know that you could if you had to.
The CX-5's concessions to utility are fairly conventional--decent cargo room, split-folding seats, decent ground clearance for minor floods--but it won't make you go hunting for flash floods. There's a backing-up camera, too. The leather upholstery gets sporty red stitching, and the power moonroof adds some welcome light into what would otherwise be a somber interior. When you're stuck in traffic, the nine-speaker (yes, nine) Bose stereo will do a terrific job cheering you up. Aside from airbags all over the cabin, the top-of-the-line CX-5 also has a lane-departure warning system, active headlamps, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
At P1.685 million for the AWD variant (the "Soul Red" color is an extra P16,800), the CX-5 is competitively priced against rivals like the Toyota RAV4 and the Subaru Forester XT, and it's loaded with features and a heavy dose of panache.
Photos by Andy Leuterio