2023 Mazda CX-5 Turbo review: not for everyone
I used to unconditionally love the CX-5, but times are changing
2023 Mazda CX-5 Turbo Signature AWD review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
What is it?
Crossovers have become one of the largest segments of vehicle sales by volume throughout the world, a class dominated by the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V in the United States. Mazda has always offered an alternative choice aimed at those seeking more nuance and driving connection with their models, such is the case with the CX-5. Priced at $41,655 as-tested in flagship turbocharged Signature AWD form, the point of entry is competitive, but it's a game of checks and balances that will ultimately make the best decision for yourself in the end. Some will love the CX-5, others won't. It's this divisive nature that is welcome in an age that dismisses creativity, yet I find the CX-5 to be lacking as a complete package due to an everyday user experience that is often lacking.
Obvious positives that are essential traits to the Mazda brand include dynamic and engaging driving methods. Unlike dull compatriots from Japan, CX-5s, especially with the stonking 2.5L turbocharged engine (more on that later), move you in a way that is just not felt in rivals at this price point. Steering is tactile and responsive with small doses of feedback even. With AWD, handling is naturally neutral, and doesn't fall apart when you push it. If anything, the CX-5 begs to be driven rudely. This truly is an awakening of sorts for the senses when it comes to driving what is, in essence, a completely normal vehicle. You can easily trace the lineage that has influenced this crossover, from the same company that has built esteemed driver's cars like the MX-5 and RX-7; zoom-zoom is not just marketing fluff.
Squeeze the throttle through a turn, and instead of falling over like Humpty Dumpty, poise is retained and the tires dig in to the pavement as you aim towards your apex and exit. You know what's indicative of proper handling? The fact that on a sharply looping freeway onramp that I test most vehicles on, pushing the CX-5 to the breaking point yielded no traction nor stability control intervention. Seriously, I didn't see the light flash once, whereas a RAV4 will blink like Christmas lights and cut power on you abruptly. Here, though, the CX-5 has such composure that active chassis intervention is simply not needed. To quote Kimi Raikkonen, "leave me alone, I know what to do."
Power comes from a 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder that resists the grainy and coarse nature that ruins other small engines, and also brings notable power gains when compared to rivals. This is an optional mill, noted by the Turbo nomenclature attached to the name, but the grunt of 227 horsepower and 310 pounds of torque are hard to resist. 0-60 MPH takes 6.5 seconds, nearly two full seconds quicker than a RAV4 for example. If you test drive both back to back, it'll be hard to not be corrupted by the relative shock of performance.
Cabins are another common Mazda strength, and this Signature trim is no exception, trouncing recent efforts from Toytoa and Honda when it comes to craftsmanship and quality of materials. Sharp edges and cheap plastic mouldings are far scarcer here in this application, which really signifies what Mazda stands for. I'm not going to say it's as nice as a Mercedes, but it surprises for both the money and segment.
And this is where the songs of praise come to an end, and a laundry list of compromise begins. In reality, if this was a perfect vehicle, it would have to cost much more than it does, but there are still annoyances that ought to be figured out elsewhere.
If you're concerned about gas mileage, this is not the vehicle for you. There's lots of power and it sure is fun, yet the result is one thirsty four-cylinder. After a week with the CX-5, my average fuel economy stood at a shade under 24 MPG, several less than a RAV4. If you choose a RAV4 Hybrid, you can get an additional 10 miles for every gallon of petroleum even, but lose the Mazda's fun nature; You can't have both performance and economy for the money. If you do spend extra, you can have both in the shape of the RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid, yet that lacks handling chops; Again, cost restrictions introduce compromises. If you want power here, you sacrifice some efficiency, so ask yourself, is that what you want? 24 is still decent, but it is the bottom end of the class, even if the performance is the top end of the class.
The transmission is Mazda's six-speed automatic, which has served its purpose over the many years, but that's just it - it's been many years. Shifts are smooth, but also glacial, with a noticeable pause between upshifts. Where eight-speed autos have become the norm, Mazda is languishing with this old and sturdy choice; It's time for a new transmission that will surely also bring economy gains besides performance. Another odd trait is upon startup and selecting drive, the CX-5 has such a high initial idle speed that it often defeats light brake pedal pressure - be very mindful if you're parked facing downhill!. I also noticed it would often automatically apply the parking brake upon exit, but then it won't subsequently undo the parking brake automatically when setting off again.
CX-5s are not known for abundant space, losing out to the new CR-V and RAV4 in terms of volume on the inside. It's large enough for most, though, but if you want the utmost in cubic feet in this class, you won't find the maximum here. Going along with that are front seats that are too small and hard. They hold shape over longer drives to give decent support, but they're just not the comfy supple chairs you might expect when they're covered in genuine Nappa leather. Let me be clear- the leather is soft, but the seat itself has little give to it. They lack lateral support as well, so when you're barreling down backroads like they're the Porsche Curves at Le Mans, you'll be holding on tightly to prevent falling out of your seat. I also didn't like how excessively high you sit in the CX-5, even with the seat at the lowest altitude possible.
Beeps and bongs are an annoyance, too, with the CX-5 beeping at you loudly if you don't put your seatbelt before starting the engine. You get a couple seconds grace period, but then you get dinged, even if the car is in park. I usually like to start the car and immediately adjust my climate and get my entertainment sorted, but here you do have to immediately fasten your seatbelt to avoid the beeps. Many, many other cars have embraced this dumb adoption, but the Mazda I found to be extra intrusive.
I also don't like the lack of a method to close the tailgate and lock the vehicle at the same time. Some vehicles have a dedicated button to do both these at once, but the CX-5 has just a control for closing the liftgate. No matter, I'll walk to the door and press the handle-mounted little switch to lock the vehicle while it slowly closes. But no, you can't. Doing so is greeted with a series of consecutive quick beeps, so you have to wait for the tailgate to fully close before locking the car and walking away.
Odd locking behavior continues in another specific scenario. While taking pictures, I parked the car with the engine still running, got out, and proceeded to the passenger side to open a door for an interior angle. Except the passenger door was locked. Oh, okay, let me unlock it - should be easy, no? Can't be done. I pressed the door handle-mounted switch again here and it beeps and does nothing. That switch is sensitive to the proximity of the actual car key, which happened to be right in my pocket. Even pulling the key out and clicking unlock on the fob itself yielded no joy. I walked back to the driver's interior door switch and unlocked it that way. This might not seem like a big deal, but this is so outrageously stupid. I had the key with me, so why would it not let me in? This is completley childish programming and oversight. Locking and unlocking doors should not be difficult, especially when you have the key to your with you.
The driver's (slightly annoying) choice
The CX-5 is still one of the best driving and impressively crafted crossovers in this field, but there are compromises to be had. If you don't care about absolute space or gas mileage, then great - you'll be able to appreciate the mighty strengths of the CX-5 Turbo while enjoying a luxurious interior. However, there are aging aspects such as the transmission, and annoying grievances in the electronics. I make the weaknesses listed appear like this is a terrible car, yet it isn't; It's a stupendous compact crossover, but it lacks in the way of user experience. Mazda has figured out the way to make superlative driving and crafted cars, but that's where the next leap is needed in not just this, but all new cars: user experience, to refine how we interact with our cars each day.. The other glaring issue is the CX-50, Mazda's other crossover that improves upon the CX-5 in basically every single way. If you want the best Mazda crossover, the truth is the CX-5 is not it - that would be the CX-50. So much so that I honestly don't know why the CX-5 hasn't been superseded and discontinued.
2023 Mazda CX-5 Turbo
As-tested price: $41,655
Pros: Luxurious interior, driving dynamics
Cons: The Mazda CX-50 does basically everything better