2016 Mazda CX-5 Review: Your Ideal First Family Car for Under $30,000

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Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Like a hot razor with plenty of lather, Mazda has been shaving circles around its competition recently, and for good reason: As they are sharp, sensible, and stylish, we have come away quite impressed after driving both the Mazda CX-3 and the Mazda3, and now it’s time for us to test out a larger option.

When the Mazda CX-5 first appeared on the scene a few years back, replacing the Tribute and the CX-7, we weren’t all that blown away by its introduction. Affordable, nicely equipped, and properly proportioned, the little SUV had all the ingredients, but it seemed to meet the bar — not surpass it. Fortunately, when the refreshed model made its debut at the LA Auto Show in late 2014, it had morphed into something more memorable, and we suddenly began to take it more seriously.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

While the original CX-5 was the first model to fully adopt Skyactiv Technology and Mazda’s signature “Kodo” design cues, this recently refreshed vehicle takes it a bit further in regards to both aesthetics and performance. It’s a vehicle that has been redesigned to offer more for the money, and for the most part we quickly discovered that this mini SUV has become a vehicle that succeeds on virtually every level.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Proportionally, the GT version of the CX-5 is right on the money from a footprint perspective. It doesn’t ride too high, the Kodo style of architecture flows seamlessly in every direction, the slope to the rear hatch is just right, and both the 19-inch alloy wheels and the sharply accented LED lights hit all the right chords. This is an unassuming pedestrian machine that isn’t unsightly or overly forgettable once you see it lit up at night, and even though I abhor unpainted trim pieces, having it delivered to me in Deep Crystal Blue really softened the blow.

 

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ The tech package on the GT model gets you LED everything, including headlights, adaptive front lighting, daytime running lights, fogs, and those slick rear combo lamps.

+ From the side, profile lines are fantastic, with an elongated hood, 19-inch wheels, and those snubbed rear haunches making the most notable statements.

+ We like how the rear spoiler tapers and how the metallic gray front grille has been drawn to look more taut than the old version.

– All of that unpainted plastic gray trim may not be as noticeable sitting beside the blue paint, but next to lighter colors it is unpleasantly contrasting.

– The LED fog lights look microscopic when compared to other lenses out front, a design touch that could impede illumination if snow or mud were to coat them.

– Much like the Mazda3, the exhaust on the CX-5 is undersized and doesn’t scream “GT” like it should. A slightly enlarged set of exhaust tips would really help out back aesthetically, and being that this is a Skyactiv engine, they would probably sound quite nice as well.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

While the 184 horsepower Skyactiv motor in the CX-5 is not overly exhilarating, it’s by no means a snoozer. Like every other Mazda I’ve driven, flipping the Sport switch in this thing offers some nice results. Mazda also offers this vehicle with both a 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter engine, of which I strongly recommend the latter of the two because “zoom-zoom.”

The CX-5 can also be had with one of Mazda’s fantastic six-speed manual gearboxes, an option that is virtually unheard of in this segment. Sadly I did not get to experience the joy of rowing my own gears in the model that was sent down to me, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that the posted 30 mile per gallon average for highway driving was easily obtainable.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ Mazdas are meant to be driven with the Sport mode switched on. Fuel economy may go down a hair, but the smiles per gallon skyrocket when that smooth sailing six-speed automatic transmission holds gears to infinity and beyond.

+ Mazda’s recalibrated all-wheel drive system is about as dependable as it gets, and on gravel you can safely experience how well it works.

+ Both the 26 mile per gallon average and the fact that it stocks almost equal amounts of horsepower and torque is another argument for why this automaker is on the right track.

– For being a GT model you would expect even more oomph over the regular trim line, but there’s nothing about this version that is more performance oriented.

– It may be predictable and persistent in chasing down MPGs, but manually shifting a six-speed slushbox really makes you realize why a stick-shift version is the only way to go if “zoom-zoom” is your ultimate goal.

– Out from under Ford’s financial umbrella, Mazda doesn’t have the resources to dedicate to a go-fast program, sadly; the CX-5’s athletic chassis would be a perfect candidate for an SQ5 for the common man.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

True to style, the parchment colored interior I embraced for that week was nothing short of first class for the segment. It’s got all of the familiar Mazda design touches, and has a level of refinement to it that takes people by surprise the first time they climb inside. Spacious, subdued, and sensible, this cabin is more Mazda6 than CX-3, with the climate controls and gauge cluster serving as telltale giveaways.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ The interior is well put together and fitted just right. Even after driving in a bumpy gravel lot in order to test the all-wheel drive system, the cabin was free of any sort of creak or rattle.

+ The backseat is spacious and comfortable, and while the rear storage compartment isn’t gargantuan, it’s still an acceptable size considering the segment.

+ Small touches like metallic trim pieces, well-illuminated and placed temp controls, an electronic e-brake, and heated leather seats that have multiple warmth levels are all nice touches.

– The moonroof seems small when compared to the competition’s panoramic versions, and while it does offer a one-touch open feature, closing it requires you to continuously hold the button until it shuts entirely.

– Not finding ventilated front seats, a heated rear bench, or a power passenger seat may be a turn off for certain buyers.

– For as rattle-free as this interior was, rolling up all of the windows on the driver’s side resulted in a noticeable plastic creaking noise every time a switch was pulled. There also was some cheap looking/feeling faux leather around the navi.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

Tire pressure gauges, lane departure warnings, smart brake support, radar cruise control, blind spot monitoring, and cross traffic alerts were all notable tech safety systems that came equipped. Mazda’s i-ACTIVSENSE safety upgrade is a no-brainer since it offers quite a lot for $1,500. The GT also was equipped with hill start launch and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), and when it came to comfort, navigation needs, and entertainment, there wasn’t much to dislike.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ Radar controlled variable cruise, lane departure warnings, automatic high beam control, and smart brake support are all included in the i-ACTIVSENSE package. This last feature autonomously slows the car down with a two-stage brake operation when collision risks are detected.

+ Mazda may have one of the best navigation systems/infotainment screens in the game today, with touchscreen, knob controls, and detailed 3D maps with finger drag support. Hell, there are even rotate buttons that pop up for additional exploration needs.

+ Designers did a good job of adding digital read outs in certain places, and keeping it analog in others. This model also stocks things like rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth controls, dual zone auto climate control, and a nine-speaker Bose audio system.

– Graphically, the driver’s Multi Information Display (MID) is not as visually pleasing or as detailed as the ones found in the competition’s SUV offerings.

– While the back-up camera offered excellent angles and crisp views day or night, not being able to view multiple sides of the car with the camera safety tech you find in a modern Honda or Kia vehicle was a downside.

– Not having little stuff like USB ports for the second row, or a heated steering wheel for the driver are things that buyers notice nowadays, especially since these features are becoming more commonplace in the mainstream than ever before.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

After spending a few hours with the CX-5, I began to realize that for as good as it is, and as nicely appointed as it can be, it isn’t an overly engaging car to drive when compared to, say, the Kia Sorento and its turbocharged engine. It handles well and offers enough punch in 2.5-liter trim with the Sport switch engaged, but it’s missing that driver engagement that you’d get with a turbo or the available manual gearbox. Nevertheless, it still is a brilliant vehicle for daily driving, and from a driver standpoint remains a cut above in quite a few key areas.

This GT version is the safe bet for first time parents. An introductory family vehicle that is easy to pilot, comfortable to cruise in, while offering the comfort of safety. The brakes could be a bit tighter, the steering wheel feels a hair thin, and C-pillar blind spots are sizable, but for the average driver, these are all things that get overshadowed by the tech and how well it handles on the open road. It’s a tightly-wound, sure-footed small SUV, and regardless of whether you are driving it on the open highway or just down to the corner store, it gets the job done in a snappy fashion.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

Costing just $29,470 in base trim, the GT-trimmed Mazda CX-5 is an exceptional bargain, and there is nothing about it that warrants a red flag. It’s arguably a bit under-powered and unexciting without a turbo option or the available manual gearbox, but the CX-5 is a commuter car. The people Mazda is targeting will more than likely be completely content with it. So instead we’ll have to wait to see if they will save the turbo engine from the CX-9 for Mazdaspeed models down the line, as the manual gearbox option alone makes the CX-5 a performance standout.

Final takeaways: It’s appropriately understated for being a GT model externally, and that it feels a hair incomplete without the standard interior touches that its competition harbors. Outside of that, this is genuinely a nice car to drive and being that it isn’t gargantuan there’s a taut feeling to it that makes you feel like you are driving a slightly larger CX-3, which in many ways you are.

Plus, with an interior to swoon over, Skyactiv-powered all-wheel drive, a wide array of standard safety features and affordable additions, and a reputation for being reliable, Mazda’s mid-size SUV is a safe bet for anyone looking for an introductory family car. It may not have all of its ducks in a row just yet, but this car is getting close to being perfect.

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