2020 Mazda CX-5: a longer-than-intended review

Illustration for article titled 2020 Mazda CX-5: a longer-than-intended review
Photo: Me

In an unexpected follow-up to my previous post about possibly joining the crossover hordes, I was presented with the opportunity this past weekend to rent a CX-5 - specifically, a 2020 Grand Touring, sans turbo. Since I had nothing better to do, I put probably 350 miles on it just driving around aimlessly, getting a much better feel for it than I would have on a short test drive. Since my current DD is a Mk7.5 GTI, that’s my main point of reference, apples and oranges though that may be. Here are my thoughts broken down by various categories of importance:

Styling

Starting off with the superficial, I think this is a great-looking car. The surfacing is elegant and well-executed - I particularly like the character line that arcs over the front fender and down towards the rear of the car. I also really like the slim, pointy headlights and their fairly complex integration with the Mazda five-point grille. The wheelbase looks a bit short from some angles, though like the considerable wheel gap, a mild suspension drop would probably help. The rear is a touch bland as well. But to me this is easily the best-looking crossovery thing from a non-luxury brand.

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Materials and build quality

A lot of good here, with a few minor quibbles. One of the first things I noticed is that the doors shut with an extremely solid feel, more of a hushed “whump” versus the GTI’s solid thunk. It’s what I would expect from a very high-end luxury SUV, certainly not a Mazda. Once inside, the materials are mostly very impressive, with lots of soft touch materials and stitched surfaces. The HVAC controls and infotainment knob feel particularly solid with a nice clicky action. On the other hand, the glovebox door, while felt-lined, feels very insubstantial, while the buttons on the steering wheel feel pretty flimsy and loose, unfortunate since those are some of the controls that are used the most.

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Controls

This may be the thing that surprised me the most about the car. I’ve heard mixed-to-negative things about Mazda’s infotainment system, which locks you out of the touch screen over 5mph, but I actually enjoyed using it. The interface is graphically dated, sure (the new 3 fixes this), but the way the rotary dial falls naturally to hand can’t be matched by any touch screen, and the physical nature of the controls makes it easier to operate by feel rather than by sight.

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Powertrain

This one isn’t too important, since this had the naturally aspirated engine and I’m really only interested in the turbo. But, contrary to my memory from a test drive a couple years ago, it really wasn’t bad. It doesn’t have that nice mountain of low-end torque that I’m used to from my GTI and Focus ST of course, but it gets out of its own way decently enough, helped by a responsive and quick-shifting transmission. It also came with paddle shifters, but I didn’t use them much.

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Ride, handling and NVH

This is the important part, and the CX-5 is really impressive here for what it is. First off, it’s very quiet, astonishingly so for a Mazda. The ride is quite firm for the class (at least, compared to the Nissan Rogue or Honda CR-V, which are the other small CUVs I have some experience with), and in fact doesn’t feel substantially softer than the GTI’s, just a touch less edgy.

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That’s not a problem for me, because it means the suspension is virtually absent of any float. It’s extremely well buttoned down for something this high up and heavy. There’s a bit of lean in more aggressive driving, but nothing too bad, overshadowed by tire squeal and understeer when you really push it. This could really use better tires, no surprise there. The steering doesn’t have much feel but has very agreeable weighting. In fact it’s quite similar to the GTI in that respect, though the speed-variable weighting is a bit more evident, with similar weight at low speeds and somewhat heavier weighting at higher speeds vs. the GTI (in the normal setting).

While most reviews say Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control is either barely perceptible or not noticeable, I think I could feel it pivoting the car subtly through turns in more aggressive driving. I really liked this since it reminded me of similar behavior in my old Focus ST.

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Overall, though, while the CX-5 rewards enthusiastic driving up to a point, I can definitely feel the extra 5-600 pounds this weighs over the GTI, mostly in the form of the aforementioned understeer and tire squeal appearing at much lower speeds. (Admittedly, this is even more of an apples to oranges comparison than it first appears, because my GTI is wearing summer tires at the moment. On the original crappy all seasons, it was much more prone to understeer.)

Driving position

What ultimately removes the CX-5 from consideration for me, unfortunately, is the driving position and packaging. I’m a rather large person, but I’m pretty comfy in the GTI. My only real problem with it is that the low ride height and small door opening makes getting in and out of it pretty annoying, and while the CX-5 is certainly an improvement in that respect, it’s actually noticeably less roomy once you’re inside.

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The biggest problem is that the center console and door armrests are rather bulky, and combine to make a very hemmed-in area for the legs. It’s workable, sure, and I could manage multiple hours in the car without too much trouble, but I know it’s something that would get on my nerves over the long term. It’s just a bit claustrophobic. I also felt a bit like I towered over the dashboard; I realized while driving this that I strongly prefer to feel more hunkered down in a car. Something which would somewhat defeat the purpose of an SUV, I suppose.

Conclusion

Well, that ended up being a lot longer than I intended. Oops!

In summary: I came away impressed with the CX-5 overall, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s really for me. Given how nicely set up the chassis is, I could probably live with the lower ultimate handling limits vs. the GTI, but I know I would miss the lower ride height and roomier cabin. This is a car I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone looking for a small crossover, and as far as crossovers go this is still my favorite one. But I don’t think I’m ready to give up the traditional hatchback just yet.

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So I’m sticking with the GTI. Though, given the issues I’ve had with mine, mostly of my own doing (long story), I’d like to start over fresh with a new one if I can. I’m not impressed with the Mk8, so I feel no need to wait for that. If I do go through with it, I wonder if that’ll make me the only person here to own multiple Mk7s?

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