By Jonathan Crouch
For years now, the market's fastest growing segment has been that for Qashqai-like Crossovers and compact soft-roading SUVs. If you want a used car that offers the best of both and offers fine driving dynamics, low running costs, practical space and decent value, then it's hard to ignore this one, the first generation version of Mazda's CX-5. Not the first car of this sort you thought of is it? But try one and you might just think it to be the best.
Mazda was late to the Qashqai-class Crossover party but when it did at last turn up with a model in this segment - in 2012 with this first generation CX-5 model - we found that the job had been done properly. So is this a soft-roading RAV4 or Freelander-style compact SUV with at least a modicum of off road gumption? Or the or the kind of family hatchback-on-stilts the industry calls a 'Crossover', Qashqai or Peugeot 3008-style models better suited to Sainsburys than the Serengeti? We're going to let you make up your own mind on that one.
Probably, the definition doesn't matter. Depending on your preference, you could pigeonhole this CX-5 either way -which is exactly as Mazda wants it. That's why it created modestly powered entry-level 2WD versions for school run mums. And pokey all-wheel driven variants with a tougher remit further up the range. Here's a brand who reaped the benefits of late arrival to this particular party. A maker who looked carefully at what was available, what buyers wanted and what they actually needed. A measured approach that paid dividends. This MK1 model CX-5 sold until it was replaced by a second generation model in mid-2017.
What You Get
Mazda certainly likes its catch phrases. Its marketers have familiarised us with 'Zoom Zoom'. Well, with this CX-5, the brand introduced us to its 'SKYACTIV' technology. Plus there was another buzz word for potential buyers to consider: KODO. This, we were told, is the Japanese word for 'soul of motion', the company's design theme, this CX-5 having been the first production car to embrace it. Does it work? Well the stylists were predictably enthusiastic, British design boss Peter Birtwhistle reckoning that the chromium line around the lamps and the grille represents 'a charging puma'. To our eyes, there's little of the muscle, tension and athleticism that characterised Mazda's Minagi, the concept car from which the CX-5 was developed. For all that, what we ended up with was a smart and certainly contemporary-looking Crossovery compact 4x4. And anyway, even if the shape isn't especially memorable, its aerodynamics are, an excellent drag coefficient of just 0.33cd helped by wing mirrors that are mounted directly onto the door shoulders and a rear roof-mounted wing that streamlines the flow of air over the car.
The cabin isn't as obviously 'styled' as some of its main rivals but the piano black inserts and chrome splashes look good in a low key kind of way. The materials quality is especially impressive on the upper dashboard, though not quite so eye-catching lower down with slightly lower grade panels that Mazda justified as part of this car's weight loss plan. There are certainly plenty of switches - 55 in all, not counting the chunky column stalks - but it's pretty easy to adjust to the way everything works. We could be fussy and talk about the way the USB charge socket in the centre console crushes your iPhone charge cable when you close the lid but that would be nit-picking. Ergonomically, it's all pretty sound.
As the driver, you're faced by a hooded binnacle which houses three circular dials, ahead of a lovely chunky three-spoke multi-function leather-trimmed wheel. The 5.8-inch infotainment touch screen is fairly easy to figure out, with the menus able to be accessed by the BMW iDrive-style Mazda Multimedia Commander control located between the front seats. Once you're familiar with the system, this is quicker and safer than jabbing at the touch screen when the vehicle's on the move.
And in the back? Well, like most models in this segment, this one doesn't offer a seven seat option, but the rear bench is one of the most accommodating in the class, offering more space in fact than Mazda's supposedly larger CX-7 model. Head and legroom is relatively generous, with space to stretch out aided by the fact that back seat occupants can get their feet under the front seats. As in all vehicles of this type, the middle perch is the short straw, but even here, you'll be better off than you would be in most of this car's rivals thanks to a comfy seat back and a low-set transmission tunnel.
Out back, once you've raised the rear hatch and admired a tonneau cover that neatly opens and closes together with the tailgate, you'll find a luggage bay that's the largest in the class, measuring 503-litres, a figure that extends to 1,620-litres when you drop the Karakuri rear seats. This is a three-piece independent 40:20:40 remote controlled fold-down system. The seats fold virtually flat and although there is a little intrusion from the rear suspension, it's still a hefty load bay.
What to Look For
Most CX-5 buyers were came across in our ownership survey were enthusiastic about this car but inevitably, there were a few rogue examples; make sure you avoid them by checking out the things below on your test drive.
One owner had a problem with faulty engine injectors necessitating frequent oil changes. Another found his manual model would continually get stuck in reverse and would crunch in 1st and 2nd gear. Another found he was getting through tyres at an unreasonable rate - 3 sets in a year, the issue compounded by the fact that only two brands make tyres for a CX-5, so prices are high for replacement rubber. One owner experienced a knocking sound on full lock, an issue traced to faulty suspension mounts. And another found the iStop engine start/stop system on his car ceased to work.
Otherwise, the issues we came across were relatively minor ones. Check out the infotainment system; there were lots of reports of faulty Bluetooth connections and faulty sat nav set-ups. A lot of these issues can be solved by software updates and a larger SD card. One owner had a faulty rear parking sensor. And another found warning lights randomly coming on in the dash.
(approx based on a 2013 2.2 diesel) An air filter costs around £11-£12 and an oil filter costs in the £3 to £7 bracket. Brake pads sit in the £12 to £15 bracket for a set, though you could pay up to around £46 or even up to around £61 for a pricier brand. Brake discs can cost as little as around £70-£78, though you could pay as much as around £105 for pricier brands. Wiper blades cost in the £3 to £15 bracket. A replacement radiator is priced from around £120. A water pump costs around £105. A wing mirror glass is around £20 - and you'll pay around the same for the outer shielding.
On the Road
The key to understanding this CX-5 is getting to the bottom of what Mazda means when it uses the term 'SKYACTIV Technology'. Basically, it's Mazda's programme for radical lightweight efficiency and it debuted on this car. This claims clear benefits in terms of economy and emissions but it also means that the CX-5 is a vehicle that drives quite differently to most of its key rivals. And by 'differently', we mean better.
The entry-level petrol model weighs little more than 1,400kg - which is remarkable. To put that into perspective, a similarly-sized Land Rover Freelander weighs over 1700kgs, which means that you could sit two average sized adults and a pair of kids in a Mazda CX-5 and it would still weigh less than an empty Freelander. You'll feel that this car is light on its feet as soon as you pull away. Mazda has worked hard at reducing friction in the drivetrain and the gearbox feels light, the pedals perfectly spaced and the steering responsive.
The top range-topping diesel version offers four-wheel drive and a twin-turbocharged 2.2-litre unit putting out a healthy 175PS. With the powerplant in this form, you don't get the option of a front-wheel drive-only variant, something that so many customers for this kind of car now seem to want. Still, this is available on a model with the de-tuned 150PS version of this unit. And 2WD is the only choice if you go for the entry-level 165PS 2.0-litre petrol variant.
Like so many other things about the CX-5, the driving experience may not instantly grab you as being unique right at first: it's only when you spend some time with it that you appreciate what it can do. For a start, we can't think of any other compact 4x4 or Crossover model from this era that covers ground quite so effortlessly. The 2.2-litre SKYACTIV-D engine isn't short of pulling power, but it isn't just down to that. After all, the 150PS version of this unit has, on paper at least, slightly less torque than the equivalent 150PS 2.2-litre TD4 diesel you'll find in a comparable Land Rover Freelander - but consider this. Sprint that Freelander to 62mph from a standstill and it'll take 11.7 seconds. Do the same in this Mazda and you'll get there in just 9.2 seconds - nearly 25% quicker. Now you're starting to understand why this is quite a special vehicle.
Go for the top 175PS model and 62mph is dispatched in just 8.8s on the way to 129mph, but don't despair if budget limits you to the entry-level 2.0-litre petrol version of this Mazda. This is not a car in which you have to pay top dollar to get a decent drive. Indeed, the petrol variant is possibly an even sweeter drive than the diesel, thanks to its lightweight engine, with 62mph 9.2s away from rest on the way 124mph. You do have to rev it a bit though to get to that performance, which is where the diesel models hold a slight edge, especially when it comes to overtaking prowess, something you'll find genuinely impressive when you plug it into the meat of the power band.
But it isn't the sheer straightline speed that you really remember after spending some time in this machine: it's the way it rides and responds. We'll admit it: we were sceptical when Mazda claimed they were trying to bring the spirit of their MX-5 sports car into the CX-5. This, after all, is a fairly big and tall vehicle. Once we'd tried a CX-5 though, we saw what they meant. Take the steering. It's an electric set-up, so you don't initially seem to get quite the level of feel that some of the better hydraulic systems used to have but adjust, as you can quickly, and you'll find yourself using it to place this car through corners with real precision.
This CX-5 takes them with real composure and you feel a huge amount of trust in the front end. There's not too much body roll and the car doesn't pitch about either, so you don't, for example, get a load of dive when you prod the brake pedal, nor do you get that boat-like feeling that the prow is rising when you accelerate hard away - the kind of thing that plagues a lot of other compact 4x4s that aren't quite so well tied down. There's a directness that you get at the helm and a tautness to this Mazda's responses that is unlike anything else in this class. Get out of one of these after driving hard and into a Freelander or a CR-V and you'd do well not to plough clean off the road at the first corner you come to. For keen drivers, this is the best car in its class. It's as simple as that.
Which is all well and good but, as Mazda's competitors will point out, you don't buy something from this class with the primary objective of hurling it around the lanes. So the school run basics need to be right. They are, something you notice from the moment you get behind the wheel and realise how easy it is to get a comfortable driving position. How this is one of the few 4x4s where you feel that you sit in the car, rather than being perched upon it. Though there's a bit more road and wind noise than we would like and rearward visibility can be slightly affected by the thick rear pillars, little else merits much criticism. The brakes are good and ride's supple and forgiving unless you hobble the whole set-up with a set of 19-inch alloy wheels. And the six-speed manual gearbox is a gem with a sporty feel and just the right kind of shift quality for crisp wrist-flick changes. Even the six-speed auto transmission that was optional on diesel models was developed to enhance the CX-5 driver's feeling of connectedness. Instead of that usual vague, slushy feel of an automatic when you're on and off the throttle, it genuinely does feel very direct and responsive.
And off road prowess, assuming that you're one of the minority of CX-5 customers who've opted for an all-wheel drive variant that will test it? Well, it says much that we've got this far without even mentioning that. The bar is set almost embarrassingly low in this class when it comes to ability off the beaten track, but this Mazda will be quite as capable as any of its target customers will need it to be. As with the systems employed by most of its rivals, this car has a set-up in which the torque is automatically split according to the terrain you're on, so it can direct 100% of drive to the front wheels in normal conditions, with up to 50% then directed to the rear wheels if slip is detected. There's no low-range transfer case or clever hill descent systems offered, so we wouldn't advise tackling anything much more arduous than a forest track. Think of it instead as an all-weather carry-all and you'll be nearer the mark.
The CX-5 isn't one of those cars that jumps out at you on first acquaintance. But as with many Mazdas, its modesty hides a product packed with innovation. The result is excellent packaging, class-leading economy and emissions and driving dynamics that set a new benchmark in this sector. Add in a high specification and competitive pricing and you've a compelling proposition.
Nothing less was necessary given the Japanese maker's tardiness in entering this segment. The styling may not be anything special but everything else about this car is. It's yet another example of Mazda going its own way, doing things differently. Which means? Well something quite simple really. Looking for a car of this kind? Start here first.