A year on with the Mazda CX-5

Posted on 2016-07-20

It's been a year and a bit since I took delivery of my CX-5. If you're wondering how it has been living with this car, read on. Spoiler alert: It's been pretty fantastic.

I'm a car guy. I don't mean a general car or motor sport enthusiast, I mean I like to drive cars, as opposed to bakkies*, vans, crossovers and SUVs. This puts me squarely on the opposite side of the line from the general South African car-buying public. The car as a car is being whittled away by peer-pressure buying decisions. Everyone wants a Toyota Fortuner or a Ranger Rover Evoque now. Presumably these types of vehicles are more practical, and off-road capability has somehow become an essential requirement these days.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the practicality offered by the traditional sports-wagon or estate car just a few years ago. The Audi wagons also all came with quattro as standard, which meant that even off-road performance was on the check-list. I thus deduce that most of the car-buying public these days live down hard-to-access roads requiring good ground clearance. Either that, or they want to assert their dominance towards their next-door neighbor with a 4x4. Guess which one is more likely.

No, I prefer a car. So when I went shopping last year for a 'family plus dogs' practical manual vehicle, society had denied me the Mazda 6 Touring, which is only available in the European and Japanese markets. After looking around a bit I settled on the fresh face lift 2015MY Mazda CX-5. It had it's first service last month, almost both exactly 15 000km and 12 months to the day later. So, how has it been?

Inside

Let's start with the interior. This is where you spend most of your time and is also where cheaper cars fall down against the premium brands, both on finish and longevity. It's a very important area that contributes enormously to the practicality of a car. With the CX-5 it is arguably it's strongest point. It has withstood a year's worth of direct assault from a (now 2 year old) toddler, constantly swapping the baby seat in and out, road trips, two pit bulls and all sorts of general weekend activities like stacking the rear chock full of rooikrans. And despite all of that there isn't a single squeak, rattle, grind or other interior noise.

I can't fault it on ergonomics either. The seats and steering column are adjustable in all manners (not electrically). So even though my wife and I differ by a good 20 centimeters in height it's not hard to quickly get yourself comfortable again, or even while on the move. Infotainment-wise I'm glad I took (and paid for) the 2015MY with the center-console controls. I could have paid a lot less for the pre face-lift model that only had the touch screen, but this is disabled when the car is moving and is also much harder the operate. The knob down by the shifter with its shortcut buttons and smaller volume control became second nature within a few weeks and I certainly don't need to look down to operate it anymore. And oh, the sound system is really really good.

Even though part of my choosing this model was that the seats split 40:20:40, I had never imagined it would play such a major role almost immediately out of the box, and I'm really glad for it. That 20% middle part is the perfect fit for our camping cot without loosing seating space (admittedly 2 + 2) or the contents of the boot rolling around an otherwise folded down 60% of the rear cabin area. We could easily fit 3 adults, the baby seat and all the luggage in there for a weekend away with friends. It's also very well designed in the fact that you don't need to reach in through a rear passenger door to unlatch the middle bit. This means I can emerge from the hardware shop with a 2 meter steel pipe (for loosening hub nuts you see) and stick it into the car by only accessing the boot.

The only drawback of the interior worth mentioning is that there aren't any shopping bag hooks anywhere, so the milk bottles tend to topple over when meandering over the endless speed bumps at the malls.

Shifting and power

The engine is typically Mazda. The Active model has the 2.0l version of the naturally aspirated SkyActive range. It has fairly good pull if you commit, it's much stronger higher in the rev range, but runs very smoothly so you want to rev it out. The thing about this engine is what I don't have to mention. It doesn't have a turbo charger so there's no worries after 100 000km, yet I have the same (or even better) fuel consumption benefit. Mazda runs a factory catch-can and has sorted out the intake oil deposit buildup which other direct-injection engines like the EcoBoost suffer from. This is unmentionable stuff, but contributes significantly to a much longer engine life with fewer problems. Sometimes, after shifting, there seems to be a dead-spot (or a delay) right after I release the clutch, either with up or downshifts. I get the impression that it's interference from the traction control which can't decide on the attitude characteristics, probably directly related to my driving style; switching instantaneously from granny shifting to very aggressive downshifting. You will probably never experience this issue, and I have also not driven with the TC turned off yet to test it.

This brings me to the best thing about this car for me; the gearbox. I chose the Active model because it has the option of a manual gearbox, another thing slowly being sidelined by society at large. Sadly, this is the only model in the range that has this option; it is really very good. And don't bother to ask any journalist about it, they never get the base models on test. So what about it? Well I shift this thing faster than I do my '91 MX-5. It's a very accurate shifter; not short by any means, but not very long either. And together with the pedal placement I've upped my heel-toe game significantly in this car, because race car. The clutch is light so traffic is a doddle when the start-stop system isn't active. You have the ability to really beat on it and yet achieve 7.0l/100km consumption rates yourself. There is a shift indicator to help in this regard. And yes, I get far better consumption than you with your automatic and different driving modes. The dealer has told me that his customers with auto-boxes complain they don't get below 8.6l/100km, while reviewers have said it's a slow and sluggish shifting experience. I have none of those problems.

Typical consumption figure for my morning commute along the N1 between Bellville and Century City, about 20km. The bottom graph shows the long-term averages, which I reset at every second fill-up.

Driving it

Lets talk about the windshield. Shit finds this car's windshield like a child finds Pokémons. I don't understand why this is the case, what contributes to it, or how to prevent it. I'm on my second windshield already thanks to some roadworks on the West Coast. And when you do replace it, watch out for the washer feeder tube. It can easily fall into the side with little access; I had a significant amount of trouble connecting it up again. Anyway, I suppose it's simply because the windshield is so large and provides excellent forward visibility. But it's also steeply raked, and comes with a very thick A-pillar which I find regularly blocks my view at junctions or crossings. I have to physically look around it from time to time. Obviously not a problem maybe for people of a different height, but an annoyance to me.

That aside, driving it is excellent. Really the only time I know I'm in a high car is when I get in it or climb out. Around the corners this has better dynamics than any small hatch and is way more comfortable too, including some premium ones. I cane it on gravel roads and it returns a very rewarding experience, eerily the faster you go the more stable this car becomes. I have no doubts about the turn-in or mid-corner stability. This is one area that the Mazda lineage and philosophy really becomes apparent, and I've even considered taking it to the track. It really is that engaging to drive. It's also not a big car. I've left less-confident Corolla drivers behind after squeezing past into the left-turning lane on several occasions, and I didn't cheat by "4x4ing" over sidewalks or gutters.

The bottom line

So it's an SUV. I'm not a fan of the fact that I own one, let alone drive one. But as cars go, this is one of the best cars I've had the pleasure of. I can easily forget that it's not actually a car when on the road. I wish it was that touring model, and someday I'll probably import that touring model anyway and let this go. But until then I'll recommend this car above all else in the market segment now.

*For the non South African readers, this is a bakkie. You probably know it as a mini-truck, or you know, the F-puny class.

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