AFTER THE DELUGE

We head stateside for an exclusive first taste of Mazda’s second-gen CX-5. Does a concerted focus on refinement to lure in the Yanks dilute the popular SUV’s dynamic charms?

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

WILL THIS damned drought ever break?”

That was the water cooler topic de jour as we milled about the second-gen CX-5 at its North American media preview in pretty if parched San Diego. And such talk wasn’t only about the prevailing conditions.

Parallels exist between the lack of rain falling on the Southern Californian plains for much of this decade and the Japanese medium-sized SUV’s intermittent North American fortunes, thus making this part of the US the launch venue an interesting coincidence. Or is it?

Sales have been flooding in internationally for the CX-5 since launching in late 2011, almost singlehandedly saving Mazda’s bacon.

But not in the US.

While North America is still the model’s biggest market with 112,000 sales last year, that’s a trickle against the leading Honda CR-V’s 357,000-odd torrent, relegating the Mazda to a disappointing 19th in the US SUV sales charts. Behind even the decrepit Jeep Patriot. And barely ahead of the premium Lexus RX… The latter fact is telling … and ultimately instructive as to understanding why the not-so all-new KF-series CX-5 looks, feels and behaves like it does. If the first couldn’t crack the big time against mainstream dross in the world’s second-largest car market, then offering a palpably better and slightly more upmarket alternative might at last turn the trickle into a stream.

The CX-5’s Australian track record clearly served as inspiration. As the SUV to rule them all for the last four consecutive years, Aussies couldn’t get enough of the last one, and happily paid the premium for the money-spinning luxo grades. With only onein- four buyers picking the povvo Maxx, the Japanese-built midsizer swum in a richerthan- usual model-mix pool for its class.

Yet we at Wheels weren’t quite as sold on the old CX-5.

Yes, enigmatic styling, capable harddriven dynamics and energetic yet efficient up-spec engines helped ensure a podium placement in most matchups against frankly mainly mediocre competition, but tiresome road noise, miserable rear-seat packaging, a dreary dash and peaky performance from the base 2.0-litre undermined the Mazda’s cut-above achievements elsewhere.

Refining the breed, therefore, should in theory only enhance the newcomer’s popularity on both sides of the Pacific. And that’s what has totally informed the CX-5’s evolutionary design.

The new-gen KF’s deliberately more sober styling is either blandly amorphous after the angular playfulness of the foxy KE, or way more sophisticated. Take your pick. Whichever, there is a maturity to the detailing that only really manifests in the flesh.

The obvious visual connection with the latest CX-9 that was styled about a year earlier also somehow enhances the new CX-5’s elegance.

The influence of Mazda’s COTY-winning seven-seat SUV is also evident pretty much everywhere inside the CX-5’s tear-it-upand- start-again cabin, and not just because of the shared dashboard theme of low horizontal lines and an Audi-like centre console, which is now higher and wider.

Along with the expected lift in quality and an abundance of more tactile trim, there’s nice attention to details. Metalliclike matte surfaces are designed to resist grubby fingerprints; posh French stitching processes have been introduced; and the hard plastics that most Asian carmakers don’t bother hiding are now either carpeted or covered in softer materials.

Completely revamped seating, which is part of a holistic, almost fanatical approach to driver/vehicle interfacing, also figured strongly during this CX-5’s 28-month gestation back in Japan. And look! The back doors open at a much wider angle. The backrests are now 40:20:40 split and offer a two-step reclining mechanism like in the better Euro SUVs. A lower cushion is said to be more kid-friendly. And, finally, rear central air vents arrive. Combine this with deeper windows for better vision and the

THE INFLUENCE OF MAZDA’S COTY-WINNING CX-9 IS ALSO EVIDENT PRETTY MUCH EVERYWHERE INSIDE

CX-5 MPS

LEFT: DETAILED COMBUSTION IMPROVEMENTS ARE SAID TO MAKE THE UPDATED 2.5-LITRE ATMO FOUR MORE ECONOMICAL IN REAL-WORLD CONDITIONS.

POWER AND TORQUE GAINS MINISCULE Mazda is believed to be working on a highperformance MPS version of the CX-5 due time around 2019 and iteration of the latest 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (shown Mazda USA chassis Coleman. “Believe me, it attention.” Adaptive believed to be under hotshot, to counter height and 20-inch for the future MPS. space. performance versi to arrive at facelift tim powered by a tuned ite CX-9’s 170kW/420Nm 2. direct-injection turbo pe left). “It fits,” says Ma maestro, Dave Colema hasn’t escaped our att dampers are also beli development for the SUV the expected lower ride alloys also mooted fo Watch this

WEIGHT IS UP, BUT MAZDA INSISTS THE GAIN WAS INEVITABLE IN THE FACE OF IMPROVED FUNCTIONALITY AND REFINEMENT

SEALS OF APPROVAL

Mazda made the new CX-5 quieter through reprofiled wipers, using three instead of two seals where possible, adding seals where there were none (such as between the roof and tailgate), devising cargo lids for the cargo floor storage cubbies, carpeting the wheel arches and centre tunnel, fitting acoustic front side glass and a thicker windscreen, reshaping the A-pillars and door mirrors, going for tighterfitting panels, closing off extractor vent noise pathways, filling B- and C-pillars as well as door panel and hatch blanks with insulation, adding tighter fit window channels, using a more aero-efficient and felt-lined under-tray, creating quieter suspension components, putting dynamic dampers on the rear subframe, and employing more soundabsorbent headlining.

Nothing to it, really.

CAT’S EYES

Chief designer Shinichi Isayama started work on the CX-5 in Hiroshima in 2014, with input from Mazda’s US studio. Influences included the 2013 Jaguar F-Pace concept (above), seen in the nose and concave mesh insert in the newly widened grille.

A 10mm length increase, combined with a 30mm height decrease, slightly more cabbackward silhouette (the less acutely angled and thinner A-pillars are moved 35mm rearwards) and lowered stance help improve proportions, while a straighter beltline and more rounded wheelarches aim to infuse more sophistication to the original’s overt playfulness. Circular LED tail-light elements are meant to evoke 1989 MX-5’s.

old CX-5’s slightly claustrophobic back row is history. Boot capacity grows by 39 litres (now 442 litres), and can be accessed via an optional powered tailgate.

Small steps perhaps, but effective in boosting ambience and desirability. Handy whether you’re in a dealership in Delaware or Dandenong, cross-shopping against, say, a Volkswagen Tiguan.

But rest assured, trad CX-5 fans. The carryover 2700mm wheelbase means that interior space levels remain competitive for four adults; most of the switchgear and controls are easy to fathom and operate (though a few buttons are randomly scattered); there is a veritable plethora of storage; and the climate control system is super-effective, as we discovered in over a thousand kilometres underneath that hot Southern Californian sun.

The Golden State might rank as the world’s sixth largest economy, but the greater San Diego county and beyond certainly throws up a disparate selection of roads for us to traverse. The dead-straight freeways that America is infamous for are abundant, as are the super-smooth concreted slabs bisecting endless rows of palm-tree-lined middle-class suburbs.

But the sweeping, flowing mountain byways are a pleasant surprise heading north along Highway 79, while the narrow crumbling bitumen mountain roads with huge potholes and deceptive cambers pepper the south as if to punish inferior suspension systems.

Here the infrastructure is as Third World as you’d like. Heavily armed Mexican border cops patrol these barren, semiarid regions, where it appears little has changed over the course of various US administrations.

Core parts of the CX-5 haven’t changed either, with the fundamental SkyActivbranded four-cylinder and six-speed transmissions, available all-wheel-drive system, MacPherson strut-style front and multi-link rear suspension layout, and other major platform parts carrying over with really only minor changes.

Perhaps disappointingly for some, weight rises – around 40kg – but engineering chief Masaya Kodama insisted the extra mass penalty was inevitable in the face of improved functionality (such as the more versatile rear seat and increased driverassist tech, that collectively add 5kg), crash safety (another 5kg), more opulent cabin fittings (that’s 10kg extra), and refinement/ dynamic performance (sound deadening and 15 percent torsional rigidity rise come at a 20kg cost).

Back in San Diego, the only combo at launch was the 140kW/251Nm 2.5-litre petrol, driving all-four wheels via a sixspeed torque converter automatic. That’s the most popular combo in Oz, by the way.

More efficient combustion processes and reduced airflow resistance due to less drag result in better real-world responses and fuel economy, though the former’s meagre 2kW/1Nm gain and latter’s 1L/100km rise

Model Mazda CX-5 Akera Engine 2488cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Max power 140kW @ 6000rpm Max torque 251Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Weight 1670kg 0-100km/h 8.5sec (estimated) Fuel economy 7.5L /100km Price $46,990 On sale Now

RACK AND ROLL STAR

The new CX-5’s steering rack is now mounted on a solid subframe instead of rubber bushings “…for way more rigidity at higher G forces,” according to Mazda engineer Dave Coleman. Then there’s the fresh tractionenhancing G-Vectoring Control tech first seen in the updated 3 and 6 last year, which varies the amount of torque loading on the front wheels for smoother cornering. Lower-friction front struts allow for increased controlled movement without having to reduce damping forces. Newly fluid-filled control arm bushings better quell vibrations. And unique left and right hand springs better resist side loads over bumps.

respectively aren’t worth crowing about.

Those extra kilos can’t help… Whatever, the fact is the larger of the two petrol engines (the base 114kW/200Nm 2.0L continues) doesn’t seem at all disadvantaged by the inferior power-toweight ratio. Though tipping the scales at 1670kg or thereabouts, the GT 2.5 AWD scoots off the line quickly, keenly and cleanly, aided by a torquey mid-range and an eagerness to rev to the 6000rpm limit.

That now-familiar direct-injection atmo induction noise adds a sporty spirit to the CX-5’s urge, backed up by the receptive yet refined transmission. Even on the poor American 91 RON unleaded – it’s all we could find out in the National Park near Julian – the bigger engined Mazda’s trademark muscle flexed itself nicely.

So the medium SUV’s inherent driveability remains much the same as before. However, the edges in every sense of the word have been smoothed out – if not softened. If you’re familiar with the outgoing model, that pleasing sporty tactility translates through, but in a noticeably more civilised manner.

According to Mazda North America vehicle development engineer, Dave Coleman, “Our biggest goal was not to screw anything up.”

The fundamental chassis changes involved the fitment of softer suspension settings offset by so-called “smarter” tuning so as to not degrade dynamic aptitude.

Different dampers, bespoke springs, repositioned and more effective bushings; that sort of thing. Development was centred in Japan, with testing also conducted in California and Germany to tailor to unique US and EU tastes. Aussie CX-5s use the latter, but with small modifications, and is now regarded as a fourth chassis variation.

Our GT flagship obviously boasted the sharper US component set (including 225/55R19 all-weather tyres) for more adroit low-speed steering response. Yet considering the wide variety of road surfaces encountered, this CX-5’s consistently highgrade uniformity and linearity sure left its mark on us.

Flowing, connected, and natural steering feel, assisted by planted roadholding, feels close to class best in terms of dynamic personality. The suspension soaks up bumps with quiet aplomb, to the point where we rechecked our tyre sizes. Yesiree; 19s.

And that, inevitably, leads to the core of the latest CX-5’s progress – its victory over road and tyre noise. Intensive sound deadening treatments, combined with an almost obsessive purge of noise/vibration/ harshness pathways (see breakout), fixes the previous model’s biggest ills in a single fell swoop. Welcome to CX-9 junior.

Yes, while the US chassis and road conditions make it hard to be categoric, we’d be surprised if CX-5 doesn’t go from below-par to class-best for refinement.

Better than the Kuga/Escape, better than Tiguan. And certainly better than most premium Euro SUVs of this size.

“We’ve knocked down the sound level difference between front and back by about half,” Coleman declared. The company reckons the new car is quieter at 100km/h than the old one at 80.

Driving back towards LAX, first along the Interstate 15 and then up on the I105, terrible traffic delays forced a long detour that pushed our total mileage tally well beyond 1000km, forcing us to skip planned coffee and lunch breaks to catch our flight.

In its previous iteration, nerves might have been frayed. But the hushed, plush new-gen CX-5 literally kept the peace. Lessadventurous design aside, Hiroshima’s midsized SUV finally fully deserves its Aussie success. And judging by the talk back in San Diego, this is the model to finally bring Mazda’s long-overdue deluge of buyers in the States. That’d be one drought broken then. Bring on the other.

THE OUTGOING MODEL’S PLEASING SPORTY TACTILITY TRANSLATES THROUGH, BUT IN A NOTICEABLY MORE CIVILISED MANNER