A couple decades ago, the Blue Lagoon in Iceland was a secret. You would bring your own towel, drop a few coins in the admission bucket and wade right into the steamy blue waters heated by the geothermal plant next door.
Then, a few foreigners floated off into the fog and boiled to death. Before long, the government teamed with private companies to remake the lagoon into a safer and profitable tourist destination. It still looks exotic, though, as we drive past in our 2013 Mazda CX-5 prototype. Then again, with all the tour buses out front, it's clearly not much of a secret anymore.
Mazdas used to be a great secret, too — unassuming in the metal, but unexpectedly entertaining if you actually took the plunge and bought one. Then, we all realized how good the Mazda 3 is, and now it's practically as mainstream as a Civic or Corolla.
When the 2013 Mazda CX-5 arrives next February, the automaker will again be looking at the heart of the market. And once again, it's bringing a very capable, sharp-looking and fun-to-drive entry to the table.
Bigger Than Mazda 3, Smaller Than CX-7
"The biggest outflow from the C-car segment (Mazda 3) is into the small crossover segment," Jim O'Sullivan, president of Mazda North America, tells us. "The CX-7 is for some people a little bit too big of a stretch. The CX-5 will not be a niche player."
O'Sullivan expects the 2013 Mazda CX-5 to become the brand's No. 2 seller in the U.S., easily matching the annual combined total of the CX-7 and CX-9 (58,000 in 2010).
But the CX-5 represents more than a volume play, as this entry-level crossover SUV is the first vehicle to combine all of Mazda's Skyactiv fuel-saving technologies under one roof. It starts with a new global platform architecture, which is 8 percent lighter and 30 percent more rigid than the company's previous small-car architecture, thanks to a revised framework for the unit-body and increased use of high-strength steel.
The CX-5 rides on a 106.5-inch wheelbase and measures 178.7 inches from nose to tail, so it's not that much smaller than the CX-7, which has a 108.3-inch wheelbase and has an overall length of 184.3 inches. Width and height are nearly the same, though the CX-5's track is about 1.5 inches narrower. The current Mazda 3 five-door hatch is about the same length as the CX-5, but its wheelbase is 2.5 inches shorter, and it's almost 3 inches narrower.
The differences between the 2013 CX-5 and the 3 are obvious as we settle into the driver seat of the well-worn, European-spec developmental prototypes Mazda has invited us here to drive. Unlike in the 3, we don't need all the seat-track travel to accommodate our 5-foot-10 frame, and when we try the backseat, we have a couple inches between our knees and the front seatbacks.
Coming Soon With a 2.0-Liter
All 2013 Mazda CX-5s will come to the U.S. with Mazda's new Skyactiv-G direct-injected, 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder gasoline engine. The engines in these development mules have the same 14.0:1 compression ratio as the Mazda 6 prototypes Engineering Editor Jay Kavanagh drove last month. Intended to run on European gas, they're rated at 162 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 155 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm — hardly big numbers, but fuel economy is the priority.
Mazda will lower compression to 13:1 for the U.S. version, and the engineers insist it will run right as rain on 87 octane. Nobody's talking about horsepower and torque ratings yet, as Mazda plans to announce these at the 2011 L.A. Auto Show.
Still, 158 hp is a fair guess, since the 2.0-liter is rated at 155 hp and 148 lb-ft with 12:1 compression on the 2012 Mazda 3. This additional compression drop is a product of the 3's older platform architecture, which makes it tough to package the CX-5's 4-2-1 exhaust manifold. Said plumbing does a better job of evacuating hot exhaust gases from the cylinders, which keeps the contents cooler and reduces susceptibility to knock. The engine's variable valve timing helps with that, too, while reducing pumping losses.
Mazda engineers obsessed over reducing friction, and compared to the older MZR port-injected 2.0-liter engine offered on the Mazda 3, it's down by 30 percent. In an unusual move for this class, the pistons, connecting rods and crankshaft are forged.
We get to drive one 2.0-liter-equipped CX-5 prototype with Mazda's new six-speed manual transmission driving its front wheels, while the other has the new six-speed automatic and a Haldex clutch-type all-wheel-drive system — meaning it's front-drive until wheel-speed sensors identify a traction threat.
Mazda hasn't released curb weights, but there's little doubt that both mules are well under 4,000 pounds, as the 2.0-liter engine provides adequate motivation. It's a little shy on grunt below 3,000 rpm, but midrange torque is sufficient for getting up to highway speed and passing on two-lane roads. The engine is smooth up to its 6,500-rpm redline, too, though there's no real need to rev this high in normal driving.
The six-speed manual is an improvement over Mazda's current offerings (on its front-drive cars), with a far nicer clutch take-up and a more precise feel through the gates. Mazda hasn't decided whether to offer it on U.S.-spec CX-5s.
Excellent Automatic Transmission
Maybe you won't care, though, because the new automatic is so good. Instead of shifting into 6th before you're out of the driveway, this transmission maximizes mpg by engaging the lockup clutch more often than the old five-speed automatic — 89 percent of the time, we're told. The torque converter is basically on the job only during gearchanges, so there's a bigger torsion damper to smooth things out the rest of the time.
It works well on the prototypes. Upshifts are smooth and downshifts are rev-matched and seriously snappy. Paddle shifters aren't included, but there's a manual gate and, logically, you still push forward to downshift.
Mazda promises best-in-class fuel economy, which doesn't seem far-fetched given the 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway estimates for the 2012 Mazda 3 hatch (28/40 for the sedan). Currently, the soon-to-be-replaced Ford Escape Hybrid (34 city/31 highway) is the one to beat, and among strictly gasoline small SUVs, the Hyundai Tucson (23/31) and Chevrolet Equinox (22/32) lead. The U.S.-spec CX-5 won't have our prototypes' start-stop feature, which works fine but provides little benefit in EPA ratings.
This Is a Diesel?
"I've been fantasizing about a Skyactiv-D-equipped MX-5," Kavanagh wrote after driving a Mazda 6 prototype with the company's new 2.2-liter diesel four-cylinder. "If that doesn't tell you Mazda's on the right track with this Skyactiv stuff, nothing will."
Take that to heart, because the diesel-equipped Euro-spec CX-5 prototypes are just as impressive. Not only does the torque arrive quickly, as you'd expect with 310 lb-ft on tap at 2,000 rpm, but the 173-hp engine is freer-revving than you'd ever think possible. It gives the CX-5 a genuine performance bent. Only when we lower the window to pay the toll for a trip through Hvalfjardargongin, a long tunnel that circumvents one of Iceland's biggest fjords, do we remember it's a diesel.
We've briefed you on the details of this twin-turbocharged and direct-injected engine, but what really makes it special is its 14:1 compression ratio — uncommonly low for a diesel. This is the key to meeting NOx limits without resorting to expensive exhaust treatment. It's a potential hurdle for cold-start performance, but Mazda gets around that with variable-lift exhaust valves that recycle exhaust gas to heat up the combustion chambers more quickly. Lower compression also allows the use of lighter components, which enable the engine's unusually high 5,200-rpm redline.
The diesel gets heavier-duty versions of both transmissions, along with slightly taller final-drive gearing. It's especially enjoyable with the manual, which has a more robust feel as the clutch engages with an even more positive shift action. We take a shine to ripping off heel-and-toe downshifts.
Officials are coy about the U.S. launch of the Skyactiv-D engine, which they say is 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the 2.0-liter gas engine. Mazda CX-5 sales won't even start in Western Europe until this engine and a detuned version making 148 hp and 280 lb-ft are ready to go, but officials hint that we might see the 2.2-liter in the next-generation Mazda 6 first. That would be sometime in 2013.
Good Chassis, Too
Like other front-drive Mazdas (save for the 6), the CX-5 uses struts in the front and a multilink rear, but the design and geometry is completely new. The rear trailing arms are mounted higher to better absorb ride undulations, while repositioned dampers get closer to a 1:1 motion ratio. The biggest change, though, is the switch to electric-assist power steering. The steering ratio is quicker at 15.5:1 (versus 16.2:1 on the Mazda 3), and the engineers added caster to ensure good straight-line stability.
Tuning is almost final on these European-spec prototypes, but they're wearing summer tires. The U.S. gets only all-season rubber, so the damping and steering assist will change accordingly. In both markets, there's a choice between standard 225/65R17 tires and optional 225/55R19s. Both setups are fine over Iceland's smooth highways, but the 19s deliver a stiff ride on lumpy back roads. The 17-inch tires' taller sidewalls provide the compliance we expect from a crossover SUV.
There aren't any serious corners on our route, so we can't tell you much about the CX-5's handling. Akio Fujii, Mazda's chassis development manager, gives us some insight on what his team had in mind. "For steering and handling, I think the Volkswagen Tiguan is the best target."
The CX-5's electric steering is coming together nicely. Effort builds in a linear fashion as you add speed, just as it would with a good hydraulic setup. There's room for fine-tuning, though, especially on the prototypes with 19s, where the steering gets overly heavy and responds a little too quickly right off-center.
The Mazda 3 of Crossovers
Driving these 2013 Mazda CX-5 prototypes reminds us that it's possible to build a small, useful, fuel-efficient crossover SUV that isn't a bore.
No, the Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter isn't the most powerful four-cylinder engine out there, but it's smooth and refined, and it's teamed with an excellent automatic transmission. Certainly, we'd prefer the torque-rich 2.2-liter diesel, but the less costly gas engine would likely keep us content, particularly if the CX-5's steering and handling comes together like we think it will.
Of course, good performance and handling are only part of the battle at this end of the market, where the bottom line really matters. The CX-7 simply hasn't offered the packaging and efficiency most people are looking for in an entry-level crossover. But with its space-efficient design, lower pricing and, potentially, class-leading mpg, the 2013 Mazda CX-5 could be the driver-focused grocery-getter we've always wanted.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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