Mazda CX-5 fun to drive, good on gas

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2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD: A cute ute for the curves.

Price: An all-wheel drive Grand Touring model such as the one I drove starts at $28,870. A front-wheel-drive sport with six-speed manual starts at $21,995.

Marketer's pitch: "Outstanding performance. Incredible efficiency."

Conventional wisdom: liked the "engaging driving experience; fuel-efficient engines; sharp styling," but not the "electronics interface; subpar stereo sound quality."

Reality: Fun to drive and pretty good on gas, so it lives up to the marketing.

Family fun: Our time with Mazda CX-5 was unusual for the Seat Family, as we got to take it on a longer-than-normal trip -- six hours to the wilds of central Virginia.

Our first lesson: It holds up to extended ride times extremely well. The optional leather seats were comfortable, and leg and foot room are generous. I could drive around in this all day -- and I did. I tested a bare-bones 2013 front-wheel-drive model once before, and I found the cheaper seats comfortable as well.

Hauling stuff: A weekend's worth of luggage, electronics and other paraphernalia also fit into one of the smallest crossover packages I've tested.

Zoom, zoom: Mazda's 1990s spots still resonate more than a decade after they've begun. That's because their vehicles still provide the driving fun they always did. And the CX-5 is no different.

The four-wheel-drive automatic version we rode in this time was almost every bit as slick on the curves as the front-wheel-drive stick from the 2013 model year.

The cornering is smooth on the windiest country roads. The CX-5 behaves like a much sportier car than it is.

Fuel economy: Though Mazdas were known for their driving thrills, they also have been known for being little piggies at the pump. The not-quite-new SkyActiv breed of engine is designed to provide better fuel economy.

And it delivers. The four-wheel-drive automatic 2.5-liter four cylinder delivered 27 mpg on a highway-heavy long trip, and the front-wheel-drive six-speed 2.0-liter four cylinder hit 32 mpg in an earlier test, the best of any vehicle like it.

Performance: The 2.5-liter engine standard on Touring and GT models has 184 horsepower and does perform a little better than the 2.0-liter's 155 horses in the Sport model. The 2.0 gets up to speed a little more leisurely than most vehicles, but I never found it a big hassle, especially with its 32 mpg.

The real problem even in the 2.5 lies out on the open road, though. The slightest grades on limited-access highways required downshifting. This is not a big deal in automatic mode, although it probably would cut into those fantastic fuel economy statistics.

When you leave the CX-5 in manual mode, like I did, it requires not one but two hits of the stick every time, because fifth gear is also an overdrive and it generally won't help. A manual is actually easier in this instance, because drivers can shift right from sixth to fourth every time. But the manual only comes in the front-wheel-drive Sport model.

Navigation woes: Part of the $1,825 Grand Touring Tech package, the TomTom GPS was an unmitigated disaster. Everyone complained about it. It froze all the time. It lost its place. It was hard to read. It didn't clearly explain some turns. Save your money and buy a $150 Garmin to stick on the window later.

Not for gadgetophiles: Edmunds is right; the stereo interface is not quite up to today's levels. Still, I thought the sound quality equaled the best out there.

Convenient cubbies: The storage bin in between the seats is sized well and useful. A nice place for your cell phone is available in front of the shifter.

Gauge missing: SkyActiv models come sans temperature gauges, something that I think is a big weakness. A thermometer light glows blue while the vehicle is not yet up to temperature, and presumably it turns red before it's too late.

Where it's built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it's built: Consumer Reports gives it a predicted reliability rating of "much better than average," and a recommended rating.

In the end: If you enjoy driving and need the practicality of a crossover, this should fit the bill and at a bargain price. It's on the Mr. Driver's Seat short list of next vehicles.

n "Wheels," a special advertising supplement, appears inside today's Post-Gazette.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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