In this SUV-mad world, it’s easy to write the vast majority of mid-size mainstream offerings that come out these days as all being much of a muchness – underwhelming in the styling department, roomy on the inside but not that luxurious or premium-feeling, and in many cases either underpowered, lacking dynamically, or both.
But for some time now, there’s been one clear outlier in this segment – the Mazda CX-5. Since this second-generation model first launched in 2017, it impressed with its elegant styling, truly premium feeling interior, impressive handling, and following the fitment of a pokey turbocharged petrol engine last year the power to back it all up, too.
Clearly, Australians realised the CX-5 was a good thing as it was the best-selling SUV in the country last year, having only been knocked off pole position more recently by the new Toyota RAV4, and in every past experience I’ve had with the CX-5 in both its first and second-generation guises, I’ve come away just as impressed as the many people out there buying it.
So what do you do to update a top-selling model that receives rave reviews and ticks very nearly all the right boxes? If you’re Mazda’s engineers, you make it tick all of the right boxes by stressing over the little details.
On test here is the top-spec Akera model with the turbocharged petrol power plant under the bonnet which at $50,830 makes it the second-most expensive model in the range – behind only the slightly dearer diesel variant – and it’s this version that receives the biggest benefits of the 2020 model year update, although all models have been tweaked slightly.
In the Australian CX-5 line-up there are five trim levels on offer – Maxx, Maxx Sport, Touring, GT, and Akera – with four different four-cylinder engines available depending on the variant.
A 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol unit is the only one available in all variants, while a smaller 2.0-litre petrol can be had in the base Maxx and Maxx Sport. From the Maxx Sport up, a 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged diesel engine is also available, while the GT and Akera variants are the only two that receive the 2.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine fitted to my tester. All-wheel drive is standard on all bar the 2.0-litre petrol, as is a six-speed automatic transmission, with a six-speed manual Maxx model taking the place of the thirty-grand price-leader in the range.
Now when I say the little details have been stressed when it comes to this update, I really do mean it, as some properly nerdy changes that work with minor tolerances have been made. Primarily, it’s in regards to NVH levels, something that has long been a Mazda bugbear and the one thing that let down its new quasi-premium image, and it seems the company’s engineers have really been doing their maths to solve the issue.
Opt for a turbo petrol model like the one I have here, for instance, and the capacity of its muffler shell has been expanded, the exhaust tailpipe sound suppression has been increased, and the spare wheel well has been made more rigid to reduce cabin noise. All petrol models further benefit from the addition of a steering vibration countermeasure to reduce vibrations from the road surface felt through the steering wheel.
There are some improvements that are range-wide, however, such as a new headliner material that increases low frequency sound absorption by 10 percent – yes, seriously, they really did get that nerdy with the improvements – while nighttime pedestrian detection has been added to its autonomous emergency braking system on all models.
A new key design and different badging font now features on all models, too, while an eight-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is now standard across all models.
All models fitted with all-wheel drive, which is the vast majority, also feature a new Off-Road Traction Assist function, which uses the car’s computer to calculate when one rear wheel can’t get traction and channels the power to the wheel with traction instead, rather than to the wheel that’s slipping like an open differential typically would, so you can think of it as being like an electronic diff lock.
Looking at the CX-5 from outside, all is very familiar aside from the new badging and the availability of a new colour, Polymetal Grey Metallic, although Soul Crystal Red Metallic was the colour of choice for my tester, and sitting inside all is much the same as before as well.
That’s no bad thing though as the CX-5 looks pretty swish both inside and out, it must be said. With this Dark Russet Nappa leather interior, it feels far classier than you’d expect from a vehicle in this class, with the quality of the materials throughout being of the highest order you’ll find at this price point for the most part. There’s the odd bit of plastic here or there in places you’re unlikely to ever touch, sure, but the key contact points and areas around them are all top-notch.
This Akera model is certainly brimming with kit, too. Heated and ventilated front seats with power adjustment, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, head-up display, semi-digital instrument cluster, sunroof, 360-degree camera, and 10-speaker Bose stereo are all standard, as is all the active safety tech you’d ever need.
Admittedly, the CX-5 shows its age in a couple of areas such as lacking Level 2 autonomous driving tech which other brands such as Hyundai, Kia, and Volvo are now packing, along with tech like a wireless phone charger, but on the whole you’ll be left wanton for nought.
That’s especially the case now that one of my longstanding complaints with Mazda’s SUV offerings has finally been addressed – they’ve added a set of paddle shifters to the back of the steering wheel!
I’ve been noting in reviews for years now my desire for a set of paddles in the CX-5 given just how much fun it can be to drive, so I’m glad this addition is there to help make it feel even more engaging than it already was.
Speaking of, I suppose I ought to get it out onto the road to put these new additions to the test. The first thing you find you’re taken by when you get behind the wheel of this turbo petrol model, though, is that brilliant engine under the bonnet.
While there’s an initial hint of turbo lag to get past, as it’s a mighty big blower on the back of this engine, once it spools up it delivers an impressive amount of shove. Unlike many other modern downsized turbo units, however, which favour low-end response and feel to be lacking at the top end, this big 2.5-litre begs you to keep pushing it, effortlessly building speed the higher you take it through the gears and the rev range.
While its torque converter automatic transmission does only have six ratios in a world where eight-speed units seems to be the new norm, Mazda proves with this transmission that six is all you really need – the gears are perfectly spaced in a way that makes it feel very progressive changing through them, as well as in a way that extracts the best out of this engine and ints powerband. The paddles are as big a benefit as I thought they’d be, too, as when you’re driving it spiritedly you can control the gears far more easily and quickly than by using the shifter in the centre console.
When you do push the CX-5 on a backroad, it really does impress with how good its body control is – you can carry far more speed into and through corners before it will start to lean than you can in other rivals, and its steering is among the most responsive in the class as well, allowing you to trim your line very neatly. Sure, it’s still an SUV at the end of the day, but lateral movement is far better managed than you’d ever really expect.
Its impressive handling chops only seem more impressive when you realise just how god the ride quality in it is, too. It might not be the most softly sprung in the class, but it’s right towards the top of the pack, displaying fairly impressive bump absorption.
All those sound-deadening measures certainly aren’t for nothing, either, as the CX-5s cabin that was once plagued by road noise, particularly on coarse chip surfaces which Australia is rife with, is now noticeably more serene than before. There is still some road noise that gets through and the engine noise does seem to be more audible in the higher reaches of the rev range as a result of other frequencies being removed, but the changes are definitely noticeable.
Mazda’s lovely PR people were very keen for me to put the Off-Road Traction Assist function – activated by a small, nondescript button in the control panel by the driver’s right knee – to the test, too, which I managed to on a few of the usual benchmarking trails I use around the Adelaide Hills.
Hitting a few diagonal ditches in tracks that would certainly see one of its wheels held up in the air or in a muddy puddle, it was definitely detectible when the rear diff started channeling the power to the wheel that was still on the firmer ground. Admittedly, it still got through everything I pitched it at without the system turned on, but it was definitely a tad less of a struggle with it active. Is anyone likely to use it? Probably not, I’m guessing, but it definitely does its job of enhancing the CX-5’s all-surface chops and it’s nice to know that it’s there at least.
While before it was given all these upgrades the CX-5 Akera Turbo in particular was a car that bordered on brilliance, it’s now one that, in my eyes at least, is clearly aiming for perfection of the mid-size SUV formula. It’s not perfect – it’s lacking some gadgets newer rivals do feature, the infotainment interface is showing its age as well, the low-end engine response could be improved, and the ride could be a teeny tiny touch smoother although it may not handle as well as it does then – but it’s honestly about as good as it gets in this segment as far as I’m concerned.
It feels to me almost like a budget Audi SQ5 – a perfect marriage of pace and grace in a stylish and practical SUV package – and when you look at it as that, the fact it costs half as much as the Audi while delivering even more in the way of standard kit is all the more impressive, even if some may deride it as being pricy compared to some rivals.
Word on the street is that the successor to this current CX-5 could be an absolute belter – the Japanese internet rumour mill suggests that it may adopt the new rear/all-wheel drive platform destined for the next Mazda6, along with its tasty straight-six engines, so it’s highly likely it’ll better this current model both when it comes to dynamics and luxury if those plans come to fruition – but even in its current form that adheres to class conventions, it’s a brilliant thing and now, finally, ticks all the right boxes.
2020 Mazda CX-5 Akera 2.5T AWD List Price: $50,830 | As Tested: $51,325
Pros: Muscular turbocharged engine, high-quality interior materials and brimming with features, impressive handling for a car in this class, NVH issues finally remedied
Cons: Dated infotainment interface, lacks some convenience items newer rivals feature, expensive by the class standards
In a nutshell: The CX-5, particularly in Akera Turbo spec as tested here, finally ticks all of the right boxes and feels like as well-rounded a car as you’ll find in this class.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.
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