The same car company that delivered the spirited and turbocharged third-generation RX 7 sports car 20 years ago debuted an equally celebrated compact crossover with a welcome addition of power this year.
The Mazda CX-5 has a stable of new gear, including a smart braking system and a nearly 20 percent boost in horsepower. In its second production year, the CX-5 competes with the Ford Escape, Kia Sportage, Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4.
You may have known its predecessor, the Mazda Tribute, a popular but less known crossover similar to the old Ford Escape body style.
Critics complained about the earlier CX-5 being underpowered with its 2.0-liter four-cylinder, so Mazda now offers a larger four cylinder on its two high end models, Touring and Grand Touring, while retaining the smaller engine on the base model.
Dubbed Skyactiv technology, the new engine strikes a healthy balance between power and fuel economy with 24 to 30 miles per gallon, city and highway, with 26 mpg overall on its Grand Touring.
Acceleration is brisk for a four cylinder and during a week of test driving the Grand Touring, I was impressed with its overall handling, steering and road manners.
Designed as a five passenger, the all-wheel-drive model hugged the road on slick pavement and showed little body roll in turning maneuvers. Seating is comfortable up front with 8-way power driver's seat, including lumbar support, tilt and telescoping steering wheel and leather-trimmed sport seats.
Rear seats have a unique 40/20/40 design. The seat bottom cushions actually drop closer to the floor when the lowering mechanism is engaged, resulting in a nearly flat surface. The seats can also be lowered from outside the lift gate area with side mounted levers for ease of loading.
By tweaking nearly every aspect of the combustion engine process from timing to exhaust, engineers were able to squeeze another 29 horsepower from the Skyactiv engine with just a small drop in fuel economy.
Considering the size of the utility vehicle and its versatility, the zero to 60 mph sprint was accomplished in 8.4 seconds, average for its class and a full second faster than last year's model. All models are propelled by a six-speed automatic transmission. There is no manual transmission.
Pricing is attractive with well-equipped base models starting near $21,000 and the top of the line reaching a little over $27,000.
Interior impressions are favorable. Inside there are soft-touch materials and a dashboard layout that sparkles against the competition. Buttons and gauges are placed intuitively on the dash and steering wheel. The multimedia screen that displays navigation, phone and audio controls as well as backup camera, is well-shaded from sunlight, an annoyance in some other SUVs.
Helpful blind spot monitor warning lights on outside mirrors offset vision difficulty at both rear pillars.
The only disappointment was the sound quality from a Bose nine-speaker system that did not have the high notes inherent with the brand name.
The Grand Touring was equipped with a $1,600 Technology Package including a Tom Tom-styled navigation system that worked OK, adaptive front HID lighting and Smart City Brake Support.
The latter works with the aid of a laser sensor pointing out from the front end. It looks for objects ahead such as pedestrians, cars and other stationary objects and, after warning to brake, will apply brakes to avoid a collision at speeds under 19 miles per hour.
The CX-5 is Mazda's top selling crossover SUV and, with the new power boost, the company hopes to continue its upward trend in sales. Through September, sales are 60,668 compared with 43,319 during all of 2012.
Len Ingrassia is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.