Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 3, 2013

Cargazing: Mazda CX-5 offers fuel-sipping fun

By Derek Price CNHI News Service

— The American automotive industry seems to be in a golden age, but can it last?

Foreign manufacturers are building new factories here. Sales are rising nationwide. All of the Big Three companies are recording profits.

And best of all, the cars themselves are consistently better than they have been in years. I can’t think of a single junky car being sold today, which is a big difference from 10 years ago. Even the cheapest compact cars don’t seem cheaply built these days.

At the same time, new fuel economy requirements going into effect could be a cause for worry in the car-loving crowd. Cars from the 1980s, the last time the global auto industry got so focused on saving fuel, were about as far from a “golden age” as you can get.

Puny engines and flimsy plastic trim, while great for gas mileage, just don’t make for fun driving.

I’m breathing a sigh of relief, though, after spending a week behind the wheel of a 2014 vehicle for the first time — a Mazda CX-5 crossover — which was engineered to meet the tighter fuel standards for the future.

And, thank goodness, it didn’t give me any flashbacks to 1987.

To be sure, the new CX-5 is designed around the Obama-era fuel requirements. It’s rated for 35 mpg on the highway with the 2.0-liter base engine, which is astounding for a five-passenger crossover with a big cargo hold in back.

Lightweight construction, carefully calibrated transmissions and new engine designs are all helping with that.

But even more impressive is what Mazda has managed to do with a new 2.5-liter engine that’s available starting on these 2014 CX-5s. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, the new engine makes 184 horsepower while getting a 32-mpg highway rating.

In other words, it makes enough power to actually be enjoyable but still gets the gas mileage of an efficient mid-size car.

That’s especially important for a brand like Mazda, which has staked its reputation on fun-to-drive cars.

Just like its brilliant sports car, the MX-5 Miata, Mazda has managed to inject lots of joy into the CX-5’s driving experience without using giant gobs of horsepower.

The suspension is very firm and communicative but not uncomfortably jarring. The steering is precise and perfectly weighted. And the new automatic transmission feels remarkably similar to the expensive direct-shift gearboxes in a few European cars.

With the new drivetrain, Mazda has managed to do something that I didn’t think was possible: meet the tough new federal fuel guidelines without sacrificing its spunky, spirited driving feel.

Will other companies be able to do the same thing? It’s hard to say, because “spirited” is what Mazda does best.

But the success of this fresh drivetrain inspires confidence that the new corporate fuel guidelines won’t be the nightmare that some car guys have feared.

Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service.