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A review of the 2013 Mazda CX5 Sport: America's most efficient SUV

In the world of the compact sport utility vehicle, the battle of the most efficient offering is heating up but with the ability to average better than 30 miles per gallon with a mix of city and highway driving – the 2013 Mazda CX5 is the current king of the hill in terms of being the most efficient SUV available.


The compact SUV class is absolutely packed with quality vehicles including the likes of the new Ford Escape, the new Hyundai Santé Fe, and a collection of small-ish Jeep products but the Mazda CX5 boasts the best fuel economy in the class with 26 miles per gallon in the city, 35mpg on the highway and an average figure of 29mpg. Those are mighty impressive numbers but in addition to seeing if the CX5 would reach those figures under real world driving conditions, I wanted to know if this compact ute would satisfy in other categories than just fuel economy. After all, great fuel economy is important but if the rest of the vehicle sucks – many drivers don’t want to compromise other attributes in the name of better MPGs. Luckily, the CX5 doesn’t require many compromises.

I would also like to specify before we get into the meat of this review that my 2013 Mazda CX5 test vehicle was a Sport model with front wheel drive and a 6-speed manual transmission. My test vehicle was equipped with no options over the standard features and this true base model carried a sticker price of only $21,490 (including the $795 destination fee). However, the CX5 offers a surprising amount of content for such an inexpensive and efficient vehicle.

The Exterior
Looking at the outside of the 2013 Mazda CX5, most people would never guess that this is a “base model”. Features like the large Halogen projection headlights, 17” painted aluminum wheels, polished dual exhaust and a sporty rear spoiler prevent the affordable CX5 Sport from looking like a “value model”.

Across the front end, the current design scheme seen across the Mazda lineup (including the newly unveiled Mazda6) is present on the CX5. The big, bold grille gives the upright front fascia a very proud stance while also providing plenty of cooling air to enter the engine bay. The projection headlights mounted high on the front end which help to offer great night driving visibility while black grating is found in the main grille and in the lower fascia openings (these hold fog lights on higher trimlines). While aesthetics come down to a matter of opinion, the large headlights and bold grille give the CX5 a very distinct look that allows it to stand out in a cluttered segment.

The lower portion of the 2013 Mazda CX5 front fascia is finished in a contrasting dark grey that travels around to the side of the vehicle – up around both wheel openings and along the entire side of the vehicle before heading out back. While contrasting plastic cladding can become a point of criticism, the trim on the CX5 bolsters the sporty look of this compact SUV. The elongated greenhouse area sits low relative to the rest of the vehicle, giving the CX5 a very slippery look behind the look hood with a high body line that gives the side profile a very muscular look. The B and C pillars are painted black to give the side view more of an open look as they tend to melt into the darkness of the side glass. I bet that some nice dark tinted windows would really make the CX5 look mean from the side with such a long roofline.

Out back, the 2013 Mazda CX5 features a huge rear window that offers great visibility tucked under the roof-mounted rear spoiler. The lower cladding grows as it wraps around to the rear end with large red reflectors and the dual polished exhaust tips accenting the dark lower fascia area. Finally, the huge tail lights start on the side of the vehicle and flow back into the rear liftgate with integrated reverse indicators, and large stop lamps that are hard to miss with their high mounting position.

The 2013 Mazda CX5 Sport has an exterior design that is deserving of the “sport” designation while also being a base model without looking like a base model. However, the CX5 has a strangely small footprint that makes it easy to wield in small spaces but on first impressions, I was concerned that this small SUV would suffer in the department of interior space but that is not the case.

The Interior
The interior of the 2013 Mazda CX5 Sport is not packed full of high tech gadgets and you won’t find a big touch screen navigation system or an overly elaborate climate control system. However, you will notice that the CX5 Sport (again, this is a $21k base model devoid of any options) offers push button start, remote keyless entry, steering wheel mounted controls for the cruise control and stereo system and – most importantly - tons and tons of interior space. The seating positions are low which allow for a ton of headroom even though the CX5 has a low roofline from the outside. With the front seats adjusted to comfortably seat a 6 foot tall driver and passenger, there is still a ton of leg room for rear riding adult passengers and the long roofline gives rear passengers as much headroom as those seated up front. That long roofline and low floor combine to make for a massive rear cargo area for such a relatively compact vehicle. (There are images of the interior, including the rear cargo area, in my gallery on the right. Click any thumbnail to see the whole gallery.) The only place where space can get tight is between the driver and front passenger where two tall adults may find themselves fighting for elbow space on the small center console. Also, while there are two cup holders mounted in front of the center armrest, if you have two large drinks in those cup holders, they can present an annoyance when shifting.

The dash of the 2013 Mazda CX5 is simple but it still offers some of those features that many modern car buyers don’t want to live without – even when buying an entry level compact SUV. Beyond the steering wheel that features buttons for the stereo and cruise control is a traditional 3-gauge cluster with a large central speedometer flanked by a tachometer on the left and a digital information screen on the right side that displays outside temperature, fuel economy numbers, trip mileage and the fuel level gauge. It is simple but it looks good and it does everything that you expect. While a big infotainment screen is available on higher trimline models, the CX5 Sport comes with a very standard radio that features good ol’ fashioned buttons and knobs but it still incorporates modern features like USB accessibility and iPod integration along with the basics like a CD player and AM/FM radio. The HVAC system also features very simple controls with three large knobs with one controlling temperature range, another controlling air direction and the last controlling fan speed. The large center stack is finished with a large storage cubby just below the HVAC controls and in front of the shifter.

The interior of the 2013 Mazda CX5 Sport doesn’t come with all of the high priced bells and buzzers that you can get on the other trimlines of this sporty compact SUV but with all of the expected features like power windows and power locks combined with items that other base models do not offer like push button start and steering wheel stereo controls allow this low price SUV feel like a much upscale model.

The Drive
The 2013 Mazda CX5 Sport is powered by the Skyactiv-G 2.0L 4-cylinder engine that sends 155 horsepower and 150lb-ft of torque to the front wheels via a 6-speed manual transmission. This configuration offers EPA fuel economy ratings of 26mpg around town, 35 on the highway and 29 combined. During my time driving the CX5, I averaged 30.7 miles per gallon over the course of 8 days of mixed driving and I am here to tell you that in no way did I drive the CX5 in a way that would unfairly bolster the fuel economy figures. I drive hard all of the time and while I have a knack for driving hard and still getting good fuel economy – the CX5 is an SUV that delivers on its fuel economy promises. I was easily able to hit 35mpg on the highway while cruising at Detroit highway speeds (70+) over the course of long drives so those folks who buy a new CX5 shouldn’t have a hard time getting incredible fuel economy.

Traditionally, the thought of a roomy compact SUV that offers 35 miles per gallon on the highway is accompanied by a concern of being painfully uninspiring to drive but in the case of the 2013 Mazda CX5, I had high expectations. In talking to many autowriters who had an opportunity to review the CX5, I found that pretty much everyone loved it. There was a great deal of talk about the CX5 being fun to drive while still offering great fuel economy and having plenty of interior space; especially for such a small vehicle. However, I was still skeptical that the 155 horsepower and 150lb-ft of torque would be anywhere near enough power to make an SUV “fun to drive” for me.

That skepticism ended quickly during my first stint driving the 2013 Mazda CX5.

I should start by saying that I think that every vehicle should offer a manual transmission but the 2013 Mazda CX5 is one of the few vehicles in the class which offers a chance to truly row your own gears. Many competitors have automatic transmissions with gadgetry like paddle shifters and basic shift control with the push of a button or the shifter itself but a manually shifter SUV has become a true rarity. I believe that to be one of the features that makes the CX5 so much fun to drive. The clutch of the CX5 is far friendlier than many “entry level” manual transmission offerings so someone who is new to shifting for themselves should be able to get a hang of driving the CX5 quickly (as manual transmissions go). The manual transmission allows the CX5 to make better use of the 155 available horsepower, improving acceleration and honestly making the CX5 a fun little SUV to drive while also being one of the main reasons that this compact SUV is able to hit 35 miles per gallon and average better than 30mpg combined.

Manual transmission aside, the 2013 Mazda CX5 offers a nice smooth ride on the highway with only minimal levels of “road noise” transferring into the cabin at highway speeds. The suspension allows the CX5 to handle well in tight turns while the small overall size of the vehicle make it easy to maneuver in even the tightest driving and parking situations. Regardless of whether you are on the open road or driving around the city, the CX5 feels more like a compact sedan than a compact SUV with no feeling of being in a vehicle that is looming over the others around it. When combined with the fine art of shifting the manual transmission to optimize performance, the suspension and chassis of the CX5 will allow some spirited cornering that can be hard to find in this segment.

The 2013 Mazda CX5 isn’t a vehicle that is going to tear up any racing leagues but this super efficient sport utility vehicle allows strong enough acceleration and confident enough handling that the owner can have a vehicle that offers 35 miles per gallon while also providing that special “fun to drive” factor.

The Final Word
The 2013 Mazda CX5 Sport draws a ton of attention for the fact that it received an EPA fuel economy rating of 35 miles per gallon on the highway and in my own testing, I found that 30+ mpg is very realistic over the course of a tank of gasoline. In addition to being the most efficient SUV available in the US, this entry level model carries a price of just over $21k but it offers this affordable efficiency without cutting back in other areas. The entry level CX5 Sport offers features inside and out that are traditionally found on higher level (and higher price) trimlines while also offering loads of passenger and cargo space, enough power to make the drive enjoyable and a sharp looking exterior design.

Unlike other compact SUVs that offer their best fuel economy only in higher priced trimlines with expensive engine options, the standard 2.0L Skyactiv engine mated to a 6-speed manual transmission allows a buyer to save money at the dealership and at the pump without compromising the overall driving experience. Someone looking for a roomy compact SUV with incredible fuel economy capacities, a confident ride, solid acceleration and amenities that are generally found only in more expensive models – the $21,490 Mazda CX5 Sport should definitely be on your short list.


Keith (not verified)    September 30, 2012 - 4:42PM

I like the CX5 - but they have made it hard to get a manual transmission. If you want the upgraded model, with for example nicer seats, better radio, nav system, etc - you have to get the auto transmission. With the auto, that 35mpg number becomes 31mpg.

I love to get that 6 speed manual teamed with the nicer interior...

Anonymous (not verified)    October 21, 2012 - 7:46PM

Impossible to find the 6 speed manual transmission. They sell instantly. Why does Mazda not offer a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob in a so-called "Sport" model? And why only 3, rather limited, colors. The other models get blue, white, red, etc. while the Sport is limited to a dark gray, another dark color and a not very good looking silver. When they finally decide to offer the car in white, and actually decide to import some here into CA, I will buy one. But I will be hung before I buy a dark colored car in So California with our heat. Absurdly hard on a cars finish, on it's cooling system and on the A/C system. Besides white is THE most popular color in the world.