Even though you’ll be having fun behind the wheel, the CX-5’s styling ensures you remain under the radar.
Sometimes, making a change means losing sight of what you used to hold dear. Thankfully, that’s not the case for the 2021 Mazda CX-5. While the Japanese automaker has injected its latest vehicles with affordable doses of luxury-level trimmings, the company hasn’t lost sight of the fun-to-drive nature that brought people into its showrooms in years past. If anything, it only makes this compact crossover more compelling.
LikeFun to driveProperly fancy interiorAffordable
Don’t LikeLight on cargo spaceMiddling MPGsLack of touchscreen isn’t for everyone
Devoid of harsh angles and eye-grabbing garishness, I appreciate the CX-5’s clean body lines, with only a hint of aggression on the hood giving way to subdued curves on the sides. It’s a little anonymous, sure, but I think it’s interesting in the compact crossover segment; competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue are content to go hard in the paint with unique styling but a general glossing-over of driving dynamics, whereas Mazda’s taking the opposite approach.
The best parts of the CX-5’s design are inside. This cabin is one of my favorites in the segment; just like the exterior, Mazda chooses to prioritize cleanliness over whiz-bang, look-at-me styling. Combine that with a whole lot of impressively soft leather on my Signature-trim tester, and you have an interior that borders on bona-fide luxury — and for less than the average new-car transaction price. The front seats are spacious and supportive without being tight, and while the rear seats may be a little cramped for folks over 6 feet tall, there’s still a decent amount of space back there.
Storage is a bit of a mixed bag, though. The CX-5’s cabin itself has a sufficient number of places to store one’s junk, whether it’s the phone-or-mask-sized tray under the climate controls or the deep center armrest cubby with its removable shelf. However, cargo area suffers compared to the competition; at 30.9 cubic feet behind the second-row seats, the CX-5 falls far behind the Honda CR-V (about 38 cubic feet), Toyota RAV4 (about 37) and Nissan Rogue (about 36). You’ll have to either get creative with your trip packing or figure out which child gets left at home.
Rewarding on the road
The 2021 Mazda CX-5 comes with one of two engines. Lower trims get a 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated I4 that produces 187 horsepower, but the top-tier Signature example before me picks up some major hustle with a 2.5-liter turbocharged I4 that bumps output to a meaty 250 hp and 320 pound-feet of torque. (Those numbers are for premium fuel; using the cheap stuff drops those specs to 227 and 310, respectively.) Whether I’m using the torque to swiftly move between stoplights around town or wringing the four-pot out at higher revs to pass cars on the highway, at no point am I left wanting for more motive force. Both engines use a six-speed automatic that might feel a little behind the times on gear count, but in practice it’s a smooth-shifting transmission that will never command attention.
Throwing some fun characteristics into a mass-market vehicle’s driving dynamics sometimes requires a trade-off in daily livability, but not here. The 2021 CX-5’s static dampers do an impressive balancing act, soaking up a majority of gross roads and returning little in the way of jostling or uncomfortable movement. Yet, at the same time, entering a corner faster than my passengers might prefer doesn’t result in a floaty or discombobulated feeling. The steering is direct but not so tight that small movements feel like bigger ones, and both pedals are dead simple to modulate for smoothness. Like its styling, I think the way the CX-5 drives will appeal to a broad swath of the buying public.
Oh, don’t worry, there’s a downside tucked away in here. Sadly, it’s fuel economy. With all-wheel drive and the peppier engine option, the 2021 CX-5 is EPA-rated at just 22 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway. I was able to best those figures by a couple, mind you, but the feds’ estimates are bleak in the face of Mazda’s competitors. For context, a similarly equipped Honda CR-V is rated at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, with the RAV4 pulling ahead of the Honda by 1 mpg highway. Then again, that’s the price you pay for having 310 lb-ft of torque, which the other cars mentioned here definitely do not.
The CX-5’s interior gives a few “premium” automakers a run for their money.
Slick standard tech
While many of Mazda’s competitors are content to give you a little baby screen unless you throw down more money for a higher trim or an options package, the 2021 CX-5 gives every single buyer a 10.3-inch infotainment display mounted high on the dashboard, which runs the sleekest, newest version of the Mazda Connect software. Like the rest of the interior, this screen looks pretty darn fancy, with a standard dark-mode motif that is light on distracting eye candy. It’s responsive, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now both standard, but buyers used to touchscreens may not enjoy the fact that the sole methods of manipulation are a rotary dial on the center console and voice commands through a steering wheel button. When it comes time to charge, there are two USB ports for each row, although the base CX-5 Sport only makes do with plugs up front.
That’s not the only screen tucked away in the CX-5, though. Grand Touring and higher trims also receive a 7-inch LCD in the gauge cluster that comprises the speedometer and can show a bit of extra information on either side; it’s a little light on features, but it gets the job done without overwhelming the driver. There’s also a head-up display on Grand Touring Reserve and Signature variants, which projects pertinent information on the windshield rather than the dinky pop-up plastic that Mazda used to rely on.
Like most every other automaker, Mazda’s thrown in a number of active and passive safety systems regardless of trim. Every 2021 CX-5 gets automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot monitoring. The tip-top Signature model adds to that with a surround-view monitor, traffic sign recognition and reverse automatic emergency braking.
In addition to the usual pages for audio and navigation, you can track your fuel economy… although given its efficiency, perhaps you don’t want to do that.
Down to brass tacks
The 2021 Mazda CX-5 is affordable, with the Sport FWD model starting at $26,370, including $1,100 for destination. AWD is a $1,400 option for any trim except Grand Touring Reserve and Signature, where it’s standard. Pricing tops out with my tester’s Signature trim, which will set you back $38,505 — a fair chunk of change, yes, but still within the realm of affordability.
That puts the CX-5 in line with the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue, all of which are viable competitors. However, the CX-5’s biggest rivals are pretty milquetoast, offering little in the way of an interesting drive. The Mazda might be a little low on cargo space compared to the rest, but the tradeoff is a compact crossover that’s engineered with more than rote transportation in mind.