I took my CX-5 on a racetrack and didn’t die. I actually had a lot of fun.
I know I’ve given Mazda a lot of flak for not going the last mile in the design and execution of the latest generation CX-5, it’s a beautiful car that just needs a little polish in a few key areas. But in the name of fairness I want to address the single biggest thing Mazda did/does right: the driving experience. We all know Mazda’s “Zoom Zoom” aspirations, but how does that manifest itself in a practical, daily-drive vehicle like the CX-5?
I recently had the pleasure of joining the Jersey Shore Region Porsche Club of America at one of their “Drivers Education” events, a day-long sessions where you are instructed on how to push your car to the absolute limits of its performance. Let’s not kid ourselves, I had no thought or intention of reviewing the CX-5’s handling characteristics. I was just here to put my foot down and have fun. But when you’re barreling towards a hard left turn at 80 MPH, applying brakes, and you feel like you’re going to fly off the asphalt (but don’t)… that’s when you see what your car is really made of. And the CX-5 is made of some pretty good stuff. Not fault-less, but plenty good enough to be satisfying. Here’s why:
Say what you will about 184 HP not being enough in a crossover (I would love a Subaru 2.0L Turbo here though), races are not won in the straights. Anyone can put their foot down and go fast, how you navigate through the bends is where the real skill is at and here I have to commend Mazda. The CX-5 is extremely predictable and controlled under cornering. You will know exactly when you’ve reached the car’s limits, and up to that point it’s very stable. If you start taking a turn too fast, you’ll be able to recognize the understeer and lift off the gas to correct it (although you would probably already be on the brakes until just before the apex). And since the CX-5 is AWD, you can add power without much risk of destabilizing the car.
Plus, for a tall car like this, Mazda’s stiffened suspension and rigid chassis keeps roll to a minimum. I saw some photos from a track photographer at the end of the day, and I was only a degrees or two more canted than an Acura TSX through some pretty serious turns. Not once was I concerned about rollover.
This is a concern a lot of people may have if they choose to take a casual driving car out to the track, brake fade. After decelerating 3,500 lb of steel and flesh from 100 mph multiple times in a half hour, I can happily report that there was only a very minor impact on braking performance. The front brake discs are vented (rear is a single disc), since most of the car’s weight will be on the front tires, and they held up through my runs. They were extremely hot after each track session (you could feel it radiating off), but no worse for wear. They will easily hold up to the worst of what you’ll see on public roads.
Also, the brake actuation is very smooth, though some people from different brands may need to recalibrate their feet and expectations for pedal travel (just go take a test drive). But punching the brakes hard as you approach a turn feels surprisingly natural and smooth. I only felt ABS kicking in once or twice, and only came close to losing control once. The stock tires also held up remarkably well (as well as can be expected anyways…), although insane people who take their CX-5’s racing might want to opt for the grand touring trim level for less sidewall.
I have both praise and criticism here, and not about any deficiency in horsepower. I will admit that I kept my CX-5 in automatic mode throughout the day. Learning all 10 turns on the Lightning track while Porsches flew by me was a little too overwhelming for my to try my hand at rowing the gears. And for the most part, that’s okay. At “normal” speeds (below 80 mph), the CX-5 is very willing to downshift. Every time I floored the accelerator coming out of turns, I felt a satisfying kick as the transmission dropped down. There was however a slight delay between flooring the pedal and power delivery. You have to anticipate when you’ll need power and roll onto the accelerator a half second before it’s needed. On the track, this meant I was hitting the accelerator a little before crossing the apex.
Above 80 MPH though, I think Mazda could have tuned the ECU better. Coming onto the main straight, I noticed that my tachometer was reading a bit lower than it should have. 3-5000 RPM instead of 4-6000. I think if the CX-5 had maintained a lower gear just a little bit longer I could’ve eked out a couple more MPH before hitting the first turn. Instead, I peaked at 101.4 MPH for the day. This car would probably benefit from a “Sport+” mode that keeps the engine at higher revs… though really, it would benefit from having any mode control at all, even if it was an “Eco” button like Honda has. It would save more gas for the fun times later.
Although it was never meant to be abused on the track, the CX-5 feels extremely well balanced for a car of its class when pushed to its limits. I truly believe that few other (sub-$30,000) crossovers could do nearly as well on the track. This car will endure all manner of abuse while jumping between full acceleration and full braking, it corners consistently, and it does so without any special modifications. It just works.
Speaking of tech product slogans, if only Mazda’s infotainment system worked…