2014Mazda CX-5 Sport-ute

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Mazda CX-5 embodies Mazda’s Kodo “soul of motion” design, for “a striking stance and an illusion of constant motion, sure to turn heads even when it’s sitting still.” Mazda photo
Mazda CX-5 embodies Mazda’s Kodo “soul of motion” design, for “a striking stance and an illusion of constant motion, sure to turn heads even when it’s sitting still.” Mazda photo

Pity poor Mazda. How would you like to go up against global titans like Toyota, Honda, Ford and the Koreans—and regional powerhouses such as Subaru and Jeep—in one of the most hotly contested markets of them all, namely the compact crossover sport-ute class?

Without the colossal resources of those brands, and relying heavily on a mysterious concept called “Skyactiv”?

Right, me neither. Yet the CX-5 is turning out to be a smash hit for Mazda. (Relatively speaking. Last year, Honda sold more Civics than Mazda did all models combined.) And Interweb chatter indicates that CX-5 owners are a happy bunch; they seem to feel they got good value and they like the way their new vehicles drive and look. My guess is that a lot of them just didn’t want to join the vast herds of CR-V and RAV4 owners—but I’ll also bet that a lot of them wonder, What is Skyactiv, anyway? Some Zen discipline that allowed Samurai warriors to achieve nirvana in heavy traffic? At least people understood Zoom-Zoom.

It’s probably better to focus on the results, namely fuel economy and driving excellence, and ignore the actual nuts and bolts. Skyactiv is, in fact, nuts and bolts: a massively complex harmonizing of engines, transmissions, chassis and even climate-control systems to squeeze the most efficiency out of them.

The MX-5 Miata roadster’s Skyactiv-MT gearbox, for example, reportedly has the shortest stroke of any manual transmission in a passenger car. For the CX-5, Mazda claims that Skyactiv technology provides the “best highway mileage of any SUV in America, including hybrids.”

OK, but they’re talking about the base 2-liter CX-5 Sport model with a manual gearbox and front-wheel drive, which is rated for up to 35 MPG. With just 155 horsepower, there’s nothing sporty about it. For better performance, you’ll want the Touring or Grand Touring versions of the CX-5, with the new-for-2014 184-horsepower motor and a 6-speed automatic transmission. With FWD, the highway mileage projection now drops to 32, and with all-wheel drive it edges down further yet, to 30 MPG (and 24 in city driving). At an average speed of 40 MPH overall, we traveled 27.6 miles on each gallon of gas.

That’s nothing to sneeze at, especially given the virtues of the overall package. The CX-5 has room and comfort for five plus the usual broad mix of standard and available toys, with crisp driving behavior tossed in as a bonus. Mazda seems to have applied the sweat-the-details Skyactiv approach to parts of the car that we can see and touch, too. The rear liftgate, for instance, is perfectly balanced and spring-loaded for easy operation; the cargo cover swings up and down with it, so it needn’t be retracted separately; and folding the rear seats is unusually easy, thanks to a unique set of latches. That sort of thing.

Our loaded $32,000 CX-5 Grand Touring AWD came with two columns of standard features ranging from 19-inch wheels and front and rear stabilizer bars to rain-sensing wipers, seat heaters and blind-spot monitors. It also had the optional Tech Package (GPS navigation, collision alert and automatic braking, keyless entry and starting, high-intensity self-leveling headlights and a self-dimming rearview mirror with a Homelink connection).

Accessories aside, taken literally, “Grand Touring” would be a huge misnomer—certain very expensive German, British and Italian cars are laughing—but calling it the CX-5 Better Than Average would be a marketing gaffe of epic proportion. That’s what this CX-5 is, though: a competent and flaw-free jack-of-all-trades vehicle struggling to grab our attention in a sea of better-known competitors.

Like Saab, Mazda has always found its own path and appealed to a certain sort of stand-apart buyer. Saab having gone toes-up, today the CX-5 seems to be the Japanese analog to VW’s Tiguan, another less-well-known compact crossover that emphasizes driving dynamics. The CX-5 is light-years more mainstream than Mazda’s 1980s rotary-engine cars or even the “five-stroke” late-‘90s Millennia luxury sedan, but it still exemplifies the company’s hardware-first approach to car making.