Mazda CX-5 - First Drive

A supple, stylish performer for the school run

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Price: £21,395 to £28,795
Tested: 2.2 AWD Sport Nav diesel
Power output (PS @ rpm): 175 @ 4,500
Top speed (mph): 136
0-60 mph (seconds): 8.8
Fuel economy (mpg): 54.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 139

Mazda hasn't had a great couple of years. South Korean challengers have been snapping at its heels, the high yen has stunted exports, flooding at its Thai plant has interrupted production and of course there was the Japanese tsunami at home. The new Mazda CX-5, the company's first foray into the crossover market, has come at a good time to help stop sales slides in Europe and a fourth year of global losses.

It's rather late to the party though. Car manufacturers have been creating ever more improbable "crossover" vehicles – crosses between saloons, hatchbacks and SUVs – for some time now. It seems former-4x4 drivers appreciate something a little less ostentatious (and more economical) in our austere times and traditional hatchback buyers get something with lots more space and presence on the road. Car makers have responded with dozens of oddly named, middle-of-the-road vehicles to keep everyone happy. There's the award-winning Skoda Yeti and Kia Sportage at the budget end of the market, the Nissan Juke/Qashqai and Ford Kuga in the middle, and the VW Tiguan and other luxury offerings further up.

It's odd that Mazda has taken so long to jump on the bandwagon. The well-equipped CX-5, which is about the same size as a Land Rover Freelander and comes with a choice of two diesel engines and one petrol, is the company's attempt to play catch-up. But why would you buy one over its established rivals?

Like most crossovers, it isn't the most striking thing to look at. Thankfully crossovers are really designed with the school run in mind. Here the Mazda's large body comes out well with plenty of space inside, lots of storage and a decent boot. Burly teens won't be struggling for space in the rear either. There is a classy interior, an easily adjustable driving position and an easy-to-use touch-screen central display.

On the road, most crossovers tend to suffer from body roll and aren't the most engaging rides for keen drivers. Thankfully, the CX-5 is a treat to drive. It is not made for race tracks, but Mazda has used high-tensile steel to make it far lighter and engaging than its rivals. It also gets precise steering, a supple ride and all-wheel drive for grippy handling. Add the range-topping 172bhp diesel which I tested (it feels like a free revving petrol engine) and it offers a chance for some spirited driving, while its quick, crisp wrist-flick gear changes will be familiar to MX-5 drivers.

This performance doesn't come at the cost of economy either. Its engine's compression ratio – the degree to which the fuel mixture is compressed before ignition – is the highest of any production engine available thanks to some clever work by Mazda's engineers. Combined with more lightweight steel and some other clever engine tricks, the CX-5 delivers lower CO2 and higher fuel economy than any of its rivals. It also goes some way to reduce some of the other harmful emissions associated with diesel engines.

It might look dull, but in a packed and frankly bland field of crossovers the CX-5 boasts plenty of space, some clever engine technology and better-than-average handling. That should be enough to shift the 4,000 or so models Mazda is getting from its Hiroshima plant with ease.

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