Mazda’s CX-5 stands out from the crossover crowd

Let’s start with the bottom line today: If you are in the market for a compact crossover/SUV (they seem to be melding into one and the same these days), do yourself a favor and give today’s test car, the 2013 Mazda CX-5, a long, hard look.

With this vehicle, Mazda competes favorably with the Chevrolet Equinox, Dodge Journey, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sorrento, and Subaru Forester.

And that’s just the short list of this burgeoning class. Why are there so many of these smaller “big” cars? Because we’re buying them.

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We know that because:

• The CUV segment was the first part of the market to recover to its pre-recession sales numbers of 2007.

• The segment has grown from 800,000 sales in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2011. The bar on the graph, as they say, continues to trend upward.

• According to Ford’s research, CUVs account for 6 of every 10 utility vehicles sold in Greater Boston.

Erich Merkle, Ford’s United States sales analyst, points to a convergence of the two biggest segments of the population, the 80 million Baby Boomers and a similar number of what Ford calls“Millennials”(teens to early 30s) and other marketing people term Gen Y.

“The Boomers are downsizing. They no longer need the big SUV and $120 fill-ups at the pump,” Merkle says, “and the Millennials are upsizing from perhaps a compact car to a CUV. The lower cost of ownership fits both groups at a point where they now meet in the middle.”

The CUV provides the right amount of utility and greater fuel efficiency, he says, pointing out that more efficient engines, combined with six-speed transmissions and continuing weight reduction, are projected to achieve 33 to 35 miles per gallon in highway driving. Boomers are driving CUV sales at this point. “With 10,000 Americans retiring every day, there’s accumulated wealth in that group that will be a major market factor for years to come,” Merkle told the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) earlier this year.

So how does Mazda fit into this CUV mosaic?

Its strong points start with fuel economy and the Skyactiv 2.0-liter gas engine that has the world’s highest compression ratio (13:1) for a mass-produced vehicle. Thanks to some clever engineering involving a“volcanoshaped” piston dome, six-hole high-pressure injection, delayed timing, and elongated exhaust routing, it runs on regular unleaded fuel. The vehicle offers 155 horsepower and 150 lb.-ft. of torque.

Mazda also lightened the body through imaginative chassis and body design and a revamped steering system that we found to be agile at low and medium speeds and stable at highway speeds. It’s all part of the SKYACTIV program aimed at greater economy while keeping the company’s signature Zoom- Zoom.Translation: The steering and driving experience is class-leading.

That means two of the CX-5’s major selling points—engine and handling—are invisible on the showroom floor but obvious out on a back country road.

The CX-5 is all new for 2013 and has attractive styling, even in a group of look-a-likes. Of course, distinguishing the differences among many of these CUVs is like trying to pick the differences in the homemade chocolate chip cookies at a bake sale. There are slight variations in shape and flavor, so you discover a lot that you like.

We found both the shape and flavor of the CX-5 to be favorable, including Mazda’s signature smiley grille.

The redesign—from sketch book to showroom— was achieved with a team philosophy that Mazda calls jinbai ittai, oneness between car and driver. In the CX-5, you can feel it.

The CX-5 comes in three trim levels, the base Sport, midlevel Touring, and upscale GrandTouring. Each can be ordered as frontwheel or all-wheel-drive.

Our test vehicle was an AWD GrandTouring that had an MSRP of $29,090 (including destination). A technology package ($1,325) adds TomTom Navigation and adaptive front lighting among a long list of items, bringing the sticker price to $30,415. By comparison, a base model with front-wheel-drive and the six-speed automatic starts at $22,890.

As noted above, the CX-5 was a pleasure to drive with solid handling and comfortable suspension. There is a little Zoom-Zoom there as the engine does its job nicely, though at times you realize that there’s not a lot more power in reserve—a fair trade for the economy.

Inside, the CX-5 was almost all black with leather trimmed seats and wheel. Even the wood trim was black, leaving us thinking it was bland until we took a closer look and noticed the occasional row of red stitching and the upscale feel at the touch points.

The AWD CX-5s are rated at 25 miles per gallon in city driving, 31 on the highway, and 28 combined. We were right on the projected numbers with 28.1 mpg. In my book, this Mazda is a top contender in its class. Some comparison shopping and test drives might put it up there in yours as well.