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Review: Mazda's CX-5 Signature tries for a luxury ride without the luxury price

Key Points
  • The CX-5 Signature is Mazda's attempt to draw in luxury buyers.
  • It rides well, looks great and is more fun than anything else in its class.
  • With a new turbocharged engine, the CX-5 is finally as quick as it is fun.
The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC

Mazda has a history of cars that drive better than their prices would suggest. The company has built a reputation for affordable cars that manage to be extremely fun and seriously desirable.

Now, the company is teaming those qualities with well-appointed interiors and improved materials to make its top-end cars competitive with luxury brands that don't come with the luxury price tags. That's the idea behind the CX-5 Signature. After a week with one, it seems like Mazda's plan is working.

The good

Our CX-5 tester had a sticker price of $39,155, which is on the high end of the compact crossover range. For that price, though, you get a serious options list and a fantastic interior.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The CX-5 Signature has a 360-degree parking camera, front and rear parking sensors, heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, radar cruise control, a Bose sound system, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, a head-up display, blind spot monitoring and more.

All of that technology is packaged in a best-in-class interior, with satin chrome trimming, layered wood and supple brown Nappa leather. It's far ahead of any other car in its mainstream class, shaming interiors in the entry-level SUVs of Cadillac, Infiniti and Lexus.

Exterior design is also a high point. The CX-5 is one of the best looking SUVs on sale today in any price point, but the rich Machine Gray Metallic paint and upgraded alloy wheels really make it stand out. It looks every dollar of its near-$40,000 price tag.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC

On the road, the CX-5 Signature continues to impress.

As with all CX-5s before it, steering is precise and sharp with excellent body control. It loves to hustle down twisty roads, but now it's got the oomph to power out of corners thanks to a new engine. The CX-5 Signature comes with Mazda's 2.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder, producing 227 horsepower and a massive 310 pound-feet of torque.

A big torque number means the CX-5 pulls hard, accelerating quickly from any speed. That helps allay our previous complaint that the CX-5 was too slow for its capable chassis. Through broken-up highways or tight hairpins, the CX-5 is comfortable, fast and fun in all situations.

Previous CX-5s also struggled with noise isolation, but that's not a problem with the current CX-5 Signature. The engine is appropriately muffled, road noise is filtered out and the slipperiness of the body helps avoid irritating wind noise.

It's a league above cars like the Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue in terms of desirability, interior quality and driving experience. Despite it being priced like the other mainstream compact crossovers, the CX-5 drives better, looks better and is better-appointed than a lot of luxury SUVs.

The bad

Of course, there are some trade offs here. The CX-5 may out-drive the CR-V, but it can't beat the practicality of the Honda. The CX-5 is a little small for the class and lacks the thoughtful cubbies and storage areas of the CR-V.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC

We were also disappointed by the fuel economy. The CX-5 Signature is rated for 22 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, but our average with a lot of highway driving came to just under 23 mpg. It was high-speed driving, so the CX-5 was probably held back by its six-speed automatic transmission. Because more overdrive gears allow engines to use less gas at high speeds, most competitors have moved on to eight or nine-speed gearboxes.

Mazda's also fallen behind in active safety tech. While the CX-5 has radar cruise control and lane keeping, it doesn't actively center you in your lane and the cruise control is far from the smoothest system on sale. Both the Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V offer more advanced suites of active safety features.

And finally, Mazda's infotainment system has lost its edge. The menus are simple, but the small infotainment display means it can't show you navigation and music at the same time. We also think it's time to redo the voice command system, as it isn't as easy to use as Ford or General Motor's newest systems.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC

How we'd option it

The CX-5 Signature starts at $37,935 and includes pretty much everything. There are no substantive options, but our tester's price was inflated by the $300 premium paint color, illuminated door sill plates and other accessories installed at the dealer. Besides those cosmetic options, all CX-5 Signatures are fully equipped.

Final thoughts

Given the company's history of making cars that look great, feel fun to drive and still offer the comfort and practicality buyers want, it's really no surprise that the brand is moving upmarket. The cars are certainly good enough to justify a higher price point, but Mazda keeps adding more to make them better.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC

Price-conscious shoppers looking for a more basic crossover and those who want the utmost practicality may still be better served by options from Honda, Subaru and Toyota. But if you want the most desirable, refined, fun, attractive and well-appointed compact crossover than the CX-5 Signature is so clearly ahead of the competition that it's no longer fair to consider it in the same class.

Rating:

Exterior: 4.5

Interior: 4.5

Driving Experience: 4.5

Value: 5

Overall: 4.6

Price as tested: $39,155

*Ratings out of 5.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
Mack Hogan | CNBC