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Mazda CX-5 review: Growing the economy

After barely a year, the CX-5 has been updated. The main change is under the bonnet.

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Mazda CX-5 2.5 Super Luxury

Singapore

MAZDA and Toyota may both be Japanese car makers, but there is a fundamental difference between them. Toyota is obsessed with building cars better than anyone else, while Mazda is more intent on building better cars than anyone.

Toyota's recipe may have brought it wild success (it builds six cars for every one that Mazda makes), but it's Mazda that is arguably more beloved by car enthusiasts.

The first Mazda MX-5 single-handedly revived the global market for two-seat roadsters, the brand's rotary-engined cars are now considered classics, and until this month Mazda was the only Japanese car maker to ever win the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. Last weekend, Toyota became the second.

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Yet, the differences between the two companies could be the very reason they agreed to join forces in 2015 and share technical know-how. Perhaps each saw something in the other, and could see the sense in combining "sensible" with "sexy". Or maybe Mazda, like some of us, had always wondered what it would be like to get into bed with someone much larger than ourselves.

Whatever happens behind the scenes, the CX-5 is the public face of Mazda's approach to making cars.

This generation of the mid-sized Sport Utility Vehicle was actually launched in Singapore last July, yet here we are less than a year later, and Mazda has already given it a mild makeover.

That says a lot about the brand's inveterate need to tinker. Car makers usually wait three or four years into a model's life cycle before rolling out improvements to keep buyers interested.

Many of the new features are minor or cosmetic, such as the addition of roof rails for the pricier versions. The side skirts are now decorated with smart looking strips of chrome, as are the front and rear air dams.

Inside, some versions have a new, clearer head up display unit for the windscreen that replaces a cheaper, flip-up style system.

At least you can see those changes. Under the bonnet, the Skyactiv-G 2.5 model has an engine that can now shut half itself down to save fuel. That's a bit like turning off the lights in a room when you leave it, and it effectively gives the CX-5 two engines in one: a 2.5-litre four-cylinder for most of the time, and a 1.25-litre two-cylinder one for gentle cruising.

This sort of cylinder deactivation has been around for decades. Cadillac and Mitsubishi flirted with it in the 80s, after which Mercedes and Honda had a go, and now there are several cars from Audi and Volkswagen that have it.

Even Harley-Davidsons cut off one of their two cylinders at idle, although they do it to prevent heat from roasting their riders' legs.

The tricky part is to deactivate the cylinders imperceptibly - imagine if you lived in a smart home that could turn unneeded lights off automatically, and reactivate them just before you entered a room so that you would never notice they were ever switched off.

Sure enough, in the CX-5, you never, ever notice whenever half the engine has dropped off to sleep.

The shut-down only kicks in between 40km/h and 80km/h, and Mazda says it can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20 per cent at the lower end of that speed range.

On paper, the system brings no benefit at all: the CX-5's fuel consumption is rated at 7.2 litres per 100km, the same as before. But Mazda says real-world driving is different from formal testing, so customers are likely to see at least some savings.

For good measure, the firm also gave the engine a new fuel injector nozzles, redesigned the pistons and exhaust ports, and tweaked the engine control unit. Cleaner emissions are one result of all that; the previous version of this engine farted out 13 times as much soot.

Being invisible, those improvements are never going to impress your friends, so it's just as well that the CX-5 retains its more obvious appeal. The cabin's neat layout, European-style controls and tight build give it an air of poshness, and while the (optional) white upholstery might look like a pain to keep clean, it sure is pleasing to the eye.

Every version comes with satellite navigation, climate control and a reverse camera, and all but the cheapest 2.0 Standard model get such niceties as a powered tailgate, electrically adjusting front seats and blind spot monitors.

What really makes the CX-5 stand out is the way it handles. It goes around corners in an unruffled way that fills the driver with confidence, and the steering is appealingly responsive. For an SUV, it feels as taut as a guitar string.

That's a characteristic that was there at the start, however. Even for Mazda, some things don't have to be tinkered with.


Mazda CX-5 2.5 Super Luxury

Engine 2,488cc, 16-valve inline 4
Power 194hp at 6,000rpm
Torque 258Nm at 4,000rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
0-100km/h 8.9 seconds
Top Speed 201km/h
Fuel Efficiency 7.2L/100km
Agent Trans Eurokars
Price S$159,800 with COE
Available Now