When it comes to compact crossovers, it’s easy to see why the 2021 Mazda CX-5 wins the SUV equivalent of Best-in-Show. Not only does it boast beautifully sculpted bodywork, its interior is just as interesting to the eyes. Of course, Mazda has shown us that its attention to detail is more than skin-deep, with thoughtful ergonomics and engaging driving dynamics. Compared with its predominantly dull competitors, the CX-5 is delightfully athletic and equally refined. While the standard four-cylinder engine lacks the punch of the available turbo-four, both pair with a highly proficient automatic transmission and are more fuel efficient than their EPA ratings suggest. Despite a smaller cargo area than its key competitors, the 2021 CX-5 shines brighter than all its classmates and even some more-expensive alternatives, making it a shoo-in for our 2021 10Best list.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
The CX-5’s standard 187-hp four-cylinder engine has great throttle response when pulling away from stoplights or hustling around town, so it feels quicker than it actually is. It’s at higher speeds, such as when trying to pass or merge onto the freeway, that it feels underpowered. The 250-hp turbocharged version we tested provided much quicker acceleration. Both engines pair with a snappy six-speed automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. You don’t need to drive the CX-5 hard to enjoy it or to appreciate its excellence. Sure, its precise steering and composed cornering make for one helluva Sunday cruise. But it also soaks up rough roads without commotion and has the ride quality of crossovers that cost twice as much. This harmonious interplay of dynamics is unrivaled by its competitors. Pavement imperfections are isolated, road noise is minimal, and the damping is neither stiff nor floaty. At the same time, the Mazda comes alive on curvy roads. The electrically assisted steering provides satisfying responses. The Signature model we tested had a reassuring brake-pedal feel that operated without delay and without being too touchy when you apply the brakes.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
The CX-5 has average EPA estimates—25 mpg city and 31 mpg highway for front-wheel drive, nonturbo models—compared with rivals that have similar power. However, in our testing, the Mazda was the only one to exceed its EPA highway rating. The all-wheel-drive, non-turbocharged version earned 32 mpg, which matched the Honda CR-V we tested. The front-drive, non-turbo CX-5 improved on that performance by 1 mpg. We also tested a CX-5 with the more powerful turbocharged four-cylinder and standard all-wheel drive; it earned 30 mpg on our 200-mile highway fuel-economy route, which was 3 mpg higher than its EPA rating.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
Wake up inside the top-tier CX-5 models and you might think you’ve been abducted by kidnappers driving an Audi or a Mercedes. First-rate materials and a fabulous layout make it feel especially upscale. The floor-hinged accelerator pedal feels better than the more common version that is suspended above the floor, the well-crafted steering wheel is directly in front of the driver and not offset at a slight angle, and all of the front-seat armrests are at the same height for optimal comfort. Sacrifices come in small packages: in this case, the CX-5 held just nine carry-on suitcases behind its rear seats in our testing. The storage bay does benefit from a completely flat load floor. There are also several nooks and crannies in the cabin to store smartphones and other small items. For instance, the center console has a deep tray at the front and a useful bin with a removable shelf.
Infotainment and Connectivity
Every model now boasts a 10.3-inch infotainment system, which replaces the old 7.0-inch display. The new interface is still manipulated through a rotary controller and volume knob on the center console as well as voice commands and buttons on the steering wheel. Unlike the previous model year, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the board. The CX-5 also comes with Mazda Connected Services that includes access to remote vehicle functions via a smartphone app and a subscription-based Wi-Fi hotspot.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Features
The CX-5 earned a five-star crash-test rating from the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA), and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named it a Top Safety Pick+. It also comes standard with a comprehensive suite of driver-assistance technology and other optional assists