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2016 Mazda CX-5 long-term tech test: one of the best compact SUVs

The Mazda CX-5 has been the most fun-to-drive, mainstream compact SUV since arriving as a 2013 model. Starting with the 2016 model year, Mazda took significant steps forward in adding driver assists and ramping up the infotainment system. Mazda also made strides improving cabin noise and ride comfort on the highway.

So what’s it like to live with Mazda’s most popular vehicle over an extended period and use its technology? Here’s how a 2016 CX-5 Grand Touring fared in the first 5,000 miles of its life, with a focus on its tech features.

Mazda CX-5 2016

The Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring tops Mazda’s three trim lines, or model variants: Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring. The GT base price with all-wheel drive is $30,770 ($29,780 plus $900 freight). Front drive is $1,300 less.

Ours had all-wheel-drive ($1,300), the standard 2.5-liter, 184-hp four-cylinder engine driving a six-speed automatic transmission, and two key technology packages:

The GT trim line Technology Packaging ($1,155) comprises navigation, smart city brake support (SCBS), an auto-dimming mirror with HomeLink (garage door opener), auto-leveling LED headlamps that swivel with the steering wheel, and LED fog lamps, LED daytime running lights, and LED tail lamps.

The iActivSense package ($1,500), which requires the tech package, comprises adaptive cruise control with close proximity warning, lane departure warning, automatic high beams, and smart brake support with close proximity warning. Blind spot detection (“blind spot monitoring” in Mazda terminology) with rear cross traffic alert and a rear view camera are already standard, as they also are on the mid-level CX-5 Touring.

The test car came well-equipped, with Bose eight-speaker audio, parchment leather upholstery, Mazda’s signature Soul Red metallic paint ($300), rear parking sensors ($475), mobile start via smartphone ($550), and a trailer hitch ($425), making the as-tested price just over $35,000.

Mazda CX-5 2016

The core high-tech driver assists on any car today are adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, and lane departure warning. 2016 is the first year the CX-5 gets all three. The entry trim line, Sport, lacks them. Blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert is standard on Touring and Grand Touring, and adaptive cruise and lane departure warning are only on Grand Touring as part of the two-package, $2,655 set of upgrades. Here’s how they worked:

124629_2014_Mazda_Mazda6 adaptive cruise-2Adaptive cruise control. ACC, or Mazda Radar Cruise Control in Mazda terminology, works capably above 20 mph. This ACC is not stop-and-go, meaning it won’t go down to 0 mph and then back up to speed. ACC made 500- to 600-mile summer weekend trips into the Adirondacks and Finger Lakes of New York State almost effortless. The majority of driving was on interstates, and the Friday-out, Sunday-back trips involved heavy traffic. ACC dealt with virtually every situation, except when traffic got so heavy that it was stop and go. Once the speed feel below 20 mph, the car chirped and disengaged ACC, and I was on my own, the same as how people drove the first 100-plus years.

At times, ACC braking was a little abrupt: My car followed at the preset distance, the car ahead slowed gradually, and rather than initially back off the throttle, there was a noticeable (but not violent) braking action. At times, momentary initial braking force was noticeable enough to draw comment from passengers. ACC is not commonplace among compact SUVs. Of the top-five sellers in 2016, three have ACC: #1 Honda CR-V, #2 Toyota RAV4, and #4 Ford Escape — but not the #3 Nissan Rogue or #5 Chevrolet Equinox.

Lane departure warning. Mazda’s windshield camera tracks the car’s location relative to the left and right lane via pavement markings. If you drift onto or over the marked lanes, the audio system generates a low-frequency rumble that emulates a car on a rumble strip. This is less intrusive than the high-pitched beeps emanating from most Asian cars.  Unlike newer cars with lane keeping assist or lane centering assist, it’s up to driver to steer the car back to the center of the lane.

Blind spot detection. If a car comes up quickly on your left or right, an orange indicator lights up in the outside mirror. If you ignore the warning light and flick your turn signal to change lanes, the car beeps for about a second and the light flashes. I prefer a steering wheel vibration (as on many German cars) or seat shaker (GM or Ford), but Mazda’s beep alert wasn’t so annoying it made me turn off the system. In fact, passengers and driver all grew accustomed to the sound and we never once disabled BSD just to get rid of the tone.

Mazda’s newest vehicle, the Mazda CX-9, has newer versions of driver assistance: stop-and-go (full-range) adaptive cruise control that does take the car all the way down to 0 mph and back up again, and lane keep assist that automatically pulls the car back from the lane divider if it drifts.

Mazda CX-5 2016

The CX-5 Grand Touring provides additional braking support beyond adaptive cruise control’s automated braking.

Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) uses a windshield mounted near-infrared laser when driving at low speeds, 2.5-19 mph (4-30 kph), to track a car in front. If the gap closes suddenly, the car will brake sharply — enough to avoid a collision or, at the very least, reduce the amount of crumpled sheet metal. At crawling speeds of about 6 mph (10 kph), if the driver jabs the throttle, the car assumes the driver meant to brake, the engine controller chops engine power, and the car sounds an alert.

SCBS also works when backing up: Two ultrasonic sensors track the car’s proximity to nearby objects at 1.2-5 mph (2-8 kph), and call upon the brakes if the car comes too close. If the driver jabs the gas pedal, SCBS curtails the throttle and sounds a beep; the CX-5 assumes the driver was hunting for the brake here as well. Other automakers call Smart City Brake Support by different names, such as City Safety (Volvo).

Smart Brake Support (SBS) warns, then brakes, at higher speeds: 9-90 mph (15-145 kph), if the distance between the CX-5 and the car in front gets too close. SBS uses the same radar as adaptive cruise control. Unlike ACC, SBS is always active, with a working range of up to 220 yards (200 meters), Mazda says, or 7 seconds at highway speeds. The SBS is a flashing red indicator, “BRAKE,” in the right side of the driver’s instrument cluster. It’s hard not to miss the warning, although other automakers have brighter indicators, especially Ford with a row of red LEDs at the base of the windshield.

In my first months with the CX-5, SCBS never triggered, or it was so subtle I didn’t notice it. I was glad it was there. On the other hand, SBS triggered at least once a week, or at least the flashing warning when the gap to the car in front became uncomfortably close. Neither feature is on the entry CX-5 Sport trim line; the mid-level CX-5 Touring offers SBS as part of its $1,275 technology package along with LED lighting, steerable headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, and the HomeLink mirror.

Mazda CX-5 center console

I drove with the tech aids enabled virtually all the time, other than adaptive cruise control on city and suburban streets, where you’re not supposed to be using it, and even more so since it doesn’t operate below 20 mph. Adaptive cruise control was a blessing on our long summer trips. It helped with the boredom of distance driving and kept us from inadvertently closing in on the car in front. But especially after driving the newest car in Mazda’s fleet, the Mazda CX-9, I do wish ACC worked all the way down to 0 mph and back up again on the CX-5.

Blind spot detection as a daily feature turns out to be more useful than expected. In the crowded metro New York City region, other cars change lanes a lot (as do I) and the warning avoids the possibility of a fender bender or worse. I’d prefer the alert be something other than a beep (such as a vibrating steering wheel), but at least the beep only lasts for a second or so.

Lane departure warning got the job done. It’s helpful on long trips where you think you’re attentive to the road and yet you may let the car drift toward the lane edge. I’m glad there’s a rumble-strip sound as an option, in addition to the choice of a warning beep that is common on competing vehicles.

The CX-5 has a rear view camera, but it lacks the surround-view quartet of cameras popularized by Nissan that provides a birds-eye view of the car as you maneuver in a driveway or parking lot. We felt its absence early on when attempting to reverse direction in a wide driveway via a three-point turn; the right-front alloy wheel scraped the Belgian block lining the driveway. I believe the cost of a surround camera system pays itself back over the life of the car in reduced damage from low-speed incidents.

Mazda CX-5 2016

Mazda calls its infotainment system, phone connection, and cockpit control wheel combination Mazda Connect. The control wheel (image above) works like BMW iDrive, except there are fewer buttons: Music, Main Menu, Navigation, Back, and Favorites, plus the control wheel. The wheel controls the 8-inch center stack, which is also touch-enabled, although some touch choices are grayed out when the car is moving. The controller rotates and also pushes left, right, forward, and back; you push to select.

Audio choices are pretty good: AM/FM/HD/satellite, Bluetooth or USB from a phone, and Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher. If you have them on your phone, you can use the car controls to manipulate them. You can set up presets, but there are no center stack buttons to select them. Instead, you press the Favorites button next to the control wheel, scroll to your choice, then press the control wheel. It’s easier for driver and passenger when there are 6-8 favorites buttons on the dash, especially if you’re a channel hopper. The steering wheel Previous/Next Track buttons will take you to the adjacent channel.

Navigation is workable. Voice input of addresses or points of interest didn’t always work in my tests, although one-shot destination input by voice is possible (“123 Main Street, Anytown, Pennsylvania”), or you can speak the state, city, then street. While you can do online searches via the connected-phone apps, you can’t pipe the best result to the nav system as your destination and you can’t key in the destination when the car is moving.

Newer Mazdas (ones introduced or getting a mid-life refresh since the CX-5 came out in 2013) offer an Active Driving Display, a form of head-up display, but not the CX-5. I wish my test car had it.

I had no problem pairing several phones with the CX-5. There are two USB jacks in front, and they can charge tablets as well as phones.

Mazda CX-5 2016

The best seat for enjoying the Mazda CX-5 is the driver’s seat. Of the 15 or so compact SUVs with list prices in the twenties, the CX-5 feels the sportiest. For a lot of people moving on in their adult lives and having children, owning an SUV (or, worse, a minivan) means your independent life is over until you’re an empty-nester in your — gad — fifties. This crossover  SUV may be the antidote.

The car handles well. It approaches the performance of an Audi Q5, BMW X3, or Mercedes-Benz GLC. The luxury-sport SUVs have better noise insulation and their engines are quieter. The 184-hp engine works hard to get up to speed, and some buyers might wish for a turbocharged version as on the full-size CX-9, which produces 229 hp. Driving at highway speeds, the CX-5 is quiet enough. I averaged 26 mpg overall (regular fuel), which matches up with Mazda’s rating of 26 mpg overall, 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. That’s near the top for compact AWD cars; the front-drive CX-5 gets 29 mpg overall and 33 mpg highway.

I took the CX-5 off-road several times, not driving among boulders with spotter outside the car, but on dirt or gravel roads and hills. The all-wheel drive system, call iActiv AWD, was always sure-footed. It reads sensor data from the car 200 times a second to determine when to engage all-wheel-drive and when to transfer more power to the rear wheels.

The cockpit fit and finish is quite good. My car has parchment upholstery, which made the cabin bright and airy, and a bit of a challenge to keep clean. Because the CX-5 sells 10,000-11,1000 units a month, a third as much as the top three competitors — Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Nissan Rogue — Mazda simplifies dealer stock by not offering gray or tobacco brown.

Adults riding in the second row were pleasantly surprised by the decent legroom and spacious seat. Four adults can ride comfortably on an all-day trip. The cargo bay in back is decent, especially with the rear seats folded. The CX-5 comes with roof rack and I wished it had the roof rails (the two cross-members; $275) as well for some of the longer trips.

It was disappointing that the CX-5 couldn’t tow an inboard-outboard boat weighing about 3,000 pounds, but I knew that in advance. Like most other compact SUVs, towing is typically capped at Class 1, or 2,000 pounds. Interestingly, the higher-end compact Audi-BMW-Mercedes SUVs have Class 2 capabilities, or 3,500 pounds. (Then again, for the difference in cost between mainstream and luxury compact SUV, I could buy a used pickup truck rated to tow 5,000 pounds (Class 3), and park it at our summer camp.)

The Mazda CX-5 is the tenth best-seller among compact SUVs, those about 170-185 inches long, but it’s a better vehicle than that. For auto-buff magazines whose comparison reviews weight performance and handling more than, say, ease of attaching child seats, the CX-5 typically finishes first.

The only problem I encountered was that a transmission tunnel trim panel came off. That and the parchment seats got dirty sooner than I hoped.

Even with some acoustic upgrades for 2016, the CX-5 worked harder, and was a bit noisier, than a luxury class compact SUV, in getting up to highway speeds or passing on a two-lane road. It was comparable with other SUVs and crossovers in its class.

Now read: Which compact SUV has the best all-wheel-drive system for snow and ice?

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