Right now is a significant time for Mazda. It has begun releasing its sixth-generation models, and they all feature what is known as SkyActiv technology.
SkyActiv is the Mazda buzzword - as in the sky is the limit - for development of new engines, transmissions, bodies and chassis with fuel efficiency and improved vehicle dynamics in mind.
Here in New Zealand, we had a taste of the new technology last year, when a facelifted Mazda 3 was introduced with a SkyActiv engine. The first model, however, with the entire SkyActiv package is the CX-5, which arrived in April.
Importantly, this SUV is the pathfinder for a fleet of eight new models that Mazda intends deploying onto the world vehicle markets over the next five years. Once this has happened, the SkyActiv models will make up more than 85 per cent of Mazda's total sales volume - that's how much store the company is putting in to this new technology.
And it is working. Mazda New Zealand reports tremendous demand for the CX-5 since its April launch, with demand exceeding supply. The company had figured it would sell an average of around 120 units a month, but so far it has found that if it could get the product it would sell more than that.
Now, I don't know whether punters are buying the CX-5 because of the new technology it offers, or simply because it is a good vehicle. I suspect that just as was the case with the CX-7 it replaces, it is because motorists recognise good product when they see it.
The CX-5 certainly is good.
Available in three specification grades, with a selection of petrol and diesel engines and with a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive, it is offered at prices that range from $39,690 for a 2.0-litre petrol front-driven GLX through to $55,990 for a 2.2-litre diesel all- wheel drive Limited.
All of these models have identical bodyshells, with lines inspired by Mazda's "soul of motion" design strategy that produced a variety of beaut concept vehicles.
The final design of this production model obviously isn't as out-there as those concepts, but it is attractive all the same - I suppose it could be said that it looks like an enlarged Mazda3 hatch.
And even though its external dimensions are smaller than the CX-7, it has more room inside. The ride is quite high which means visibility is excellent, and there is very good room front and rear. Cargo room is a relatively tight 403 litres when all the seats are in use; but, in good SUV style, this can be expanded to 1560 litres when the back seats are folded down.
My opening experience with the CX-5 has been with the second-least expensive model in the range, the petrol-powered front-drive GSX which retails for $41,390.
Its level of specification for the price surprised me a little, because standard items include automatic headlights, dual-zone climate- control air conditioning, rain- sensing wipers, satellite navigation, auto-dimming rear- view mirror, and a six-speaker audio system. That's very good.
But equally as good are the power and the dynamics of this new vehicle.
The power comes via a newly-developed SkyActiv-G petrol engine that is special because it has an unusually high 13-to-1 compression ratio, so it delivers improved torque, better fuel economy and fewer emissions.
Usually, with an engine with such a high compression ratio, the raised thermal efficiency tends to cause knocking and an associated loss of torque. But Mazda has overcome this by designing lightweight pistons and installing a unique exhaust system.
As a result, the engine is about 10 per cent lighter than the Mazda engine it replaces, yet develops 113 kilowatts of power and 198 Newton metres of torque, and offers average fuel consumption of 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres. Automatic engine stop-start also helps keep fuel use down, particularly when driving in town.
This engine is mated to a new six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission - naturally called SkyActiv-Drive - which immediately impresses as one of the best on the market, not only for the precision of its operation but also because it contributes to the engine's fuel efficiency improvements by up to 7 per cent.
As part of the SkyActiv project, the Mazda engineers also virtually started from scratch in developing the CX-5's chassis, with the major aim being to minimise weight while at the same time making it stronger. Mazda says it has made the CX-5's body so strong that its rigidity to close to that of a premium sedan.
As a result, the drive is really nice. The CX-5 has electric power steering which offers a direct feel, and handling is nice and neutral.
So overall, I very much enjoyed my first experience with this new Mazda CX-5. I'm told that the diesel version is even better, which means I'm now really looking forward to a coming drive of a top-spec AWD Limited version.
And, given the excellence of all the SkyActiv technology aboard this medium-sized SUV, I'm also licking the proverbial lips over the prospect of driving new product to come, particularly a brand-new Mazda6 due for release early next year.
MAZDA CX-5 GSX
POWER PLANT: 2.0-litre in-line four cylinder DOHC SkyActiv-G petrol engine with i-stop, 114 kW at 6000 rpm, 200 Nm at 4000 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Front-wheel drive. Six-speed SkyActiv-Drive twin-clutch automatic transmission. MacPherson strut front suspension,. multi-link setup at the rear.
HOW BIG: Length 4540mm, width 1840mm, height 1710mm, wheelbase 2700mm.
HOW MUCH: $41,390.
WHAT'S GOOD: Fresh new SUV design, rides and handles like a car, excellent interior quality.
WHAT'S NOT: Some say the diesel version is better than this model. If so, yahoo!
OUR VERDICT: Little wonder Mazda reports a waiting list for this lovely new CX-5.
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