Mazda CX-5 SkyActiv D is the best yet in the compact cross-over segment

A NEW order is being established in the compact cross-over segment by Mazda’s CX-5.

A NEW order is being established in the compact cross-over segment by Mazda’s CX-5.

For years, I’ve harped about Subaru’s Forester, particularly in XT Turbo trim, to be the best ever, best value, most appealing, enjoyable and fun compact cross-over in its segment. But the goalpost has moved further up, and new competitors have challenged the Forester’s position.

Mazda’s CX-5 came very close to toppling the Forester when it first came out. The impressive build quality, great features and efficient powertrain made it a force to be reckoned with, but it faltered in the last minute, particularly in my book.

While it has garnered Car of the Year Awards in its segment, locally and abroad, the power (or lack thereof) just made it less of an enthusiast’s car, which is why the Forester has always been in the top spot for me.

It’s supremely practical, capable on and off the road, with the current Forester having improved its off-road ability by 100 percent over its predecessor, according to Fuji Heavy Industries executives.

The introduction, however, of Mazda’s SkyActiv-D powertrain into the CX-5 just rocked the boat so hard that a new order of things is slowly being established.

In this day and age, I think I have found a new compact cross-over that just barely squeaks ahead of the much vaunted Forester.

Ladies and gents, I present what I believe to be the absolute best, if only by a whisker, in the compact cross-over segment: Mazda’s CX-5 SkyActiv-D.

We all know or have at least heard about Mazda’s SkyActiv technology: highly fuel-efficient powertrains, transmissions that have lighter moving parts, and automatics that lock up their torque converters a wee bit faster to deliver more grunt at lower rpm with better fuel economy, plus a lightweight, stiff chassis which delivers impressive NVH isolation, impressive stability and crash impact safety as well as highly improved handling dynamics.

The SKyActiv D engine means even greater power and efficiency. A typical problem for diesel engines is that they require very high temperature and pressure to combust because diesel fuel is very dense. That’s why older diesels had a very narrow powerband, and why modern diesel engines are turbocharged (to increase in-cylinder pressures and get diesel to combust at a lower rpm to get a wider operating powerband), and have sky-high compression ratios, some as much as 18:1. That’s really high.

In comparison, a modern gasoline engine will have anywhere from 10:1 to 11.5:1 compression ratio (that’s 10 to 11.5 parts air to 1 part fuel, in layman’s terms).

Diesels require far higher parts of air for it to combust. But Mazda’s white-coats have figured out a way to reduce compression ratio to a low-ish 14:1.

Why is this significant? Because to make an engine with an 18:1 compression ratio means you need one very strong and sturdy engine block able to withstand that much heat and pressure. An iron block, or iron-alloy block is the most obvious candidate for such an engine, which also makes it heavy. Really heavy.

But by reducing the compression ratio to a lower 14:1, Mazda can utilize an alloy block lighter than most typical diesel engines, which means greater weight savings, translating to better fuel efficiency, and better handling since the nose becomes lighter in the process.

In the end, we want balance in a car: great balance of weight front to rear, and balance of comfort and performance, plus power and efficiency. This is why the SkyActiv-D engine is significant.

IN top photo, driving pleasure ranks high with the CX-5

IN top photo, driving pleasure ranks high with the CX-5

thanks to the introduction, of Mazda's SkyActiv-D powertrain

thanks to the introduction, of Mazda’s SkyActiv-D powertrain

The other significant factor is that the SkyActiv-D engine was meant for Euro VI quality fuels. How Mazda Philippines got it to work with our Euro IV fuels, two generations behind Euro VI, is equally impressive. Suffice to say, Mazda assures no long-term problems with the engine.

And what an impressive engine. Twin turbochargers and variable valve timing delivers an impressive 173 hp and 420 Newton meters of torque, channeled  through all four wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission, while outputting a very meager 0.0772 grams of dirty noxious fumes per kilometer.

But on the highway, none of that matters. What matters is the rapid pace the CX-5 delivers. It is fast, and fuel efficient.

Floor it all the way to the 5200 rpm redline (one of the highest in all of diesel engines worldwide), and you’ll easily reach just shy of 200 km/h if left unabated.

Yet cruise gently, and it will deliver close to 17 km/liter on the highway, with an equally impressive sub 10 km/liter in the city, even with bumper-to -bumper traffic.

This was with the engine start-stop feature (i-Stop function, in Mazda-speak) disabled, as I honestly found it annoying.

Since it is a Mazda, driving pleasure ranks high, and I had great fun slicing up and down Santa Rosa and Tagaytay to get to my jobsite, plus exploring new roads and some light off-road trails.

Steering is impeccable: light and smooth, but higly responsive and accurate. Effort piles up as you put on some lock, so it’s not a lifeless and inert experience.

The brakes offer the best feel in the mass-market segment offering firm, easily modulated and fade-free performance.

The massive 19×7-inch wheels wrapped in highway-terrain all-season touring tires felt sure-footed even on slick roads covered in some mud, dirt and wet leaves.

Shame that I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked with the Mazda as work assignments had me leaving a day early before the Mazda was picked up.

Of course, just like the other CX5 variants, you get impressive safety, thanks to ABS-EBD brakes, traction/stability control, six airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system as standard, plus unique to this segment, adaptive headlights that follow your steering input, and lane keep assist/lane departure warning that alerts you if you’re slowly veering off your lane on the highway, useful when getting a bit drowsy driving alone, and something to help keep you focused on the task of driving.

You also get the same 7-inch touchscreen LCD that is the heart of the infotainment system, plus a 9-speaker Bose surround sound system.

The Mazda CX-5 SkyActiv-D is the best, again if only by a whisker. You get the impressive build quality from Mazda, the sharp, reassuring and confidence-inspiring driving experience from the brand, the SkyActiv technology that improves efficiency and performance, and crucially, a diesel engine that is truly golden.

All this goodness does come at a price: the SkyActiv-D retails for P1.985 million, making it one of the most expensive in this segment.

Subjectively speaking, it is worth the premium because you do get the best.

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