By Zack Klapman.
Domestic hoons need apply. When the Crossover market emerged from whatever chemistry lab created it, I was a naysayer, to put it nicely. I saw these SUV-lookalikes not as “do-everythings” but as “do nothing well.” Looks like a truck, can’t off-road, “Drives like a car.” but without the low CG and handling? Right. Ever try to enjoy a Rav4 in a canyon? The only way to do it is to be stopped and using the fold flat seats, if you get me. The King Snake mimicking the deadly Coral Snake; that’s a crossover, want 5 seats, car-like MPG, and handling? Buy a wagon.
Then the Mini Cooper Countryman showed up and warmed my dark heart. It wasn’t the telekinetic Mini Cooper Coupe JCW, but the 2012 Countryman S All4 I had for a week was handled better than many 4-door sedans; Controlled slides, good suspension, 181hp moving only 3,260lbs. It feels how the WRX used to. Of course Mini got it right, because driving is their legacy.
It’s not without faults. Ours was about $28k (with AT, AWD, Bluetooth), only sat 4, and had a lot of cheap-feeling plastic. Owners, watch out for the BMW-priced repair bills. Nonetheless, Mini had cornered the market on properly handling Sport Activity thingamajigs. Want fun, but need ground clearance? Right this way Sir.
But now there’s a challenger, a deserving one. It costs less, looks better, and its parts won’t be priced like rare moon diamonds. It’s The 2013 Mazda CX-5 (“Sport”, in this case).
Full disclosure: My time with the Mazda CX-5 was brief. I drove it for 6 laps around a racetrack; hardly the two weeks spent with the 2013 Mini Cooper Countryman. But that’s ok, because this comparison isn’t about how well they hold desks or their number of cup holders.
No, this comparison is for the people who have a pleasure center in their right foot. For people that gave up a sports car, and daydream about the great racetrack their housing complex’s road network could be.
The CX-5’s body grabbed my attention first, looking like a nice wagon that was given a little growth hormone.
The inside isn’t as exciting as the outside, but for a car that starts at 20 grand, it’s good, and the gauges (which look nice btw) are in front of you (ahem, Mini). The plastics feel nicer than the Countryman’s, there’s more head and legroom in every seat, and 20 more cu. ft. of cargo space (it is 26” longer).
My car was the FWD sport model, with a Bluetooth add-on, bringing the price to about $25,000. AWD is available, but even maxed out; the CX-5 barely reaches $28k. The Mini, with its 9-billion customization options, can go much higher.
Ah, SKYACTIV; the word brings up memories of Terminator 2. Basically it means light drivetrain components for better efficiency, and it works. The 2.0L engine in the CX made 150HP, 155ft-lbs of torque, and gets 26/31MPG city/highway.
All that stuff get “normal” people in dealerships, and it should; it’s a cool-looking car that holds plenty of Target bags. How’s the stereo? I wouldn’t know because I was too busy screaming confused expletives of happy disbelief as I swung the back end around corners.
Sitting up high I assumed this car was too comfortable and domesticated for true mischief. I was wrong. I slalomed esses, carrying much more speed than expected and catching a variety of other cars. Fun? Uh, yeah. Grip? Steering feel? Body roll? Yes, yes, and minimal. Longer than the Mini, yes, but it’s only 150lbs heavier (depending on drivetrain), so it sticks and moves like the Brit (er, German). Other reviews applauded the handling, and it was confirmed as I Cheshire Cat-ted around the circuit. Mazda has always focused on chassis dynamics, and even in this Labrador-friendly 5-door, it’s alive and well.
The only issue, really, is the engine. 150hp means you have to kick it like Sea biscuit from a stop. It takes 9 eons seconds to hit 60, and that’s 1.5 seconds behind the Mini Cooper. Merging won’t be fun. Momentum is your friend. BUT, that’s been fixed! For 2014, Mazda sells the CX-5 with a 2.5-liter engine that makes 184hp (even with the Mini) and enough for anyone.
When crossovers crawled from hell through the cracks of the Earth, I sharpened my sword and prepared to battle these slow, boring, and indecisive vehicles for eternity. But I am glad to report there are two options out there for people who sold their sports cars but not their soul. The Mini Countryman was the first to change my mind, but the Mazda does the same job for less money, and can bring more people along for the ride.