Mazda has come a long way in the last decade and the 2021 Mazda CX-5 Signature shows just how far upscale the brand has gone without losing the driving dynamics that Mazda is known to deliver. In my opinion, the CX-5 Signature is one of the best small SUVs under $40,000, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t get behind the wheel before making your next purchase.
The first thing I look at when I receive a new press vehicle is the driver’s seat. Really, I close my eyes during delivery and have somebody lead me to the car blindfolded, so I can open the driver’s door, then my eye lids.
The Living Space
In the case of the CX-5 Signature, first glance at the driver’s seat was disappointing. I was expecting the sportier design of the seats from the previous generation. Those seats had more aggressive thigh bolstering and longer thigh extensions that aided to hold the driver in the seat during harder cornering. Instead, Mazda has gone more luxury and less sport, going with minimal thigh bolstering and more Towncar.
After seeing the rest of the CX-5 Signature’s interior, I can’t be upset. The seats are wrapped in a supple Caturra leather, which I found to be a really classy combo against this exterior color. After 300 miles of driving I found the seats to be very comfortable with ample support for the type of driving this car is bound to endure.
In addition to the Caturra leather, Signature trim models receive real wood trimming that runs along the interior door panels and across the dash. A black headliner, which is generally found on higher end vehicles, extends up the pillars to finish the premium look.
While on the subject, the CX-5 Signature also includes Mazda’s built-in navigation software, a 3 year subscription to SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link, traffic sign recognition, driver attention alert, smart city brake support, a 360-view camera, parking sensors, cooled seating, and heated rear seats with rear USB-A outlets.
Another thing I appreciate is the application of soft touch surfaces, especially where I’m bound to, you know, touch.
The dashboard is slightly squishy, likely injection molded plastic. All of the door panels, front and rear, have a nice leather wrapping from the window sills down to the door pulls. There’s still hard plastic on the bottom half of the door panels and in other expected areas such as the cup holders, center cubby.
I found Mazda’s large 10.3″ screen and latest software to be a welcome upgrade from the previous generation. The interface is clean and intuitive, and still operated by the same two dials south of the gear selector. The larger knob is much like BMW’s iDrive, and is surrounded by five shortcut buttons to quickly access Navigation, Home, Entertainment, etc. Off to the right is a much smaller knob that’s used for volume.
It could have just been me, but I thought the backup camera image was crisper than many other models I had tested, including the Lexus RX F Sport.
Though the 360-view camera was a neat feature, I didn’t find myself relying on it in tight parking situations. The Signature’s front and rear parking sensors were more useful to me. Call me old.
In front of the gear selector was a nice little angled cubby for small devices. It’s a bummer than Mazda didn’t go as far as to include wireless charging, or even make it an option. Alternatively, I would have also loved to have seen USB-C outlets for fast charging. Hey, the Volkswagen Jetta GLI has them.
Moving up, the dual-zone climate controls are nicely compact, and easily reached below the center vents. A smart feature of the CX-5 is that if climate control is set to Auto, it can automatically turn on the heated seats and heated steering wheel depending on the outside temperature. Love it!
The rear of the CX-5 Signature is also a fantastic place to be. Out back, you’ll find the CX-5 offers 39.6 inches of legroom, 55.4 inches of hip room and 54.8 inches of shoulder room. That’s 2 more inches of legroom, 7 inches more hip room, but just 2 inches less shoulder room than the 2021 Toyota RAV4. You know, incase you were wondering.
Rear occupants may not notice, but should appreciate the soft touch panels and if they care to flip down the center armrest will discover that in addition to the expected cupholders, there are buttons for the rear heated seats, a power outlet, and two USB ports to charge their devices. Nice!
Cargo room with all of the seats up is 30 cubic feet. That is 10 cubic feet shy of the Toyota RAV4’s 39.4 cubic feet with similar seating configuration. What’s interesting is that with the rear seats down, both models offer 59 cubic feet of storage.
The overall length of the CX-5 is 179 inches, just 2 inches shorter than the RAV4, so the interior cabin of the CX-5 must be positioned more rearward in comparison. That may contribute to a more even (read: better) weight distribution on the Mazda.
If it’s one thing the last generation CX-5 needed was a little more oomph from under the hood, and I’m happy to say that this turbo 4-cylinder engine delivers enough to get your blood pumping.
On 87 octane and with my right foot down, the turbo SKYACTIV® engine produces a peak of 310 pounds feet of torque. That’s a massive increase over the non-turbo engine and transforms the CX-5 into something of a honey badger.
When I first drove the CX-5 with aggression, it reminded me a lot of the Subaru STI, only with much torque piling on much quicker. Mazda lets the mix of mechanical and artificial sounds pump through the cabin, and delivers visceral sensations that only a turbo 4 cylinder could deliver. The tires grip and rocket out of corners much like an all wheel drive rally car. It may be an automatic transmission, but Mazda’s SKYACTIV tuning has made this CX-5 way more enjoyable than I had anticipated.
Actual power figures vary depending on what grade fuel is used to fill the tank. Go with thrifty 87 octane and Mazda advertises 227 horsepower at the crank and 310 pounds feet of torque to match. If you’re feeling the need for more speed, fill up with a tank of 93 and the ECU will automatically adjust tuning to increase horsepower by 250 ponies. The catch is that it’ll only be realized above 4k RPM. Torque increases by 10 with 93 octane.
The quick spooling turbo produces torque at low RPM for great drivability and near-instant response however at the expense of running out of steam on the top end. But that’s okay. And I think Mazda’s engineers recognized this as the upshifts under wide open throttle occur well before redline. This keeps the CX-5’s engine in the power band all the time and prevents the driver from feeling a loss of thrust in the upper RPMs.
Even in AWD trim, launching from a dry stop may spin the 255/55/19 tires for a moment, then it all hooks and goes. 0-60 MPH is advertised at 6.1 seconds and if you carry on, it’ll run the 1/4 mile in 14.6.
Fuel economy of the CX-5 AWD Turbo is a respectable 22/27 MPG, 23 in mixed driving. Good news is that while my right foot lacked restraint, I still netted an average of 23 MPG.
In all driving situations, I found the steering wheel to be perfectly weighted, and I found no on-center dead spot at speed. Ample feedback is provided through the steering wheel and kept me in communication with what the front wheels were experiencing through corners and road imperfections. The level of information transmitted by the CX-5 is far better than the RAV4, and probably most anything else on the road with less doors that doesn’t come out of Germany.
I was lucky enough to experience a day in the snow, and discovered that CX-5 also allows for quite a bit of slip and delivers power graciously to the rear wheels.
After a week behind the wheel, I started to wonder how strong an argument I could make that the $39k Mazda CX-5 Signature isn’t so much a competitor to the Toyota RAV4 (it’s far ahead as far as I’m concerned) but rather it is the substitute to a certified pre-owned Porsche Macan. The Porsche Macan with the 2.0 TSI engine produces 247 horsepower and 273 torque, but will see CX-5 tail lights down the drag strip and if I was in Vegas, through the canyons, too.