We have a go in the newest sweethearts of the Canadian automotive press
Words by: Adam Allen
What have we here?
If you weren’t one the many hundreds of thousands of people who attended the recent installment of Canadian International Auto Show you might have missed Mazda’s big moment. Two of its perennial best sellers, the Mazda 3 and CX-5, each took home the award for being best in their respective classes as voted by AJAC members (Automotive Journalist Association of Canada). In the past, even our esteemed colleagues have gotten it awfully wrong- yes, even the experts have flubbed these major awards in the past- but for 2018, we have to agree with them. Some of our staffers have owned one or the other (or both) and can attest to their greatness.
Let’s talk about what’s under the hood.
This is a classic example of feeding two mouths with one morsel. The CX-5 and 3 are two very different cars- one’s a CUV and the other a compact- yet they both share a common powerplant. In this case, it’s a very capable 2.5 litre four-cylinder engine with nary a turbocharger to be found. Thus equipped, the engine supplies a linear stream of power from idle to redline, a trip you’ll be tempted to take often especially if you’re piloting a Mazda 3 Sport with a manual gearbox like our tester. The engine’s 184 horsepower and 185 pounds feet or torque (the CX-5 makes three extra horsepower and one-foot pound of twist) are by no means class leading numbers, but they do move both vehicles around without strain and unsavoury vibration. Keep the revs down and the engine will return stellar fuel economy in either application. The only thing we’d complain about in both cases is the cacophonous starts on chilly mornings. One person opined it sounded like a ‘bag of hammers’, but we think that’s a bit strong. The reason for all the noise is because of Mazda’s SKYACTIV technology that features tricks like sky-high compression ratios and uniquely designed exhaust headers. Once it reaches normal operating temperature, it settles down and doesn’t draw attention to itself, and it should be noted that the noise is significantly muffled in the CX-5 compared to the 3.
You say the 3 you drove had a manual? Nice.
As the years go by, a manual transmission continues to slip from the consciousness of car buyers to the point that only real enthusiasts will consider opting for one. The people who look after Mazda’s press fleet are firmly in that camp and they (thankfully) always have one available in one car or another. This time that car happened to be a Mazda 3, which gave us a chance to check out the incremental updates Mazda keeps gifting the 3- electronic parking brake to free up valuable console real estate, a full colour Heads Up Display and our favourite, a heated steering wheel. But the star of the show for us was still the six gears manipulated manually by the driver, and the clutch and shifter tasked with doing so happen to be among the best in the segment. It’s an absolute pleasure to use and the pedals are perfectly set up for heel and toe downshifts. Although you can’t get a do-it-yourself tranny in the CX-5 except for base GX trim, the 6-speed automatic is hardly a let down. It’s a case of a dual personality, and we mean that in the best possible way. When your navigating traffic choked roads around where you live, the gearbox swaps gears unobtrusively and quietly. When you want to have some fun or when you engage Sport mode, the transmission suddenly becomes seriously caffeinated and its ratio swapping gets rather lively. It changes gear with crisp determination, and even when you’re driving the CUV the way you would its compact sibling, it always knows exactly which of its six speeds to be in- the way it bangs down through the ‘box when you’re under hard braking makes us recall the gold standard of automatics, none other than Porsche’s excellent PDK.
So, Mazda’s are fun to drive, we get it. Tell us something new.
Ever heard of G- Vectoring Control? No? Well, it tends to slip through the cracks relative to some of the other headlines from Mazda. And even the most finely calibrated keisters may have a hard time feeling its magic at work despite going about its business in the background. So how does it all work? It boils down to weight transfer, dear readers, something that occurs every time you get on or back out of the throttle and in turning maneuvers. G-Vectoring Control will subtly reduce the engine’s torque when you dial in steering lock in any Mazda so equipped. The weight shifts to the front wheels so the tires have more grip and are thus able to execute a change in direction with more control- all this happens in fractions of a second. This trick system eliminates the miniscule steering correction you probably weren’t aware you were making anyway. It’s interesting that relatively small manufacturer Mazda, who lacks the immense engineering resources as some of its competitors, answered a question that no one thought to ask. Not only could this technology have only come from a company that’s driven by enthusiasts, but to have this bit of kit work discreetly in the background to make one’s drive that much more enjoyable is telling about the culture within Mazda.
The Mazda 3 and CX-5 are light on their feet. Guess that means they’re fragile…
We all know that lighter cars handle better and are more efficient. But take out too much weight and you are left with a vehicle that has the structural rigidity of a pop can. Mazda has found a way to miraculously make their cars exceptionally light but with the fortitude to endure the abuse most drivers will subject them to throughout their lifetime. They call this fastidious attention to extraneous flab their ‘Gram Strategy’. Simplified, it means that each and every component- from an innocuous seat bolt to a volume knob- is as light as it can possibly be without sacrificing durability. Their obsessive hunt for superfluous weight has not only made each car they make among the lightest in their respective segments but has yielded an overall fleet wide fuel economy figure that is among the industry’s best. If we had any doubts about the effectiveness of the Gram Strategy, all were put to rest a few years ago when we accompanied Mazda on their annual Adventure Rally through Colorado and Utah. While in Moab, also known as Ground Zero for Jeep faithful, we took bone stock CX-5’s on trials that would have made even a seasoned off-road warrior pause for thought. We can still vividly recall the look of unmitigated shock of the Jeep pilots that were out for a romp with their heavy-duty winches, 31” tires and lifted suspensions as they saw us pass by. During the entire trip, nothing broke or was damaged whatsoever- even the standard issue all-season tires didn’t go flat. That pretty much sealed the deal for us, and we instantly became true believers.
Impressive. Any thing else we should know?
Do you like your daily driver to put a smile on your face while you get from A to B? If so, these two should be on your list. As excellent as the Mazda 3 and CX-5 both may be, there are a couple of missteps to be aware of. First on our list of gripes is the amount of wind, road, and tire noise that permeate the otherwise serene cabins of both. Again, the CX-5 trumps the 3 in this area- you can really feel the efforts Mazda took to quiet things down. The bottom line is that while both may be the overall choice for best in class, they are certainly not the quietest. Turning up the Bose stereo to overwhelm the noise doesn’t wholly achieve the desired effect, as it doesn’t reproduce music with the clarity we’ve come to expect from the stereo manufacturer. The other issue we have is with the Heads Up Display that was equipped in each car. It’s not that they don’t function as they’re supposed to- on the contrary, they both work quite well. As a matter of personal preference, we aren’t the biggest fans of the technology and choose not to use it very often. That the default setting (which, as far as we know, cannot be changed) is always on every time you fire them up and must shut it off every single time you set off is kind of annoying. And in the Mazda 3, even if you do shut it off the Top Gun style pane that rises from the dashboard remains in the upright position. If it sounds like we’re being slightly pedantic, that’s because we are. None of these demerits are deal breakers, and we had to dig deep to come up with things that bothered us about these generally brilliant cars.
The Mazda 3 and CX-5 are each a rare breed roaming the automotive landscape these days. There are no turbos or superchargers helping them make power- artificial aspiration would complicate things and take away the wonderfully linear power delivery. Both are devoid of drive modes (although the CX-5 does have a Sport toggle on the console that alters the transmissions shifting behaviour and sharpens throttle response), variable exhaust systems and active suspensions- the fact is that they don’t need any of that frippery to deliver a truly enjoyable driving experience. In an age where engineers are making the digital veneer between human and machine increasingly thicker, both emerge as a refreshing pure and honest approach to building cars that people will genuinely enjoy driving. AJAC’s Best Car award across various segments has mostly given consumers a good idea of what car is outstanding amongst its competitors over the years. But don’t take their word for it- head to your local dealership and take either one for a drive. We think you’ll agree that the accolades heaped on the Mazda 3 and CX-5 respectively are thoroughly deserved.
2018 Mazda3 Sport GT- Specifications
- Price as tested: $29,895
- Body Type: 4-door, 5 passenger hatchback
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/front-wheel drive
- Engine: 2.5-litre inline four, DOHC, 16 valves
- Horsepower: 184 @ 5,700 rpm
- Torque (lb-ft.): 185 @ 3,250 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Curb weight: 1,376 kg (3,033 lbs)
- Observed Fuel consumption: 8.7/100km (27 mpg)
2018 Mazda CX-5 GT- Specifications
- Price as tested: $38,595
- Body Type: 4-door, 5 passenger CUV
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/front-wheel drive
- Engine: 2.5-litre inline four, DOHC, 16 valves
- Horsepower: 187 @ 6,000 rpm
- Torque (lb-ft.): 186 @ 4,000 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- Curb weight: 1,676 kg (3,695 lbs)
- Observed Fuel consumption: 9.9/100km (24 mpg)