Is there room for another SUV in the market? There is when it’s as good as the updated Mazda CX-5 – it’s perfect for family outings and day-trip escapes, such as this picture-perfect drive through Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset
Watery, late-winter sun is only just beginning to suffuse the sky as we wind through the pretty little Wiltshire village of Avebury in early February. Clusters of cottages are a picturesque sight, but what’s drawn us – and many other tourists – is the largest stone circle in the world, which encompasses part of the village itself.
The National Trust car park is already filling up with visitors like us, eager to see this UNESCO World Heritage site. And many of them have come in medium-sized SUVs similar to the Mazda CX-5 we’re driving. It’s easy to see why – these sorts of SUVs are now the default car of choice for many: they’re generally spacious, look smarter than a humdrum estate car, hatchback or people carrier, and offer the promise of off-roading adventure (if not always the reality).
These vehicles are ideal for young families and empty nesters alike, and the higher driving position means that clambering into them is much easier than it is in a more low-slung car. But they’re not always that enjoyable to drive.
This is what sets the Mazda CX-5 apart. One of Mazda’s best-known models, its biggest hit, is the little MX-5 sports car, which is one of the best handling cars around – at any size and any price. And Mazda appears to have the uncanny knack of infusing that sports car DNA into everything that it makes.
Although this version of the Mazda CX-5 has been around since 2017, the update for 2022 is the most subtle of facelifts. There are new headlight and tail-light designs, restyled front and rear bumpers, plus a new drive mode selector on some models. But there’s no need for major redesigns when the fundamentals are so right: this is a sleek-looking, well-appointed family SUV that’s also great fun to drive.
We’re planning to put the CX-5 through its paces on a picture-perfect journey that takes us from Avebury’s ancient megaliths westwards to the golden sandstone beauty of Bath, via the rolling hills of Salisbury Plain and the market towns of Shaftesbury, Bruton and Frome.
This is England at its prettiest – perfect daytripping country – but also a route that takes in some of the most enjoyable and challenging country roads in southern England. Should be ideal for the CX-5, then.
Our carriage today is a top-of-the-range GT Sport. This comes with plenty of goodies, including an upgraded Bose sound system, an electric tailgate and frankly gorgeous Nappa leather. It’s expensive though, coming in at more than £39,000, and its combination of a 2.5-litre petrol engine and four-wheel drive is one few buyers will go for (the vast majority of CX-5s are front-wheel drive and fitted with the smaller – but still peppy – 2.0-litre engine).
The cheaper models in the range perhaps make more sense. They still get plenty of equipment, including adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control and automatic headlights, but are priced from a more palatable £28,145. It’s still not cheap, though: that’s a couple of thousand pounds more than the amount you’ll pay for rival cars such as the Ford Kuga, Honda CR-V or Skoda Kodiaq.
Stunning countryside and a beautiful car
It’s only the anticipation of driving the CX-5 on some rather fine roads that makes us tear ourselves away from this captivating spot, but the Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve, a spectacular sweep of chalk downland consisting of three hills and the Alton Barnes White Horse, soon dispels our slight regret at leaving Avebury behind. The narrow country lanes round here wind through thicketed hollows and small villages, interspersed with sweeping open stretches through the downland, where the fields come right to the edge of the road.
The CX-5 is in its element here. The elevated SUV seating position allows you to peek over the hedgerows, providing a great view of the road ahead, while the chassis practically urges you to enjoy the more open stretches with its sharp, precise steering and impressive body control. This is a vehicle that feels much more taut and agile than most high-riding SUVs.
I can’t help but compare our ride with the few other cars we pass on the roads, and I wonder if their drivers realise what they’re missing out on. But even if they don’t, they’ll no doubt be jealous of the way this car looks.
Mazda’s award-winning Kodo Design styling (it won the World Car Design award with the MX-5 in 2016) is supposed to express ‘the beauty of motion seen in all living creatures, giving each vehicle a soul of its own’. That’s all so much marketing fluff, but what it does mean is that the CX-5 is shaped with graceful, muscular curves rather than clunky, angular lines (see the Toyota RAV4) or the slightly amorphous blobbiness of a Ford Kuga.
It’s elegant, minimalist and undeniably attractive, and the eye-catching Soul Red Crystal Metallic sets it off beautifully. It practically sparkles in the sunshine when, occasionally, I catch its reflection in the windows of shops and houses as we pass through rural Wiltshire’s sleepy villages.
If the CX-5 is pretty on the outside, its interior is equally impressive. It helps that our car has the top-spec leather upholstery, but the cabin has a genuinely upmarket feel to it – everything feels expensively produced and solidly put together.
It’s also been designed with thorough attention to detail. Many modern cars have interiors that rely heavily on touchscreens, but the CX-5 uses a combination of buttons and knobs that makes operating the car’s various functions while on the move much less of a faff – you can work out where everything is by feel, which makes it less distracting than stabbing at a touchscreen.
One for the road – and off it
I’m enjoying the drive so much that it feels like no time before we’re swooping through the villages of Shrewton and Chitterne on Salisbury Plain, heading towards the roller-coaster of a road that is the B390. It is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable sections of our route, demonstrating the CX-5 at its dynamic best.
There are fast straights, sweeping open corners and tighter, trickier sections where the road twists left and right in rapid succession as it negotiates the creases in the countryside. All the while the road surface is rippled and pitted – this is no smooth A-road. Yet the CX-5 shrugs off even the worst of potholes with unruffled ease – partly thanks to its smooth, well-controlled suspension (which has been made smoother still for 2022) and partly to its willingness to tackle corners with surprisingly little body lean.
A brief excursion down a rutted, bumpy, unpaved track for some photography proves the perfect opportunity to test out the Off-Road setting on the new Mazda Intelligent Drive Select (Mi Drive), which sits beside the gear lever. Most CX-5s will never need to negotiate anything tougher than a tall kerb or a muddy field, but it’s good to know that there’s some inherent off-roading ability baked into the CX-5’s chassis. Prepped for an overland safari it may not be, but put some chunky off-road tyres on it and I suspect we’d be surprised by just how far it could go off the beaten track in relative comfort.
Those knobbly off-road tyres would perhaps be appropriate as we negotiate Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill, a setting you’d probably recognise from its starring role in a popular TV commercial for Hovis bread – you know the one, with a boy in a flat cap pushing a bike up the hill as he delivers bread. This ancient Saxon hilltop town, one of the highest in the West Country, offers views over three counties – and the hill is quite a climb. It’s a bumpy drive up, even in the ultra-comfortable CX-5, and I’m glad that I’m not on that baker boy’s bike.
Replenished after a cup of tea and a slice of delicious Dorset apple cake from The Salt Cellar at the top of ‘Hovis Hill’, we continue our jaunt through the quintessentially English countryside, picking up the B3081 for a 16-mile cruise to the offbeat town of Bruton in Somerset. Bruton’s mix of quirky independent shops, great restaurants and art galleries has made it a magnet for foodies, creatives and day-tripping visitors keen to sample the small town’s lively atmosphere and pretty setting. I, too, could spend all day here, exploring the speciality shops and fine eateries, but the road beckons once again and, 20 minutes into the next leg of our journey, we’ve entered the welcoming heart of Frome. This is the home town of 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button – there’s even a footbridge named after him.
Driving out of this charming town affords us another opportunity to stretch the CX-5’s legs a little, and when the road opens up it’s the perfect time to try the Mi Drive’s other drive mode.
The system automatically defaults to ‘Normal’ mode but selecting ‘Sport’ makes the response from the accelerator pedal sharper, and the automatic gearbox holds onto its gears for longer, effectively encouraging you to drive more enthusiastically. This setting certainly makes the CX-5 a little more exciting, but the other side of that particular coin is that it’s a little less relaxing and you’ll find that fuel economy suffers slightly.
The home not-so-straight
We head up the A36, via Limpley Stoke and into Bath, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre that needs little introduction. Normal mode is enough to help you comfortably navigate the vertiginous switchbacks of the infamous Brassknocker Hill, though I must admit that I would have preferred the more effortless power of the turbodiesel model here – even though it’s unfashionable to say so.
The 2.5-litre 191bhp four-cylinder petrol engine in our car is powerful enough, but you must rev it to get the best out of it. Because there’s no turbo to boost you up the hill, the power is all at the upper end of the car’s rev range and it gets a bit noisy and frantic as we climb up towards Alexandra Park for a panoramic perspective of the city, before taking in the Georgian splendour of Pulteney Weir, the Royal Crescent, Great Pulteney Street and The Circus. The key to unlocking Bath’s full glory is to visit when the sun’s out and the omnipresent honeycoloured Bath stone turns to gold. But whatever the weather, it’s best to park the car and explore the city on foot – beautiful as it is, its congestion, tight streets and a riot of traffic lights make it hard work when you’re on four wheels.
Get out on foot, though, and you can explore the side streets with their alluring boutique shops and soak up the architecture and history that make this such a fascinating city.
We might have ended our day trip on foot, but the CX-5 has proved the perfect tool for our journey. As you can’t fail to notice, SUVs are almost ubiquitous on Britain’s roads, but don’t think you’re simply falling in line with the trend if you choose to drive a Mazda CX-5. Far from it. With its elegant design, engaging chassis and sensibly laid out interior, the CX-5 isn’t about following the crowd, it’s about standing out from it.
Do more with Boundless
Save £5,634 when you buy a Mazda CX-5 GT Sport auto from Griffin
If the CX-5 GT Sport Auto has picqued your interest, you can purchase one through Boundless partner Griffin for £33,751 – that’s a saving of £5,634 on the list price of £39,385. Griffin offers a range of other new cars – from SUVs to compact city cars – at discounted prices, too. boundless.co.uk/griffin