The first Mazda CX-5 kicked off a revolution at Mazda. It was Mazda's first mainstream SUV and the first car to feature the company's new "Kodo – soul of motion" design language. Mazda ran that style through the subsequent 2, 3, 6, CX-3 and MX-5 and it now has one of the best-looking range of cars on the road.

This new CX-5 builds on the solid foundations of that first model. Essentially the same length and width, it's slightly lower than before, and its design sticks with the Kodo design theme, updating it with more sophisticated surface language, details and technology.

The new car sits on a modified version of the old car's platform, continuing with Mazda's SkyActiv technology – which prioritises the use of light-weight materials and a different approach to engineering the car – in pursuit of better engine efficiency and greater driving pleasure.

Core to the CX-5's appeal is its sporting intent. Let's face it, Mazda is the only mainstream company that's managed to build out a range around a sports car, the seminal MX-5. It might be a thought you'd not considered (or that's deeply buried in the subconscious), but by buying a Mazda you're partly buying into the sporting pedigree of a brand that's built on 30 years of making the the world's best-selling sports car.

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The new CX-5 certainly looks sportier than before. That's taken care of by its improved proportions – they come from moving the A-pillar rearwards, lowering the roofline and then adding more modern details. The new model also features much slimmer lamps, and much bolder sections of chrome details that surround elements like the grille.

Yes, the CX-5 could still only be an SUV, but it's significantly better-looking than many big, heavy lumpen SUVs, and is distinct without being in any way ostentatious or in-your-face.

Only the wheel design of this top-spec Sport Nav lets the side down. The wheels are big 19-inch units, but somehow look lost in the arches. On bigger rims, or a different design, the CX-5 would look genuinely stand-out. As it is, Mazda's engineering and design team chose to come down on the better ride side of the ride versus looks trade-off.

The sporting theme continues when you take to the road. As much as you can ever expect a diesel SUV to be fun to drive, the CX-5 moves down the road in a really enjoyable way. It feels car-like and is easy to drive. It's light and responsive, but there's a very positive reaction to every input you make. The steering is not big on feel but is perfectly weighted – so are the pedals, and the gear shift has a nice positive action and a stubby lever which makes it fun to row up and down the 6-speed manual box.

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If you're in a hurry on an average British B-road, the CX-5 is the car you'll want to be in, when considered against its rivals. It feels dynamic and precise – it might ultimately be based on the same platform as the car it replaces, but around 50 per cent of the suspension components are new, giving the CX-5 more poise in corners. It rides with impressive composure; its sure footed-ness and the lack of body lean gives you the confidence to chuck it into corners in a way that few of its rivals do, helping this 4.5m-long SUV shrink around you.

But the CX-5 has always been a decent drive, so what stands out about the new CX-5 compared to the old model is that it's much more refined. Mazda has worked hard on insulation and refinement, and now only the noise of the Toyo tyres spoils the party. Even then, we're nit picking. The CX-5 is a great motorway cruiser and a really comfortable place to sit.

One area the CX-5 lags compared to some of its rivals is in the choice of engines and powertrain options on offer. There's one petrol (a 2.0l 163hp unit which unusually isn't turbo-charged) and two diesels (a 150hp, or the 175hp version we drove). Want the petrol? You'll need to stick with a manual gearbox and front-wheel drive. The diesels are available in both two and four-wheel drive formats, with either manual or auto boxes. But if you want the higher-output diesel, you'll need to buy the top spec Sport Nav version, as tested here in its four-wheel-drive manual-box spec.

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All the engines benefit from Mazda's SkyActiv technology, which means they're lighter, have less friction and run higher compression ratios than their rivals. What does that mean for you? The headline CO2 and economy figures are good, but not all class-leading, but it's realistically a little easier to get nearer to the economy figures quoted, in real driving. We got 42mpg during our 200 miles of driving, which was mostly bound to town and country roads, where we drove the Mazda fairly hard. Expect 50mpg or more on motorways.

The engine contributes to the overall positive driving impression. Apart from an odd tendency to hold the revs high for a minute on cold start-up (presumably so it warms up quicker), the diesel is quiet and refined. The 6-speed manual gearbox is slick, positive and enjoyable to use. In 175hp format, the CX-5 is an easy car to make progress in. It's not outright fast, but the engine is very torque-rich across a wide-band of the rev range, which means you're often carrying more speed than you might think. And it generally sounds smooth and clatter-free.

To look at and drive, the CX-5 is sufficiently good enough to make you think twice about spending an extra £10K (or more) on a premium SUV like the Audi Q5. Beyond badge snobbery, there's little in the way the Mazda looks or drives that it gives away to much more expensive competition.

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The difference is revealed when you step on board: it's the one stand-out area where Mazda has clearly pushed a significant upgrade compared to the out-going model. Yet the game in this area has moved on quickly, so the Mazda's interior architecture still feels uninspiring, verging on hum-drum. If you're a fan of simplicity, there's much to like. But the section of the dash-top, the design of the air vents and the way the (faux) wooden trim on the dashboard is applied make it look and feel quite dated already.

Adding to this is a lack of material or colour choice – there's little ability to personalise your CX-5 beyond choosing a different leather colour. Which is a shame in a car that's in such a competitive market and otherwise has so many of the qualities it needs to take on the premium brands.

Luckily the driving position is good and easily adjustable, the interior is relatively easy to use with no real ergonomic flaws and there's plenty of space.

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The boot is well sized (506 litres), but it's just a bag of sugar bigger than the old car's 500l boot. Some rivals offer up to 50 litres more. Back seat space has good leg room and those up-front are very unlikely to feel short-changed. There's no 7-seat option, sadly. Space for your stuff is reasonable – there's a neat cubby at the base of the centre console, a big central bin, pair of cup holders and deep door bins. Though these are hard plastic, so your stuff tends to rattle in them. It's not Honda clever, but it copes reasonably well with a small family's stuff.

Mazda is pretty unique outside of the premium brands in offering an infotainment setup which gives you both a touchscreen and console-mounted rotary controller. While the system is far from perfect, Mazda deserves credit for clearly thinking about how the system works, and ultimately creating a safer system, rather than just lobbing a touchscreen at the dash which forces lots of eyes-off-road time.

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The screen itself, which now pokes up through the top of the dash, is on the small side for a brand new car. It's a 7-inch unit, which feels a bit mean when many city cars now sport 8-inch or more. Plus its sense of smallness is exacerbated by the fact that if feels a long way away, perched under the windscreen. It runs in the more modern 16:9 aspect ratio, though, to the benefit of the mapping display.

Below 5mph you can use it as a touchscreen, which if you're stationary is often the fastest way to punch in an address, for instance. On the move, the rotary controller behind the gearstick takes over control duties, and – like BMW, Audi and Mercedes' systems – allows you to scroll, nudge up and down, side to side and press down to select, much to benefit of tasks like trying to scroll through your phone contacts or a list of radio stations.

You can store favourites stations, destinations and numbers on the star shortcut button, while there are standalone buttons for nav, media and home. This setup means it's hard to get too confused by the infotainment system, and in general it's fairly easy to use – we just think that the clever system setup deserves more modern on-screen graphics and a slightly less step-laborious process for certain functions.

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Unfortunately, despite media connectivity in the form of USB and HDMI ports, there's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto functionality. Mazda says it knows this is an issue and is "working on it".

Like most Mazda cars, the CX-5 comes in two key trim grades: SE-L Nav and top-of-the-range Sport Nav (the latter as reviewed).

On the Sport Nav models you don't want for much in the way of kit. Not only do you get the infotainment system with sat nav, DAB radio and Bluetooth as standard, but a Bose stereo system which offers some of the best sound quality at this price point. Notably, Toyota's JBL system does seem to pack greater punch and depth of sound, but the Bose in the Mazda isn't far behind. Be aware, the SE-L grade only gets a four speaker setup.

Those bemoaning the disappearance of CD players as standard fit from modern cars will also be pleased to learn you still get the CD dash slot here. Those who've not touched a CD for several years will see it as a pointless addition and waste of space.

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Beyond that, the Sport Nav comes as standard with 19-inch wheels, a sunroof, powered bootlid, reversing camera, leather seats which are heated and electrically adjustable on the driver's side, as well as keyless entry and a head-up display (HUD) which is a full windscreen projector system that works very well in conjunction with the traffic sign recognition system.

All of these features are either unavailable or optional on the next-level down SE-L Nav, although it's hardly what you'd call sparsely equipped. You swap the 19-inch wheels for 17-inch, get LED headlamps, front and rear parking sensors, the 7-inch touchscreen/rotary control system with navigation as standard and a leather steering wheel.

At £31,395, the Sport Nav 175hp model is beginning to encroach into the premium brands' territory, though. That said, it's better equipped than any of the entry-level German brands and better to drive than some of them too. Is it worth the extra over the SE-L Nav model? The complicated answer is that they're hard to directly compare, as the SE-L can't be had with the 175hp engine. If we compare a 150hp, 2WD SE-L with a 150hp 2wd Sport Nav, which are likely to be the biggest sellers, the difference in grades is £3,000. That's a lot, but then you get a lot extra for your money. It's your shout ultimately – in our view a 4WD Sport Nav 175hp at £31,395 leaves you wanting for nothing, while a £26,495 150 hp 2WD SE-L Nav looks like conspicuous good value.

Verdict

Mazda has chosen not to meddle with a winning formula when designing the new CX-5. It's appealing to look at, appealing to drive and has a better interior than the outgoing model.

The interior might be better, but it's not ultimately one of high enough quality to contend with the Audi SUVs of this world. That, plus the Mazda's lack of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a wider engine range are the only things holding the CX-5 back from being a genuine 5-star contender.

But just because it's missing those things doesn't mean you should miss this SUV off your list of contenders. The CX-5 is a more appealing offering than its key Japanese rivals – the Toyota Rav4 and Honda CR-V – as it's far better to drive, better suited to European tastes and a more rounded experience. It also has newer tech features and a better space package than mainstream cars like the Ford Kuga.

In several ways, it's the no compromises SUV, for smart people who enjoy driving, don't feel the need to show off but want something that's well engineered and conspicuously free of annoying quirks. It might lack outright wow factor, but outside of the premium brand models, the CX-5 offers one of the best mid-sized SUVs on the market, particularly if you're after the closest thing possible to an MX-5 with space for five.

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Slightly larger than the CX-5, the CR-V is the choice for those wanting to get the most out of their SUV, space-wise. The boot – and cabin generally – is much bigger than the CX-5's and also packed out with clever little features. It's refined, and Honda's 1.6l, 160hp diesel is a brilliant performer – although in the real-world we found it less efficient than the Mazda.

Read the full article: Honda CR-V review

Pocket-lintVolkswagen Tiguan review image 1

The evergreen Tiguan is an SUV favourite in the UK, and one area it out-punches the Mazda is in its choice of engines and trim levels. You can go all the way from a 125hp, 1.4l petrol, up to a fire-breathing 240hp twin-turbo diesel. Most can be had as manual or automatic, and with four-wheel drive should you wish. The Tiguan feels car-like and the interior is typical Volkswagen (grey, but high quality). However, despite its infotainment system being superficially more glossy and graphically modern than the Mazda's, it's actually not easier to use. It also gets expensive as you load the car up with equipment, and the Mazda is a better drive. The Mazda's more spacious, but the Tiguan counters by being that little bit more compact and easier to park and place in town.

Read the full article: VW Tiguan review