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Practical ride is fun to drive

If you're like me, a new entry into the crossover market is just background noise; they might be useful, and certainly it's the hottest-selling segment out there, but who really wants to read about yet another cute-ute? Well, pay attention, because t

If you're like me, a new entry into the crossover market is just background noise; they might be useful, and certainly it's the hottest-selling segment out there, but who really wants to read about yet another cute-ute?

Well, pay attention, because the CX-5 isn't just Mazda's attempt to cash in on the CUV buying trend - it's their idea of what the future's going to look like.

What's more, it's their first salvo in the war to keep interesting cars available to the average Joe and Jane.

How so? Well, Mazda's previous effort was the boxy Tribute - aptly named in that it seemed to be an homage to the Ford Escape. In fact, it was basically an Escape with "Ford" crossed off and "Mazda" written on the front in crayon.

This wasn't a bad thing, as the Escape was a capable little truck-let. Unfortunately, it stood out against the rest of Mazda's Zoom-Zoomy lineup like a pack-mule in the starting gate at Hastings Racecourse.

Alternately, you could pop for the pod-like CX-7, with a thoroughly engaging and Mazda-like driving experience. Drawbacks? Principally, the brutal fuel economy you got out of the 2.3-litre turbo engine.

Here now, is Mazda's latest effort, a crossover that purportedly zooms like the CX-7, packs all your stuff like the Tribute, and sips fuel like a mid-'90s 1.6L Protege. In a world where efficiency increasingly trumps fun-to-drive, is it good enough?

Take a good look at Mazda's first proper application of their new Kodo "Soul of Motion" styling. The Hiroshima-based company lost plenty of Mazda3 buyers when it went to the smiley-faced Nagare styling, so this much less swoopy treatment is a welcome change.

It's also a return to the good-looking, conservatively styled Mazdas of the past.

While the blunt front end of the CX-5 might seem a little puggish on first glance, it manages to dial back the cutesy factor without going for the hyper-aggressiveness that's become the hallmark of modern design.

Eschewing the split-binnacles of more stylish CUVs, the CX-5 is extremely conservative in its layout, a single strip of piano-black trim running across the dash to brighten things up a little.

Frankly, it's a welcome change from the interior-design experiments of some of the other players out there. The CX-5 feels like it won't look dated in six or seven year's time, and the build-quality gives the impression that it won't have gone all rattly either.

New parents who are shopping around because their ginormous rear-facing child seat no longer fits in the clapped-out compact they've had since college will find plenty of rear-seat space. Even better, the CX-5 has 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats (and they fold almost completely flat), making for a very flexible cargo area.

With just 155hp on tap to move 3,400 pounds of all-wheel-drive, automatic cross-over around, you'd hardly think the CX-5 has any chance of living up to Mazda's fun-to-drive ethos. But that's just on paper.

Remember, this is a clean-sheet, ground-up design employing Mazda's Skyactiv brand of technologies: lightweight construction, high-compression, fuel-efficient engines, suspensions tuned for reactivity, and transmissions tweaked to shift crisply and quickly. It's Lotus's "simplify and add lightness" ideal, combined with a clever focus on cleaner-running regular combustion engines rather than chasing electric/ hybrid technology.

The result is a conservative, practical, inexpensive cute-ute that has the same footprint as Honda's CRV, but can be so much more engaging to drive. But fire up the somewhat clattery four-cyl and slot the shifter into "D" and you won't be overwhelmed at first.

The Skyactiv-G engine features an extremely high compression ratio (basically how much the pistons squeeze the air-fuel ratio before ignition), and uses multi-point injectors and specially formed piston dishing, to make a clean, controlled burn that extracts every possible joule from your tank of gas. What it does not do is provide a great deal of torque.

But rev it up a little, and things start getting better.

Somebody forgot to tell the CX-5 that it's supposed to be a buttoned-down grocery-getter.

This six-speed automatic is one of the loveliest transmissions I've ever had the opportunity to sample, and might even be better than Porsche's much-vaunted PDK, given the application. It's a conventional box, but has been tweaked and lightened, and it does a great job both at guessing your intent and reacting very quickly to manual inputs.

The steering isn't as good as a MX-5's, and with a higher centre of gravity, neither is the handling. But that's just the effect of physics: what's surprising is how ably the CX-5 attacks a curvy back road.

I suppose you could best characterize Mazda's CUV with a single word: willing. It wants to zip through corners, it wants to get off the highway and find a curvy back road; it makes you want to drive just a little bit further.

Even if it's your hum-drum daily driver, you might find it just special enough to put a grin on your face.

There are three trim levels available for the CX-5, from basic GX to mid-line GS to top-level GT. Only the GX base is available with the six-speed manual, and only in front-wheel-drive specification. Boo!

For my $32,750 top-level GT tester (apparently a hard car to get these days as Canadians are snapping up every one they can), Bluetooth, leather interior, rear-view parking camera and power heated seats are all standard. The only real option to add is the technology package, containing Satellite Radio and Navigation.

Fuel-economy ratings are excellent across the board, with 7.8/5.7L/100kms city/highway for the front-wheel-drive, manual model, up to 8.0/6.4L/100kms for the heavier all-wheel-drive automatic. The best surprise is how close the CX-5 gets to these numbers, even with the spirited driving style it can goad you into.

In short, the CX-5 is practical, conservative, efficient, good value for your money and, most importantly, it drives like a Mazda should.