Driving the New CX-5 Proves Mazda Can Compete as a Premium Brand

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature
With the addition of a couple of new trims to the 2019 Mazda CX-5 crossover lineup, it’s now clear: Mazda plans to compete directly with premium vehicles like the Acura RDX and Infiniti QX50.

The premium market has plenty of appeal. Higher price tags often correlate with higher profit margins, and finding buyers with more spending power easily translates into higher sales prices.

But breaking into the luxury market can be tricky. Just ask Kia, Hyundai, or even Chrysler. All these brands have attempted to break into the premium car market in one way or another. Kia debuted the $60,000 K900 in 2015 and hoped to reap the benefits of having a high-end (and high-margin) option in its lineup. But while the K900 offered luxury in spades, it also had a Kia badge on the hood. Convincing shoppers to view that logo as a viable luxury symbol has been challenging, and as a result, the company has sold barely 5,000 of them.

Hyundai had a similar story with the Equus sedan, and has since placed an even bigger bet by debuting a luxury brand to move its metal. While the new Genesis G70 has earned plenty of praise for its combination of technology and comfort, it’s still yet to be seen whether the Genesis brand will succeed, as Lexus was able to when it arrived in the early 1990s.

Breaking into the luxury market is not the only hard part, either. It’s also hard to stick around. Even companies historically associated with premium cars, like Chrysler and Buick, have seen how quickly their stars can fall in the eyes of American consumers, and how hard it can be to regain lost prestige.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

So, how does Mazda expect to measure up against established players? Well, the CX-5 Signature and Grand Touring Reserve both fill their interiors with supple leather and upscale touches, like layered wood trim and satin chrome accents. The CX-5’s MazdaConnect technology suite has a European feel, too, employing a rotary controller to handle user inputs, and the system is (finally) equipped to run Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

But simply adding leather and smartphone connectivity isn’t always enough. Luckily, Mazda may have the secret ingredient. When premium-car shoppers shop for a car, they don’t just consider upholstery and infotainment, they look for a refined and engaging driving experience—the car is expected to deliver accurate feedback through the steering wheel, the pedals, and the chassis. And at Mazda, every part of the car comes second to perfecting how it drives.

The company’s Jinba Ittai engineering philosophy is grounded in the idea that a car should act as an extension of the driver’s body. And this is clear every time you drive the CX-5. The steering is well weighted, the 6-speed automatic transmission shifts predictably, and even the all-wheel-drive (AWD) system is tuned to provide a smooth and consistent drive. Rather than reacting to slippery conditions, the system works proactively, relying on inputs ranging from wheel-spin sensors to the car’s thermometer and windshield wipers to deliver traction and stability without disrupting the car’s natural driving dynamics.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

Premium vehicles are expected to have premium engines, and as such, drivers will find the larger CX-9’s turbocharged 2.5-liter engine under the hood of top-tier CX-5s. Like the car’s suspension, the engine has been tuned for real-world performance and not hypothetical benchmarks. Zero-to-sixty measurements were replaced with freeway-passing tests, and the turbocharger employs dynamic pressure technology, simulating a person’s thumb over a garden hose to modulate pressure to keep its output strong and steady.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

In the end, it’s hard to describe the CX-5’s driving experience as anything other than balanced. This car doesn’t lay on the power unnecessarily, and the steering never feels simulated.

Mazda has long been credited for building cars that reward driver engagement, and it has recently earned a reputation for adding upscale features at relatively bargain prices. With the CX-5, those two roads have met, resulting in a car ready to steal market share from established premium automakers. But will it succeed? The Mazda CX-5 seems to have everything a luxury-car buyer would want, except for an expensive logo on the steering wheel. So, while Mazda may be fully capable of building a premium vehicle, there is a final question left to answer: Will consumer perception of the Mazda logo keep it off shopping lists filled with Acuras and Infinitis?

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