The 2018 Mazda CX-5 checks nearly all the right boxes – stunning exterior, excellent handling, and, for 2018, the first US application of cylinder deactivation in a four-cylinder engine for improved fuel efficiency. But that engine falls short on refinement, cargo volume is barely mid-pack, and the slick-looking infotainment system can be frustratingly difficult to master.

Best Value

Prices for the 2018 CX-5 start at $24,150 for a front-wheel-drive Sport and run up to $33,910 for the all-wheel-drive Grand Touring trim equipped with the Premium Package and finished in stunning Soul Red. Aside from the typical power features, all CX-5s come with alloy wheels, LED headlights, keyless entry with push-button start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a seven-inch touchscreen, and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity.

All trim levels come with a rear view camera, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and low-speed automatic emergency braking. A $625 option on the Sport trim adds automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and all-speed automatic emergency braking – feature that are standard on Touring and Grand Touring models. Still, that's a very good price for that much equipment.

With a single engine and transmission, it comes down to feature set and drivetrain. We'd skip the base Sport with its cloth seats as well as the leatherette-trimmed Touring model and spring for the Grand Touring. Auto-leveling headlights with automatic high beams, heated front seats, and automatic climate control carry over from the Touring trim. Grand Touring models pad that with adaptive front lighting, LED front fog and taillights, heated outside mirrors, a power tailgate, moonroof, leather seats, Bose speakers, navigation, satellite radio, a power passenger seat, and driver seat memory.

Since the AWD system improves winter and overall handling, here's how we'd build it:

  • Model: 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder
  • Output: 187 horsepower / 186 lb-ft
  • Transmission:Six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: All-wheel-drive
  • MPG: 24 City / 30 Hwy
  • Options:All-wheel drive ($1,300)
  • Base Price:$30,620 (including $975 destination charge)
  • Best Value Price:$31,920

Performance

Mazda CX-5

Compact crossovers don't get any more entertaining than the CX-5. Its polished ride, communicative steering, and slick chassis tuning are among the best in the class. The 2.5-liter engine offers brisk off-the-line acceleration, linear throttle response, and - new this year - cylinder deactivation technology that under certain low-speed cruising conditions shuts down two of its four cylinders for improved fuel economy. We spent 150 miles behind the wheel and struggled to notice the system working while returning 27 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

Likewise, the nicely weighted electric steering comes with an engine torque vectoring system that not only reduces the number of corrections drivers have to make entering and exiting corners, but also helps the CX-5's straight-line tracking at highway speeds. G-Vectoring Control, as Mazda calls it, makes freeway driving less taxing.

Drawbacks? The engine sounds buzzy when you put your foot into it, and it's hard to ignore the more powerful, turbocharged competitors. The larger 19-inch wheels offer a stiff ride – although the flip side is that the CX-5 is fun to drive thanks in part to that stiff ride. The standard six-speed automatic feels antiquated too. It's just fine, working well in the background, but it's hard to understand Mazda's decision to add fuel-saving technology to the engine while using a transmission with just six gears.

Style

Visually stunning from practically any angle, the CX-5 sends every other crossover in its class – and even a few above it – to the design woodshed. Mazda refers to its Kodo design language as "breathing life into the car." To us, it's a restrained elegance that begins up front with the brand's signature shield-shape grille – the lower portion of which is outlined by a thin chrome ring that traces its way under the narrow headlights.

The look along its flanks is much simpler, with aggressive wheel arches, a deep character line just above the rocker, and a narrow chrome strip that follows the beltline, kicking up behind the back window. A simple-looking rear fascia features a body-colored upper spoiler and a pair of narrow, horizontal tail lights.

All of that goodness is wrapped around an interior awash in rich-looking soft touch materials that – especially in Grand Touring trim – approach premium levels of luxury for thousands less. The cockpit – driver-centric like all Mazdas – offers supportive front seats and courtesy of thin A-pillars, good outward visibility. For the most part, the controls are intuitive, well organized, and within easy reach of the driver.

But there are shortcomings. Although the seats are comfortable, three adults will find accommodations tight in back, while the cargo area behind the second row, at 31 cubic feet, is on the small side for the class.

Our biggest issue, however, concerns the CX-5's infotainment system. For one, the control center's placement on the center console is too close to the arm rest - requiring an awkward bend of your hand to operate. Secondly, the infotainment system – with its menus and sub-menus - is often too challenging to use while driving. Most importantly, there is no other choice - Android Auto and Apple CarPlay aren't offered.

The Best and Worst Things

The CX-5's balanced chassis and communicative steering make it a joy to hustle around back roads. We only wish the infotainment system was more user-friendly and cargo room was more abundant.

Right For? Wrong For?

Mazda CX-5

The CX-5's composed chassis and communicative steering should attract driving enthusiasts who either want or need a compact crossover, even if the straight-line performance can't stand up to some turbocharged rivals.

Mediocre cargo space and a smallish rear seat could be turn-offs for families.

The Bottom Line

Despite a frustrating infotainment system and mediocre cargo space; a striking design, an entertaining chassis, and a wide range of standard and available advanced safety features make the 2018 CX-5 a top pick in the compact crossover class.