A new, 2013 sport utility vehicle is at the top of the fuel mileage charts, and it's not from Honda or Toyota.
The smartly packaged, functional and new-for-2013 Mazda CX-5 earned a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 29 miles per gallon from the federal government.
This puts the CX-5 ahead of competitors such as the well-known Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
It also means the CX-5 ties the 2013 Nissan Juke, which is a smaller-sized SUV, as best fuel-sipper among non-hybrid SUVs.
Better still, while the Juke's turbocharged four cylinder requires premium gasoline, the CX-5's naturally aspirated four cylinder needs only regular unleaded.
The CX-5 is a recommended vehicle of Consumer Reports magazine, which lists reliability at better than average.
Mazda puts a lot of standard equipment into this five-passenger, crossover SUV. Every CX-5 comes with 17-inch, alloy wheels with Yokohama tires, rear spoiler, body-colored outside mirrors and door handles, push-button start and one-touch power up and down driver-side window.
And with a starting retail price of $21,790, value is part of the CX-5 story — to a point.
This starting retail price is for a CX-5 with front-wheel drive and six-speed manual transmission.
Most drivers today buy automatics, and the starting price jumps considerably — to $23,190 — for a CX-5 with automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. A 2013 CX-5 with all-wheel drive has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $24,440. All-wheel drive is available only with automatic transmission.
All CX-5s come with a 155-horsepower, naturally aspirated, direct-injection four cylinder.
The competing 2013 Honda CR-V, with 185-horsepower four cylinder, has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $23,625 with front-wheel drive and automatic. The CR-V's highest government fuel economy rating is 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving for a front-wheel drive model.
The 2013 Toyota RAV4, with a 176-horsepower four cylinder, debuts early next year and no pricing has been announced. The 2012 RAV4 has a starting retail price of $23,495 with automatic and front-wheel drive.
Mazda dropped its five-passenger CX-7 SUV after the 2012 model year to accommodate the new CX-5.
It's a good move, since the 2012 CX7 had a higher starting price — $22,985 for a base, front-wheel drive model — and was similarly sized to the CX-5.
But the CX-5's smaller displacement engine, with careful engineering to produce good response and top fuel economy, outshone the CX-7's, and CX-7 sales have been sluggish.
Meantime, the CX-5, which launched earlier this year, has garnered awards and sales around the world.
For example, the CX-5 was named Car of the Year in Japan. In Russia, which is Mazda's biggest European market, CX-5 orders are poised to easily surpass the company's sales target for the whole year.
American car buyers will like that the CX-5 has a stylish look that makes it seem like it's in motion even when it's standing still. There are lines in the exterior metal that carry the eye along the sides of the vehicle, and the front and back tie in attractively.
It's easy for easy petite women to get inside the CX-5. While passengers sit up a ways from the pavement, seats are well-positioned for most people to just set themselves onto the cushions without needing to climb up.
But there are only two interior colors offered — black and sand.
Standard cloth seats have pleasant upholstery, while the leather-trimmed seats in the test CX-5 Grand Touring model looked upscale and provided good support.
The 41 inches of front-seat legroom was a welcome sight for a 6-foot passenger, and even back-seat passengers get a generous 39.3 inches. This is an inch more than what's in the back seat of the CR-V and compares with only 32.1 inches of rear-seat legroom in the smaller Juke.
Headroom is good, too, with 40.1 and 39 inches, respectively, in the front and back seats of the CX-5. These figures are more than what's in the CR-V.
Yet, the test CX-5 handled more like a confident and poised car than a taller-riding SUV. The driver felt a noticeable connection to the pavement surfaces, and steering had good on-center feel and crisp, but not twitchy, response. Road noise came through from the tires on all but the smoothest of asphalt.
The commendable body control, which reduced any tippy feeling in curves and turns, translated into a firm, but not harsh, ride.
One thing that surprised: The turning circle for this 15-foot-long SUV is 39 feet, which is larger than that of many other compact SUVs.
It's true the CX-5's 2-liter, double overhead cam, direct-injection four cylinder isn't as powerful as those of some competitors, including the RAV4 and CR-V.
The CX-5's engine torque peaks at 150 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, and there were times during the test drive where the engine sounded buzzy and pressured.
But at idle, the test CX-5 was impressively quiet, and the tester averaged nearly 27 mpg in city/highway travel.
It felt good to have a normal-acting automatic transmission with six gears smoothly delivering the power, rather than a continuously variable transmission that can drone on and leave a driver wanting for pre-set shift points.
The test CX-5 performed well on city streets and flat terrain and exhibited some lugging when on uphill highway stretches with a load of passengers inside.
Mazda does sell a trailer hitch and states the CX-5 can tow as much as 2,000 pounds.
Standard safety equipment includes six air bags, electronic stability control and traction control.
The CX-5 earned four out of five stars in overall crash tests by the federal government, with top, five-out-of-five stars in frontal testing and four out of five stars in side testing.