NIMROD, Ark. -- For this kick-butt joy ride we collar a newly minted 2013 CX-5 Sport crossover utility vehicle by Mazda, that "Zoom-Zoom" brand from Japan, and send it soaring over Ark. 60, a corkscrew stretch of asphalt coursing over rumpled furrows of the Ouachita Mountains in western Arkansas.
This back-country two-laner provides steep mountain grades and isolated valley straightaways with loads of dips and rolls and oh-so-fun strings of esses and sweepers -- plus a dearth of traffic or patrols to challenge our pace.
It's the ideal venue to show off the taut suspension tuning and sporty handling characteristics of a new-from-scratch compact-class CUV for Mazda.
Designers from Mazda -- a company steeped in the production of sporty cars like the MX-5 Miata roadster and RX-7 hatchback -- cast this wagon on a new rigid unibody platform with front-wheel-drive orientation, then stocked it with lively independent suspension elements and crisp steering to fashion a ride quality that's smooth and comfortable for passengers yet also responsive.
Roll over pavement bumps and the independent suspension -- MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in back with a stabilizer bar at both ends tuned to check excessive lateral roll of the body -- blips tires (base version 17-inch 225/65R17 Yokohama all-season tires or top-trim 19-inch 225/55R19 Toyo A23 all-season tires) in exacting up-down motions and makes a firm ride quality.
Turn the sporty three-spoke steering wheel and CX-5 cuts with direct action, thanks to a rack and pinion system with electric power assistance.
A disc brake mounts at each wheel with 11.7-inch vented front rotors and 11.9-inch solid rear rotors. All tie by computerized links to a sophisticated anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD), electronic brake assist (EBA), a traction control system (TCS) plus a dynamic stability control (DSC) anti-skid device and hill launch assist (HLA) program.
Passive safety systems are aboard including frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats in all rows. Further, Mazda adds a roll stability control (RSC) system.
Muscle for the CX-5 flows from Mazda's new SkyActiv engine with fuel-saving and performance-geared technologies.
The innovative SkyActiv plant -- an aluminum 2.0-liter in-line-four with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and variable valve timing (VVT) -- features multi-hole injectors to enhance fuel spray characteristics and a high compression ratio of 13.0:1.
It delivers 155 hp at 6000 rpm with 150 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm with EPA fuel economy figures of 26 miles per gallon for city driving and up to 35 mpg on the highway.
New SkyActiv transmissions work with the SkyActiv engine -- driver's choice of a short-stick manual six-speed transmission or a smooth six-speed electronic automatic with manual shift mode.
Further, the CX-5 offers an optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction system for weather-challenged venues.
The electronic AWD hardware -- paired with the six-speed electronic automatic transaxle -- automatically disburses engine torque between front and rear wheels as warranted by pavement traction situations. All power flows to the front wheels when driving on dry pavement, but when traction degrades on wet or icy surfaces the intelligent system can divert up to 50 percent of the power to turn rear wheels and stabilize the vehicle.
The streamlined shape of CX-5 differs from the boxy upright style of many CUVs. A sculptured body features flowing lines with bulging fenders and undulating side panels, a raked windshield and aggressive prow containing a new five-point front grille and narrow eagle-eyed headlight clusters with optional adaptive front-lighting system and auto-leveling bi-xenon lamps.
The passenger compartment, with piano-black accents and satin-chrome finishes, contains a driver-oriented cockpit with sculpted front seats and a three-piece rear bench split (40/20/40 on top trims, 70/30 on base trim) in independent fold-flat sections.
The aft cargo compartment, accessible via tail-side liftgate, contains 34.1 cubic feet of stow space with rear seatbacks raised but expands to 65.4 cubic feet with rear seatbacks down.
Two color schemes -- black-on-black or sand-on-black -- apply for seat upholstery in cloth fabric patterns or optional fine leather.
Trim grades for CX-5 list as Sport, Touring and Grand Touring, with each available in FWD and AWD traction mode.
The price-leading base model Sport stocks the manual six-speed transmission plus a load of amenities like power controls for windows and door locks, power side-view mirrors with integrated turn lamps, manual air conditioning, remote keyless entry device, push-button starter, cruise control, a tilting/telescoping steering wheel with remote tabs, automatic headlight shutoff, body-colored tail spoiler and a 4-speaker sound kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3/USB.
CX-5 Touring edition brings upgraded cloth upholstery, a dashboard 5.8-inch color display with rearview camera, blind-spot monitoring system, six-way power controls for the driver's seat, leather wrapping steering wheel and shift knob, 40/20/40 split for rear seats, foglamps, Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) system, Bluetooth connectivity and an upgraded 6-speaker audio package.
Mazda's MSRP list runs from $20,695 for CX-5 Sport (M6/FWD) to $28,295 for CX-5 Grand Touring (A6/AWD).