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Mazda CX-5 Goes From Caterpillar to Butterfly

Like a butterfly breaking out of its chrysalis, the 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring crossover emerges transformed this spring.

The 2013 CX-5 that debuted a year ago was the first vehicle to use Mazda’s highly touted, awkwardly named SkyActiv suite of systems to improve fuel economy. It was an underpowered, underwhelming disappointment.

The 2014 CX-5 soars above that caterpillar, thanks to a new engine that boosts horsepower 19 percent and torque 23 percent without reducing fuel economy. The CX-5 competes with five-passenger crossover SUVs like the Chevrolet Equinox, Dodge Journey, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Kia Sportage; Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4 and Volkswagen Tiguan.

The new 2.5-liter engine produces 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm. That’s an unusually low torque peak for an engine without a turbocharger. For instance, the Honda CR-V’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine peaks at 163 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm. Behind the wheel, the CX-5’s higher torque at lower engine speed translates to smooth, confident acceleration and good throttle response. The CX-5 has more torque at lower rpm than the non-turbo four-cylinder engines in the Equinox, Journey, Escape, CR-V, Sportage, Rogue and RAV4.

The 2.5-liter engine comes with the CX-5’s two upper trim levels: Touring and Grand Touring. The weak-kneed — 155 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 150 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm — 2.0-liter carries over on the Sport model.

Prices for the 2014 Mazda CX-5 start at $21,195 for a front-wheel drive Sport with the 2.0-liter and six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic raises the tab to $22,595. Adding all-wheel drive — available only with the automatic — kicks it up to $23,845.

Note: I list prices for the Sport out of a sense of obligation, not endorsement. The barely serviceable 2.0-liter made the 2013 CX-5 one of the most disappointing vehicles I tested last year. It was a burlap bag of a crossover — inexpensive and fuel-efficient, but totally lacking the zippy character that’s always been Mazda’s greatest charm.

The 2.5-liter cures what ails the Sport. Starting at $24,615 in a front-drive Touring — $25,865 for AWD — it restores Mazda to the forefront of fun, affordable driving. Prices for the CX-5 Grand Touring start at $27,620 for front-drive and $28,870 for AWD. The 2.5-liter engine only comes with a six-speed automatic transmission. All prices exclude destination charges.

I tested a very well-equipped front-drive CX-5 priced at $29,845. It featured excellent interior materials and Bose audio, a power sun roof, blind spot alert, Bluetooth phone and audio compatibility and voice recognition. I’ve evaluated several crossovers that cost more but offered less.

In addition to the new engine, the quick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission locks its torque converter at low speeds to reduce internal slip and increase efficiency. The CX-5 is also one of the lightest vehicles in its class.

The CX-5 leapt forward when I depressed the accelerator. Acceleration was smooth and assured, though the engine gets noisy when you floor it. Road and wind noise are also noticeable above 60 mph.

The crossover’s handling is the sportiest and most enjoyable among its competitors. Quick and responsive steering provides plenty of feedback and firm on-center feel. The suspension keeps the CX-5 stable and confident in quick maneuvers. Body roll, squat and dive are minimal.

The interior provides plenty of passenger and cargo space, and is trimmed in high-quality materials. In an age of over-complicated, less than helpful controls, the CX-5 Grand Touring’s combination of a few simple buttons and dials with a small touch screen is a breath of fresh air.

The voice recognition system understands words and commands well, but requires more steps than the best competitors.

The attractive exterior styling features flared fenders, scalloped sides and a sloping roofline. Less gimmicky than the overdone Mazda 3 compact, it’s the brand’s most appealing-looking model in years.