CLINTON — Mazda is one of my favorite car companies. I've owned several of their vehicles through the years and just recently bought a used Miata that makes my heart sing.
I just don't always understand Mazda's marketing decisions.
The people at Mazda build sporty, fun-to-drive cars, but they also pull silly stunts to make sure everyone knows it. They launched the MPV minivan a few years ago at the Laguna Seca racetrack in California, for example, as if minivan drivers will be buying racing slicks and clocking their lap times.
Mazda's latest stunt? Putting a six-speed manual transmission in a crossover vehicle.
The new CX-5 is a remarkable car. It drives with a sporty spirit, even more so than the CX-7 and CX-9 that I raved about after they were introduced. But a manual transmission? In a crossover? Somebody in Hiroshima must have gone crazy.
Mazda has a knack for making great manual transmissions, and this one is no exception. It has a slick, close, easy-to-shift feel that seems inherited from my beloved Miata sports car.
The problem is, if I want a sports car, I'm going to buy a sports car. I'm not going to buy a big, tall crossover vehicle that tries to mimic a sports car.
A lot of buyers apparently do want that, though, and the CX-5 delivers for them. It's the first vehicle that was entirely engineered under Mazda's SKYACTIV initiative, which is all about lowering weight and improving fuel efficiency without sacrificing the thrilling, connected driving feel that Mazdas are known for.
This crossover comes closer to feeling like a sports car than any of its competitors, especially with the slick manual transmission, as much as I hate to admit it as a sports-car purist. The engine, transmission, suspension and steering all gather together, hold hands and sing in harmony.
It also gets excellent fuel economy, even by crossover standards. It's rated for 35 mpg on the highway, which is about the same as some compact cars on the market today. The very best, itty-bitty, non-hybrid compact cars are getting slightly more than 40 mpg on the highway now, so hitting 35 in a much bigger, more enjoyable vehicle is a nice selling point.
It also has the magical feature that makes so many people like crossovers: practicality.
The CX-5 has a huge space for cargo behind the back seat, enough for road trips with a couple of kids. Assuming you don't need the extra seating and sliding doors, it could make an excellent family car, almost on par with a minivan.
Styling is a strong point on the CX-5, too. It has Mazda's new face and sweeping lines creased into the side panels, making it look like fluid is moving over the surface.
The good news is this car adds one more flavor to the highly competitive market for crossover vehicles. No matter what kind of crossover you want -- a comfy one, a sporty one, and now even one with a manual transmission -- you can find it.
The CX-5 just puts the sportiest spin yet on the crossover market. And that's no gimmick.
Derek Price is an automotive columnst for CNHI News Service. Contact him at email@example.com