Mazda CX-5 AWD VS. Lexus NX 300

MAZDA CLAIMS FOLKS ARE SHOP­PING ITS BRAND AGAINST LEXUS. DOES THE CX-5 WAR­RANT AN NX IN­TEN­DER’S AT­TEN­TION?

Motor Trend (USA) - - Contents - Scott Evans

Mazda claims folks are shop­ping its brand against Lexus. Does the CX-5 war­rant an NX in­ten­der’s at­ten­tion?

The gen­e­sis of Mo­tor Trend’s $40,000 chal­lenge lies with the 2018 Mazda CX-5. We were im­pressed with the com­pact cross­over from the mo­ment we laid eyes on it. When the fully re­fined model turned up at our SUV of the Year com­pe­ti­tion last Au­gust, mul­ti­ple ed­i­tors (my­self in­cluded) noted its po­ten­tial to chal­lenge lux­ury mod­els rather than its main­stream com­peti­tors.

Now we as­sess that po­ten­tial. The de­fender of the com­pact lux­ury cross­over genre in this com­pe­ti­tion is the 2018 Lexus NX 300, an­other ve­hi­cle that pleas­antly sur­prised us dur­ing its par­tic­i­pa­tion in SUV of the Year four years ago— also earn­ing a fi­nal­ist nod.

Just shy of $37,000 to start and $40,463 as tested, our NX lands just above the av­er­age new ve­hi­cle trans­ac­tion price. Mean­while, our CX-5 in top Grand Tour­ing trim comes in at just un­der $32,000 be­fore op­tions and $33,810 as tested. (You can op­tion it up to just short of $35,000.) That gave the Mazda the low­est price in our field and pro­vided the widest price gap in our tests.

Di­men­sion­ally, the ve­hi­cles are much closer; the Lexus is larger on the out­side, but the Mazda rides on a longer wheel­base and of­fers more rear-seat and cargo space.

Much of what makes lux­ury ap­peal to your senses is based on first im­pres­sions, and both of these ve­hi­cles make strong ones. Ap­proach­ing the Mazda, you can’t help but be struck by its pre­mium-grade looks. The ex­te­rior de­sign is clean and so­phis­ti­cated, an evening gown com­pared to the Lexus’ club dress. The Lexus’ many chis­els and cuts are ex­tro­verted and un­mis­tak­able. We think it’s the best

ap­pli­ca­tion of the brand’s de­sign lan­guage on an SUV, but we wouldn’t call it pretty.

Get­ting be­hind the wheel has a sim­i­lar ef­fect. The Mazda’s in­te­rior is sim­ple and suave with a dash­ing two-tone color scheme. Clearly, Mazda spent real money in here: real metal trim; soft, sup­ple leather; rich soft-touch plas­tics; con­trast stitch­ing; and pass­able fake wood trim.

The base-model Lexus, mean­while, plays a clever vis­ual trick by strate­gi­cally ap­ply­ing the ex­pen­sive ma­te­ri­als in places that draw your eye away from the de­con­tented stuff. Im­i­ta­tion leather, which is good enough to fool you into think­ing it’s the real thing, adorns the seats, steer­ing wheel, and arm rests, and it’s set off by con­trast stitch­ing. Even the sil­ver-hued plas­tic trim em­ploys a satin fin­ish that looks ex­pen­sive. All of this neatly dis­tracts from the cen­ter stack’s wa­ter­fall of plas­tic, not to men­tion the lower door pan­els that seem bet­ter suited to a Toy­ota Yaris. But how of­ten do you look down there?

Func­tion­ally, the Lexus suf­fers set­backs, as well. The lay­out of the con­trols on the cen­ter stack makes no sense, and half the func­tions are con­trolled by the de­testable touch­pad-op­er­ated in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem—which

re­mains dis­tract­ing even to some­one who’s been us­ing it for years. The seat­ing po­si­tion is very high, which many driv­ers ap­pre­ci­ate, but the steer­ing wheel is so far away even at full ex­ten­sion that you have to choke up on the dash and ped­als to reach it com­fort­ably. The seat it­self, at least, is quite com­fort­able.

We find the Mazda’s lay­out much more agree­able but still not per­fect. The con­trol lay­out is more tra­di­tional and er­gonomic, save the ro­tary con­troller for the in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem, which is so far rear­ward on the cen­ter con­sole that it re­quires an awk­ward, gnarled-wrist reach. The screen it­self is touch-sen­si­tive, a nice al­ter­na­tive to the knob, but it’s a long reach, and the screen is small by to­day’s stan­dards. The full-color head-up dis­play, by con­trast, is a pre­mium touch. The seat, though, is harder and flat­ter than we’d like.

Fir­ing the en­gine and head­ing out for a drive, the first thing that strikes you is how quiet the Mazda is. Iso­la­tion from the out­side world is a lux­ury hall­mark, and Mazda has made it a pri­or­ity. In­deed, ap­ply­ing a pro­fes­sional-grade sound me­ter to both ve­hi­cles re­turned sur­pris­ing re­sults: Cruis­ing at 65 mph, the av­er­age am­bi­ent noise in each ve­hi­cle’s cabin is iden­ti­cal. When’s the last time you got in a main­stream ve­hi­cle that was as quiet as a lux­ury car? The Lexus does have a slight ad­van­tage, though, as it is qui­eter un­der full-throt­tle ac­cel­er­a­tion, but you’ll do a lot less of that than cruis­ing on the free­way.

As you’re driv­ing, you’ll no­tice the two crossovers have dis­tinct driv­ing per­son­al­i­ties. In our ex­pe­ri­ence, the mod­ern lux­ury shop­per equates a de­gree of sporti­ness with lux­ury, and the Mazda has many more de­grees than the Lexus. There’s a light­ness and nim­ble­ness to the way the Mazda drives, re­spond­ing im­me­di­ately and smoothly to your in­puts. It can in­duce smiles even in gen­tle bends. The en­gine is gen­er­ally well-matched to the ve­hi­cle, though it could use a lit­tle more torque on the bot­tom end, and the trans­mis­sion shifts as smoothly and smartly as that of the Lexus. The trade-off is a firmer ride, but it’s a worth­while one.

The Lexus, by con­trast, feels heavy in ev­ery­thing it does. The en­gine surges when you step on the gas, as if mus­ter­ing the strength to push the ve­hi­cle for­ward. You need to push the brake pedal harder than ex­pected to slow as quickly as you’d like. It leans more in cor­ners than that sporty look prom­ises and goes over bumps like it’s fully loaded even when empty. Still, the en­gine is smooth and re­spon­sive in a way that will make you for­get it’s tur­bocharged, and the trans­mis­sion is spot-on. The ride is softer, as be­fits the han­dling. In other words, it be­fits those who seek a more clas­sic lux­ury ex­pe­ri­ence.

But your senses can de­ceive, and here the test num­bers don’t jibe with the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. At the test track, the slower-feel­ing Lexus is ac­tu­ally sub­stan­tially, sur­pris­ingly quicker in a straight line and needs only slightly longer to stop de­spite be­ing the heav­ier ve­hi­cle. It also posts a slightly quicker fig­ure-eight re­sult than the Mazda (the CX-5’S non-de­feat sta­bil­ity con­trol hurt it there), though the higher lat­eral g’s recorded in the Mazda speak to its han­dling prow­ess. If your roads are straight, you’ll be quicker in the Lexus, but if they’re curved or if you just en­joy driv­ing, you’ll want the Mazda.

That’s you, then, but what of your pas­sen­gers? Taller rid­ers will ap­pre­ci­ate the Mazda’s su­pe­rior head­room front and

Lux­ury ap­peals to your senses and first im­pres­sions, and both of these ve­hi­cles make strong ones.

es­pe­cially rear, where the seat is lower. They give up a bit of legroom up front to the Lexus but gain sub­stan­tially more in the rear. The rear-seat area of the Lexus is more com­fort­able once you climb up onto it—mak­ing sure to watch your head on the way in. Both ve­hi­cles’ rear seats re­cline, but only the Mazda’s are heated.

Speak­ing of fea­tures, typ­i­cally the more you spend over the base price, the more you’ll get. Sur­pris­ingly, though, the en­try­trim Lexus is fairly well-equipped for its price. Our tester has heated and cooled front seats, ac­tive cruise con­trol, a suite of crash-avoid­ance tech­nol­ogy, a moon­roof, parking sen­sors, blind-spot mon­i­tors, and a power tail­gate—and still came in just over our $40,000 price cap as tested (close enough that we called it a gim­mie).

To that im­pres­sive fea­tures list, though, the Mazda adds nav­i­ga­tion (al­beit like a Garmin from 10 years ago), heated rear seats, a head-up dis­play, and a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter-sound­ing stereo. Nei­ther ve­hi­cle came equipped with Ap­ple Carplay or An­droid Auto. Both will of­fer Carplay soon, but only Mazda has com­mit­ted to of­fer­ing An­droid Auto.

Some­times the most im­por­tant fea­ture of all, how­ever, is the abil­ity to take all your stuff with you. Here, the Lexus is at a de­cided dis­ad­van­tage. De­spite be­ing larger in ev­ery ex­ter­nal di­men­sion, it has lit­tle more than half the cargo space of the Mazda be­hind the sec­ond row. Low­er­ing the rear seats makes cargo room for the two nearly eq­ui­table be­hind the first row, though in the Lexus you’ll have to go around to the side doors while the Mazda has re­lease han­dles in the cargo area.

More of­ten, time it­self is the great­est lux­ury. The less of it spent at the gas sta­tion, the bet­ter. You’ll likely see the pump a bit less of­ten with the Lexus de­spite it be­ing tur­bocharged. The two of­fer sim­i­lar Epa-es­ti­mated fuel econ­omy ratings, with the Mazda claim­ing a 1-mpg ad­van­tage across the board. In our Real MPG test­ing, though, the Mazda strug­gles in city driv­ing and ex­cels in high­way driv­ing; the Lexus is con­sis­tent in the city and bet­ter than ad­ver­tised on the high­way. Per our test­ing, the Lexus’ com­bined fuel econ­omy is no­tice­ably bet­ter.

Some say time is money, but money is ac­tu­ally money. In ad­di­tion to the pur­chase price, you’re go­ing to in­cur costs in own­er­ship, in­clud­ing re­pairs, main­te­nance, reg­is­tra­tion fees, in­sur­ance, and fuel. And when it’s time to sell, you’ll have to face the ham­mer of de­pre­ci­a­tion.

Per data col­lected by our part­ner In­tel­li­choice, you’re go­ing to come out ahead with the Mazda over five years of own­er­ship. Much of this owes to the lower pur­chase price and sub­se­quently lower fi­nanc­ing costs, but In­tel­li­choice pre­dicts lower in­sur­ance and main­te­nance costs, as well. The Mazda’s resid­ual value af­ter five years is also sur­pris­ingly close to that of the Lexus—which is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the in­dus­try gold stan­dard and was the high­est of all eight ve­hi­cles we eval­u­ated for this test.

In what was by far the clos­est de­ci­sion of these four com­par­i­son tests, this is what it came down to: money. The ac­tual ve­hi­cles are so evenly matched that if they cost the same, we might rec­om­mend the Lexus for the badge ap­peal and white­glove dealer treat­ment. That’s far from the case, though.

As they sit, there’s a $6,653 price gap be­tween the two as tested, and that’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. You could knock the op­tions off the Lexus and get it down to a $3,170 gap, which is more palat­able but with less stuff to show for it. Speak­ing of stuff, we can’t for­get that our Lexus is front-wheel drive while our Mazda is all-wheel drive. Mak­ing things fair, you’d need to put an­other $1,400 on the Lexus’ win­dow sticker, open­ing the gap back up to nearly $5,000. At the all-wheeldrive NX 300’s $38,380 start­ing price, you could have a CX-5 Grand Tour­ing fully loaded with ev­ery ac­ces­sory Mazda of­fers, right down to the lock­ing lug nuts.

When it comes down to it, the gap of more than $6,500 for two equally matched ve­hi­cles is just too wide to bridge. With the de­gree to which ve­hi­cles can vary, it’s not of­ten we can say you can get the same or bet­ter for less, but if you’re cross-shop­ping the CX-5 and NX 300, you ab­so­lutely can. n

REAL FEEL Both the Mazda (top) and Lexus present the rich look of soft, creamy leather, which is dou­bly im­pres­sive for the Lexus be­cause it’s not real. We also felt the front seats of the Lexus were more com­fort­able.

GIVE AND TAKE We like the Lexus’ re­clin­ing rear seats, but they sit very high, and you have to watch your head climb­ing in. Up front, we take is­sue with the er­gonomics of the cen­ter con­sole.

GET COM­FORT­ABLE The Mazda’s rear seats re­cline. They are also heated and more com­fort­able. In the first row, we liked the clean de­sign and sim­ple con­trols.

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