Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 4

Consider this the start of Mazda’s second assault on the Malaysian market. Since the launch of the CX-5 here in 2012, the brand has consistently impressed with the handsome design (following the curvaceous Kodo design language), premium interior ambience, efficient SkyActiv-G petrol engines and engaging driving dynamics of its new-generation models.

Four years on – and with the launch of the Mazda 6, 3, 2, MX-5 and CX-3 since then – it’s clear that while Mazda still hasn’t been able to match the sales of market leaders Honda, Toyota or even Nissan, it has gained quite a following among those who prefer an alternative to the big three, but who are still attracted to the image of reliability and dependability from a Japanese brand.

But the story has also been one of untapped potential. For years, local distributor Bermaz has promised the arrival of Mazda’s SkyActiv-D diesel engines – it’s been known to have run test units for years (we even managed to drive a Mazda 6 diesel), displayed a diesel Mazda 2 Sedan at the petrol model’s launch, and has even taken us to drive a Mazda 2 diesel hatch from Bangkok to the Malaysian border on a single tank – but the Malaysian public still has yet to have been able to get their hands on an oil-burning Mazda.

However, it seems that the wider availability of the cleaner Euro 5 diesel in Malaysia has spurred action from Bermaz – the company has confirmed that diesel models will be launched next month, with estimated pricing of RM166k for the CX-5 diesel and RM206k for the 6 diesel. We managed to snag a short drive with the former during the recent SkyActiv ASEAN Caravan – a near-1,400 km drive from Bangkok to Hanoi – to see what the new powertrains will bring to the table.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 8

The diesel CX-5 isn’t new to Bermaz; in fact, it assembled this exact unit (and all other diesel CX-5s sold in Thailand) at the Inokom plant in Kulim since 2013. Yes, that’s right – these cars have been in Malaysia for years, but you’ve never been able to buy one.

So what distinguishes the diesel-burning SUV from the petrol-powered one? Visually, not much – apart from the lone SkyActiv-D badge at the rear, this car is practically identical to the high-spec 2.5 GLS petrol models that are sold in Malaysia. This means it gets the cool LED head- and tail lights and LED fog lights that were introduced with the facelift last year.

This writer has always thought that the CX-5, while certainly handsome, looked the most nondescript of the “new-age” Mazdas, so the extra jewellery added through the new lights and the slotted grille bring a welcome premium look to the C-segment SUV.

Unfortunately, as with the petrol model, the diesel also misses the stylish 19-inch two-tone wheels offered on facelifted models in other markets, instead using the pre-facelift car’s silver items.

The facelift’s changes inside are equally minimal, but are just as effective. The biggest revamp is the inclusion of Hiroshima’s latest easy-to-use MZD Connect infotainment system, with a seven-inch touchscreen slotting in where the previous 2-DIN system used to reside.

Other changes include a new soft-touch binnacle for the touchscreen (with faux stitching, no less), brushed metal fascia trim, some silver surrounds for the air vents and steering multifunction controls, revised graphics for the instrument gauges and new climate controls.

Also added is a new transmission tunnel with a revised gearlever and an electronic parking brake – the latter frees up space for an extra cubby hole next to the cupholders, as well as a longer armrest. These changes help lift the ambience of the interior slightly – just enough to give it a noticeably more upmarket look and feel.

As reported earlier, pricing of the CX-5 will hover around the RM166k mark, putting it around RM10k higher than the RM155k CX-5 2WD 2.5 petrol. That would also make it significantly pricier than the seven-seater (the CX-5 is a five-seater) Kia Sorento 2.2 diesel, but bear in mind that the Mazda comes with a much higher level of kit, including LED headlights, bigger wheels and the MZD Connect system with Bluetooth.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 21

Safety wise, the CX-5 will not come with the full i-ActivSense system seen here, so you will lose out on features like lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist or driver attention assist. However, the Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) and blind spot warning with rear cross traffic alert should remain.

Finally, we get to the real news, which is under the bonnet. Instead of the 2.0 litre or 2.5 litre SkyActiv-G petrol four-cylinder engines, there is a 2.2 litre SkyActiv-D twin-turbo diesel mill making 172 hp at 4,500 rpm and 420 Nm of torque at 2,000 rpm – while power is slightly down on the 2.5’s 185 horses, the diesel blows the petrol’s 250 Nm out of the water, and at 1,250 rpm lower, too.

This engine is not entirely new – it’s a development of the 2.2 MZD-CD engine used on the second generation Mazda 3, 6 and CX-7. The myriad of advancements centres around a lower compression ratio of 14.0:1 (the lowest for a diesel engine in the world, apparently), rather than the previous 16.3:1.

By itself, this delays the combustion process just enough for the air-fuel mixture to mix more thoroughly, enabling it to burn more cleanly and producing fewer nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and soot as a result. As such, it meets stringent Euro 6 regulations – crucially, without resorting to expensive after-treatments such as AdBlue urea exhaust injection systems.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 17

Lowering the ratio also eases internal stresses, meaning that the engine doesn’t have to be saddled by heavier and stronger parts – allowing the use of lighter, lower-friction components such as an aluminium block, thinner cylinder head walls and lighter pistons and crankshaft. This improves fuel economy, and also allows for more balanced handling as the weight over the nose is reduced.

The benefits of a lower compression ratio don’t end there. Because of higher emissions standards, modern high-compression diesel engines cannot inject fuel at the optimum point of ignition – at the top of the cylinder travel, or top dead centre (TDC).

This is because the extreme cylinder pressure and temperature would cause the fuel to ignite before the air and fuel is mixed thoroughly, resulting in excess emissions. Thus, ignition has to be delayed until the piston drops and the pressure and temperature is lowered.

By contrast, the SkyActiv-D’s lower compression ratio enables the fuel to be injected earlier – near TDC – and still give more time for the air and fuel to mix before ignition. As a result, the engine can ignite the mixture earlier, and therefore have a longer effective combustion stroke, improving fuel efficiency.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 34

Mazda has also worked hard on offsetting the downsides of a low-compression diesel engine. Firstly, the company combatted poor cold starts by utilising multi-hole piezo injectors, controlling the concentration of the mixture precisely to ease combustion at lower temperatures.

There’s also a variable valve lift (VVL) system on the exhaust that opens the valve slightly on the intake stroke to bring hot exhaust gases back into the cylinder chamber – this enables the engine to warm up faster, stabilising ignition and preventing misfiring during the warm-up operation.

Lastly, the engine utilises two-stage turbocharging, with a smaller turbocharger providing increased torque and response at lower revs, and a larger one supplying increased power at higher revs. This also ensures a high (for a diesel) 5,200 rpm redline, as well as providing more oxygen for optimal combustion timing with low NOx and soot emissions.

Fitted to this car is a diesel particulate filter to further clean up exhaust gases – importantly, Bermaz has confirmed that it will be retained on Malaysian vehicles, unlike other diesel models sold here so far. This likely means that the cars will be required to be filled only with Euro 5 diesel, as the high sulphur content of Euro 2M fuel will clog the filter in short order.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 30

This particular oil burner is mated to Mazda’s now-ubiquitous SkyActiv-Drive six-speed automatic transmission, sending power to all four wheels. Bermaz says that the all-wheel drive model won’t be available in Malaysia, with the CX-5 diesel only available with front-wheel drive.

How does a diesel CX-5 drive? In a word, torquey – the SkyActiv-D engine imbues the crossover with hot hatch levels of low- and mid-range punch. The first time I drove it, coming out of a petrol station, I flexed the throttle just a few inches and the car simply leapt forward, in a manner that had me a little taken aback.

This surprising turn of pace manifests itself when cruising or overtaking, too – just extend your right foot and watch as the CX-5 surges effortlessly forwards. There’s no sudden kick in the back, just a steady stream of motive force that pushes the car to well beyond highway speeds – and it’s extremely entertaining.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 32

In fact, the engine has so much latent speed at the lower end of the rev counter that it makes the rather leisurely, efficiency-prioritising transmission programming – which so often makes petrol-powered Mazdas feel lethargic – a complete non-issue. There’s also a very broad spread of power, which sees the engine charging with vim up the rev ranges, only feeling slightly suffocated at the very top.

It’s also a very refined and smooth engine, with the typical diesel clatter and rattle kept to a minimum. You’ll hear and feel a little bit of it at start-up, and a some of that lorry-like drone does come into the cabin when you’re accelerating. But it’s never intrusive, and it shuts itself up almost completely when cruising – at 100 km/h, the engine runs well below 2,000 rpm, making it practically inaudible at that speed.

The engine’s quiet, unstressed nature goes hand-in-hand with the rest of the car. Wind and tyre noise are well-insulated, and even with the 19-inch wheels the CX-5 retains a fairly composed ride – Mazda has revised the dampers and suspension bushings to give it a smoother and flatter ride, and it clearly shows. Only when you hit larger bumps do the bigger rollers make their presence known.

Mazda CX-5 2.2 SkyActiv-D 11

Efficiency is also stellar – we managed to clock under 6.0 litres per 100 km during our stint with the car, bang on the quoted combined fuel consumption figure of 5.7 litres per 100 km. That’s deeply impressive, considering that this particular CX-5 was also saddled with a heavy all-wheel drive system. We expect our front-wheel drive variant to be even more frugal.

To sum up, the addition of a diesel engine makes the Mazda CX-5 an even more attractive proposition than its petrol-powered brethren. Its effortless performance gives the Hiroshima crossover a character of its own and helps it stand out from a bustling crowd of me-too SUVs, without subjecting buyers to the rough, uncouth nature of a typical diesel mill.

Added to that, the extra frugality will help make the case for budget-minded families, too, and the inclusion of a diesel particulate filter means that the oil-burning option is no longer an environment-unfriendly one, either. So yes, it will be quite a bit more expensive than the petrol versions, but on this evidence, the diesel CX-5 will be more than worth the extra outlay.