All things considered, the freshly-launched Mazda CX-5 is the company’s most important vehicle to date. The company is really banking on this one for two reasons – the CX-5 is Mazda’s first compact SUV and this vehicle gets the full SkyActiv treatment.

I have touched on the SkyActiv components in my launch report, which I urge you to read. As a short recap, SkyActiv is an umbrella term by which the body, chassis, engine and transmission are conceived from a clean sheet of paper.

This means that all the components are developed in tandem so that they will make the vehicle handle brilliantly and give excellent performance without sacrificing economy. And you know what, it works.

Back to the CX-5 and how ‘unsharp’ it looks. While it does stand out among the current crop of SUVs, the Kodo-based design does not immediately leave cuts in your eyes the way the Takeri concept did. Still, the CX-5 has all the folds and creases in the right places. Incidentally, the design gives a drag coefficient figure of 0.33 Cd.

Nevertheless, the front grille and headlamps combination does follow the Kodo design philosophy quite nicely. Seen whole, the CX-5 has a stance that brushes away any impression of it being matured and serious. Nice to see a Japanese company that still knows how to have fun.

You can find all sorts of creature comforts inside. The seats (only the driver’s chair is power adjustable) are wrapped in leather. It cradles the posterior quite comfortably and gives nice back support. The CX-5 does not skimp on space; the 2,700 mm wheelbase ensures that there’s plenty of room for a long pair of legs.

Mazda has a good reputation for having tight fit and finish and I’m glad it has carried forward that same level of quality into the CX-5 as well. The materials used are a mixture of plastics, some softer than the other. But more importantly, it has fluffed up all the important contact points.

What the designers have left behnd is the sheer amount of buttons that used to permeate Mazda dashboards. The CX-5’s interior – and this is my only beef with its insides – looks too clean and simple; a contrast to what you see on the SUV’s metal shell. Oh well, can’t have everything.

Bermaz has also packed lots of goodies with the CX-5 too. The Special Accessories Package, valued at RM6,000, includes 225/55 tyres with 19-inch alloy wheels, electric sunroof, audio system with sat-nav (which runs on TomTom), leather seats, nine-speaker Bose sound system and a reverse camera with colour TFT touchscreen.

Mazda’s local partner says that the special accessories come standard only for the time being. The additional bells and whistles will become optional in the near future.

Before I bring up the topic on the engine and how it drives, let me touch on the SkyActiv-Drive first. It is a six-speed automatic gearbox that uses a torque converter to get it moving from standstill. However, once north of 8 km/h, the gears lock up to eliminate the need of a fluid coupler to change the gears.

This means the transmission establishes a mechanically direct link with the engine quicker than the competition. What this also does is surgically remove the lag you would expect from an auto gearbox.

It feels crisp, no matter if you leave it in ‘D’ or flick the gears through the manual interface. The transmission is also smart enough to always be in the right gear at the right time. Very promising indeed.

Shifts are fast and very direct, much like how a dual-clutch gearbox behaves. It is also creamy smooth, like a CVT only without the noise. There is virtually no loss in rpms as you go through the motions of getting the CX-5 up to speed.

Things get a little bit complicated from here. In spite of the fact that both 2WD and AWD CX-5 variants breathe with the same SkyActiv-G engine with the same stratospheric 13:1 compression ratio, there’s a slight difference in power figures. And this is just the start of what makes the variants different.

The 2WD gets to run with 153 hp at 6,000 rpm and 200 Nm at 4,000 rpm. The AWD’s figures are a hair’s breadth lower with 152 hp at 6,000 rpm and 198 Nm at 4,000 rpm.

Mazda claims that the figures are measured at the wheels instead of the engine. The loss of one horsepower in the AWD, as Mazda says, happens when power is sent from the engine to all four wheels.

Personally, seeing as there is only a miniscule difference in figures, they could have measured the power at the engine instead and no one would know the difference.

The AWD is not quick off the line as you’d expect it to. Standing on the accelerator only yields a laboured groan, but not much speed. But then again, the engine had barely registered any kilometres.

Once up to speed, the AWD comes together and settles down nicely. There is some good mid-range power and pace to be enjoyed. The engine and gearbox responds quick to the accelerator, needing only the lightest taps to downshift for overtaking.

There’s adequate feedback from the steering, definitely more than the current crop of SUVs in the market. It is weight-adjusted according to speed, making it easy to navigate around tight parking spots, feel assured on the highway and sensitive around the bends.

Speaking of going around the bends, the AWD system constantly makes small adjustments to keep going where you want it to go. It’ll put you through the motions, going from oversteer to understeer and back to oversteer. All the while keeping the nose pointing to the right direction without needing further steering input from you.

It does feel ‘iffy’ at first, but once trust is established with the system, the act of stitching up corners will be all too easy. And it is precise too, putting down rubber in all the right places to trace a nice curve. The more I drove the AWD, the more fun I got out of this compact SUV.

Yet, it is the 2WD that I would have on my driveway. It gives better fuel economy, 6.9 L/100 km versus 7.3 L/100 km on a combined cycle. It is also a lighter vehicle. The 2WD weighs in at 1,522 kg, which is 67 kg lighter than the AWD version.

Out of the bag, the 2WD is the one that is easier to drive. Acceleration feels more willing, hence quicker away from zero. The engine also feels less strung up in spite of it having about the same amount of mileage than the AWD model.

The two-wheel drive CX-5 feels just as relaxed and confident when cruising at the national speed limit. And like the AWD version, this CX-5 gives good mid-range aggression and respectable high-speed overtaking.

It is in the corners that the 2WD and AWD models feel different. The two-wheel drive CX-5 feels more balanced around the corners, going around them with much enthusiasm and grip.

OK, there might be some understeer due to its front-wheel drive nature, but you almost won’t notice of any meaningful loss of traction. Do you really need the AWD then? In normal driving conditions, the 2WD CX-5 handles better than you might expect.

The test drive was not a long one and it ended far too early. The CX-5 has a nice party bag of tricks but due to a lack of time, I wasn’t able to dig deep into that bag.

Still, if you are in the market for a sporty utility vehicle, you can’t really go wrong with the CX-5. As it stands, Mazda has put together a really nice vehicle to drive and live with.