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Roseville, Calif. – Now in its fourth year, the 2016 Mazda CX-5 has clearly established itself as a strong entity in a crowded field of very competent compact crossover sport utility vehicles.

Mazda definitely made a wise decision several years ago, introducing the CX-5 and hoping it would fare better than its low-selling predecessors – the Tribute and the CX-7.

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The Tribute, a knockoff of the popular Ford Escape, never gained widespread acceptance as a compact SUV. Mazda shelved the CX-7 for good, but kept the CX-9, which is larger.

Despite no major overhaul since its 2012 debut, the Japanese automaker (Ford owns 34 percent) has updated the CX-5 slightly for every model year. Among the modifications for 2016 are minor styling changes in the rear and front end – slightly bolder grille with metallic gray accents, and the headlights have a revised interior layout.

Additional changes are a revised suspension that contributes to a more comfortable ride, altered infotainment system, electronic parking brake, and sound insulation that has reduced the road noise.

The compact SUV heavyweights – Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 – remain on top. But the list of serious challengers keeps expanding. The Mazda CX-5 is definitely on that list, along with the Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson and Volkswagen Tiguan.

The attractive looking CX-5 was well received right away and continues to pick up admirers. It’s sporty, fun to drive and also possesses a rather thrifty quality, evidenced by its rather low sticker price ($21,795) for the base model and high gas mileage – ranging from 25-35 mpg.

2016 Mazda CX-5

  • Performance: 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, 155 horsepower; 2.5-liter, four-cylinder, 184 horsepower
  • Mileage estimate: 26-35 mpg; 25-33 mpg
  • Price: $21,795 to $29,870
  • Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles; drivetrain 5 years/60,000 miles; roadside assistance 3 years/36,000; corrosion 5 years/unlimited

Two years ago, Mazda wisely offered an upgraded engine for both its Touring and Grand Touring models. The engine is a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder that produces 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. It travels 0-60 mph in 8.3 seconds, but actually seems faster with the pep it provides.

The base model engine (six-speed manual transmission) remains a rather lethargic 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, with 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. It’s a bit pokey, going 0-60 mph in 9.7 seconds.

There are performance complaints with the entry-level model, but the CX-5 interior gets mostly applause. It’s a modernized cockpit that is both appealing and functional. It has the desired soft-touch surfaces and provides comfort and room for all five occupants.

The CX-5 features a roomy second row that seats three and also has a spacious trunk area (34 cubic feet) for the class. Another plus for this SUV is its excellent safety ratings.

The CX-5 receives high marks for its driving impressions as well. It handles like a well-behaved sedan, absorbing bumps, and the braking is very reliable. Although the engine can get noisy when it’s being called upon for instant acceleration, in normal situations one hardly hears a peep.

Mazda has a winner in the CX-5 for a variety of reasons. Among its strengths is being a fun-driving SUV with a sporty feel and good acceleration with the 2.5-liter engine. It’s not easy to be a standout in this crowded field of fine compact SUVs, but the CX-5 has become a notable entry.

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