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Diesel option puts the 2018 Mazda CX-5 in unique company…for a price

What changes will make the 2018 Mazda CX-5 different?

A diesel-engine option tops the short list of changes to a compact crossover that was thoroughly revised for 2017. At an estimated price premium of $3,000 or more, the turbocharged diesel four-cylinder won’t come close to challenging the standard gas engine for share of CX-5 sales. But it should edge it for acceleration and trounce it for fuel economy. And its availability will put the ’18 CX-5 in league with the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain as the only entries in the class to offer an oil-burner.

Mazda promises to begin offering the diesel during the second half of calendar 2017, leaving open the possibility it’ll be available on the 2017-model CX-5. Model-year ’18 would be its first full season as an option, however, putting an exclamation point on model-year-’17 updates so extensive Mazda claimed its top-selling crossover was fully redesigned. The changes were broad and included structural upgrades, revamped styling, and expanded safety features. But they fell short of a full redesign. That won’t happen until model-year 2020.

Why should I wait for the 2018?

With little or no other change expected, the main reason would be that you’re interested in the diesel engine. Ordering one would put you in exclusive company. Diesels are fast falling out of favor in the U.S., where they were never in high demand. Even in Europe, industry experts say sales are retreating from their 50-percent peak of a few years ago (demand in Germany is at 43 percent, lowest since 2010). The fastest growing alternative to traditional gas engines is electrification through plug-in-hybrid and full-electric powertrains. But electrification is conspicuously absent in the vehicle portfolio of Mazda, a relatively small and independent Japanese automaker.

Rare or not, the diesel would create a unique driving experience. It would have some 70 percent more torque than the CX-5’s gas engine, for presumably quicker getaways. And an EPA rating of around 40 mpg highway would give it 30 percent higher mileage. If you’re not a diesel candidate, though, waiting for the ’18 CX-5 may not be a good bet. Its styling, performance, and features set is almost certain to repeat those of the 2017 model, but the ’18 is nearly a lock to cost more.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

Yes, if you judge the extensive model-year 2017 updates enough to keep this crossover abreast of rivals redesigned since the CX-5 was introduced for model-year 2013. The list of newer crossovers includes the 2017 the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, and Volkswagen Tiguan; the 2016 Hyundai Tucson; even the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, Subaru Forester, and Nissan Rogue. Equinox and Terrain are all-new for 2018.

To be fair, Mazda for ’17 honed the CX-5’s already handsome styling; strengthened its substructure; retuned its suspension for even better handling; and added features, including autonomous emergency braking as standard. The five-seater’s basic architecture was carried over, however, as was the basic powertrain it’s used since 2014. Still, the CX-5 doesn’t necessarily feel antiquated against fresher competitors. And buying a ’17 instead of an ’18 will help you avoid paying more for essentially the same vehicle.

Will the styling be different?

Other than perhaps a new color choice or two, no. The CX-5’s wheelbase (distance between the front and rear axles) and overall dimensions were altered only fractionally in the 2017 freshening. The roofline was lowered slightly, resulting in a reduction in cargo volume – to just below average for the class – but with little diminution of passenger room, which remains good for four adults.

The styling evolved via a simplified tail and, most noticeably, a new nose with a sharper interpretation of the former grille, now flanked by slimmer, standard LED headlamps. Wheel designs changed, the front roof pillars were relocated about 1.5 inches rearward to improve visibility, and the rear doors remounted to open 6 degrees wider. Inside, the instrument panel was modified, with the standard 7-inch infotainment screen relocated from the center stack to a tablet-like display atop the dashboard.

Overall, these were subtle but effective updates that’ll carryover for model-year ’18. So will a three-model lineup, ascending from the entry-level Sport trim, through the midrange Touring, and culminating in the top-grade Grand Touring. Expect exterior styling differences among the models to remain minor, with Sport and Touring retaining similar looking 17-inch alloy wheels while the Grand Touring stays with more distinctive 19s. The Grand Touring is also likely to retain exclusive LED fog lights and taillamps. It’ll also be the sole CX-5 with leather upholstery; the Touring should keep its combination cloth/faux suede while the Sport remains all cloth.

Any mechanical changes?

Only with arrival of the diesel, Mazda’s first offered to North American buyers. The automaker hadn’t released final specifications on the engine in time for this review. But it confirms it’ll be a turbocharged 2.2-liter four-cylinder and include Natural Sound Smoother and Natural Sound Frequency Control, two proprietary technologies designed to reduce the knocking at idle that’s characteristic of diesels. Based on specs for the similar powerplant in overseas markets, expect around 173 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, the 1.6-liter turbodiesel four available in Equinox and Terrain is rated 137 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque.

The 2018 CX-5’s carryover gas engine will remain a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder that should again furnish 187 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque (consider torque the force that gets you moving, horsepower the energy that keeps you moving). Both engines would mate with a six-speed automatic transmission, though it’s speculative whether Mazda would add steering paddle shifters to compliment the CX-5’s sporty bent. Both engines would be available with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD).

Despite the off-road appeal of a diesel engine’s the low-rev torque, the ’18 CX-5 won’t be suited for serious excursions away from pavement. Indeed, the 2017 revamp reduced ground clearance to 7.6 inches, from 8.5. As with most crossovers in this class, there’s no low-range gearing. On-road handling has always been the CX-5’s forte, and Mazda improved it further for ’17 with addition of its G-Vectoring Control, which applies a touch of engine braking to sharpen initial turn-in. The stiffer structure also contributes to better handling and allowed engineers to retune the suspension for a softer ride.

Will fuel economy improve?

Not likely for the gas engine, though the diesel CX-5 is a contender for most-fuel-efficient vehicle in the segment. EPA ratings for the ’18 CX-5 were not released in time for this report. But with no changes, expect the gas engine to again rate 24/31/27 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 23/29/26 mpg with AWD. That itself places this Mazda among the highest-mileage compact crossovers

Likely to remain the segment’s EPA-ratings leader, at 32/31/33 mpg city/highway/combined, is its only hybrid, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. But the CX-5 diesel’s ratings should approach 40 mpg highway, and exceed 30 mpg in city and combined driving. (Ratings for the diesel Equinox and Terrain were not available in time for this review, but General Motors projects 40 mpg highway.)

Will it have new features?

Not likely, although Mazda ought to consider some shuffling. We’d urge it to rethink a strategy that forces Touring-grade buyers to choose between enhanced creature comforts and added safety systems. Specifically: for 2017, Touring buyers could opt for the Preferred Equipment Package (Bose audio, power moonroof, navigation system, automatic-dimming mirrors, and automatic headlamps). In the alternative, they could spring for Mazda’s i-Activesense Package (high-speed autonomous braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-maintaining automatic steering, and automatic high-beam headlights).

To combine all that will likely again require moving up to the Grand Touring model, where for 2017, both the enhanced amenities and added safety features were included as standard. Another nice change would be availability of something like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, enabling CX-5 owners to display their smartphone-mapping app on the dashboard screen without having to spring for the imbedded navigation system.

Otherwise, expect the list of standard and optional equipment to essentially carry over. That means the ’18 CX-5 Sport would come with such features as Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support, which furnishes autonomous braking that can stop the vehicle to prevent a low-speed frontal collision. Also continuing standard would be cruise control, pushbutton ignition, rearview camera, and a 40/20/40 split/folding rear seat. Included as well would be Mazda Connect, which pairs the 7-inch color touchscreen with the automaker’s well-designed console control knob to govern audio, Bluetooth, and other infotainment functions.

Expect the 2018 CX-5 Touring model to build on the Sport with blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert, auto-leveling LED headlights, a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift handle, dual-zone automatic climate control with rear vents, rear USB ports, a reclining rear bench seat with center armrest, rear privacy glass, and illuminated vanity mirrors.

The Grand Touring will again include all that, plus black or parchment leather upholstery and the aforementioned lighting and wheel specifics. It’ll also return with standard steering-linked headlamps, driver’s power lumbar adjustment, satellite radio, rain-sensing wipers, and heated mirrors.

How will 2018 prices be different?

Bet on some increase, though it’s likely to be incremental for models with the gas engine. That means the lion’s share of 2018 CX-5s will again be very competitively priced. Estimated base prices in this review include Mazda’s destination fee, which was $940 on the ’17 CX-5.

Estimated 2018 base prices for the Sport are $25,300 with front-wheel drive and $26,600 with AWD. For the Touring, they’re $27,200 and $28,500, respectively. Reflecting this crossover’s relatively upscale owner demographic, expect the Grand Touring to again account for nearly half of 2018 CX-5 sales. Figure it’ll start around $30,600 with front-drive and $32,000 with AWD.

Among key options, Touring buyers should expect to pay around $780 for the Preferred Equipment Package and around $625 for the i-Activesense package. Look for the Grand Touring Premium Package to return at $1,830 and again include a windshield-projected head-up instrument display, a power front passenger seat, heated rear outboard seats, heated steering wheel, and a windshield-wiper de-icer.

Mazda had not indicated which of the three trims would be available with the diesel-engine option. We’d guess it’ll be offered on the Touring and Grand Touring and would expect it to add around $3,500 to the base price. That would make it a dicey value, given continued low prices for gasoline, ongoing questions about the future of diesel, and the CX-5’s deserved image as a light-and-lively crossover rather than a trailer-pulling, off-roading SUV.

When will it come out?

Release date for the 2018 CX-5 will be during the third quarter of 2017.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]