WHEN I was growing up in the olden days, as my just-turned 12-year-old calls it, there didn’t seem to be as much variety as there is now, writes William Scholes.
The ‘big shop’ was carried out at Stewarts and Crazy Prices – none of this newfangled Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Lidl carry on for us – and there were almost no watchable channels on television.
In contrast, today’s youth have a great many channels that are unwatchable.
And then there were the telephones. In ye olde days, there was no internet or wifi and the mobility of your phone was governed by the length of the cable attaching it to the house.
Today’s young consumer can choose from a range of different smartphones, some of which are even used to occasionally make calls.
Back then, though you could have a Volkswagen, Renault, Toyota and so on, Northern Ireland’s family cars were for the most part drawn from a fairly shallow pool.
Ford, Vauxhall and whatever remnants of British Leyland were extant dominated the market with cars like the Escort and Sierra, the Astra and Cavalier and the Maestro and Montego.
These came in saloon, hatchback and estate flavours… and that was about it.
Fast forward 30-ish years and it is all change. The Astra is the only one of those family car nameplates still on sale today.
The biggest upheaval, however, is the shape of our family cars. Yes, we still buy lots of the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus and their hatchback ilk, but the truth is that the high-riding SUV is now the default go-to family wagon.
And the choice can seem bewildering, especially for those children of the 1980s and 1990s who are now the mums and dads buying cars in which to carry their own offspring.
There is a sense in which the choice is a little illusory. Their makers won’t thank me for saying this, but many of the family SUV contenders are essentially interchangeable, so closely matched are their size, specification, price and performance.
Some do manage to stand out. The previous Hyundai Tucson, for example, had a blend of attributes which so squarely hit the sweet spot with Irish families that it was consistently at the top of the sales charts.
Other honourable mentions for the Nissan Qashqai, which owners seem to love, Volvo’s beautifully designed XC models and the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, which is about as good looking and fine driving an example of this style of vehicle as you will find.
Another select entry on the list of standout SUVs is the Mazda CX-5. I liked it so much that I bought one.
And though different family needs mean we no longer have a CX-5, it remains one of the few cars I can unhesitatingly recommend.
Some time spent living with a CX-5 recently reminded me of just how complete a car this is.
We’re now on the second generation of the CX-5, with the current version arriving in 2017. Since then, Mazda has updated the car several times.
It’s been relatively minor stuff – suspension tweaks and a sharper digital screen, that sort of thing – and can be thought as applying a layer of polish to an already sparkling gem.
This process of honing is typical of Mazda’s approach and seems to speak of confidence in the essential rightness of the car as it was launched rather than, as with certain other manufacturers, a desire to make change for the sake of it.
If you are in the family SUV market and also enjoy driving – and not just in the sense of getting from A to B but in how it feels as a tactile experience – then the Mazda has to be at the top of your shopping list
In some respects, the CX-5 is fairly average. There are, for example, family SUVs that are bigger and can hold more luggage.
But in other important ways it is outstanding. If you are in the family SUV market and also enjoy driving – and not just in the sense of getting from A to B but in how it feels as a tactile experience – then the Mazda has to be at the top of your shopping list.
It has a properly mechanical feeling gear change. The consistency of the weight of the pedals and steering speak of thoughtful engineering by people who want you to enjoy how you interact with the car.
The CX-5 handles with vim for a relatively large, high-up vehicle. It will flow along your favourite back road with aplomb.
Driven as its maker intended, the CX-5 is a fun car. And that isn’t true of the majority of family SUVs, which tend to be anodyne, feel-free experiences.
There is, I hasten to add, nothing wrong with that if an interactive driving experience is nowhere on your list of family car priorities.
And, let us not get too carried away with waxing about the CX-5’s dynamic prowess. If you want a sports car, you should buy an MX-5.
But you’ll not get the kit and caboodle associated with family life, never mind the family itself, into a two-seat roadster, so a compromise has to be made somewhere along the line.
The point is that the CX-5 is the family SUV that most successfully achieves that sense of compromise. There are echoes of the MX-5 in the CX-5 driving experience, and that is worthy of praise.
The CX-5 is the largest SUV that Mazda sells in Northern Ireland. If you want a fun SUV in the larger size classes, I suggest you try the Alfa Romeo Stelvio or Porsche Macan. Or you could avoid an SUV altogether…
As the driver, you will appreciate the CX-5’s smile factor. Your passengers won’t get to experience the sweet gear change, but they will like the Mazda’s interior.
This is emphatically better than that fitted to my CX-5 and is arguably now in Audi and Volvo territory.
You’ll not get the kit and caboodle associated with family life, never mind the family itself, into a two-seat roadster, so a compromise has to be made somewhere along the line. The CX-5 is the family SUV that most successfully achieves that compromise
Mazda gets bonus points in my book for sticking with a rotary controller to operate the infotainment screen, rather than relying only on a touchscreen.
Though great strides are being made with touchscreen interfaces, in practice a click-wheel knob and buttons still seems to be a safer, more sensible and intuitive approach.
The Mazda is also loaded with kit. My Sport model included a proper head-up display, leather trim, electrically adjustable seats, a stonking Bose stereo, clever LED headlamps and lots of safety gadgetry. The heated seats and heated steering wheel were particularly appreciated on a cold winter’s day.
This latest CX-5 is far more refined than its predecessor. My old car could be terribly noisy on the ‘wrong’ road surface, which unfortunately for me included long stretches of the M1 that any Scholes family car can’t avoid pounding along. Blame large 19-inch wheels and the tyres, but also an acquaintance with sound deadening material that was passing at best.
Mazda clearly listened to the gripes of owners like me, as well as its own ears, and the latest CX-5 is a far quieter, hushed proposition.
This, plus the quality of the interior and a sense of solidity, help bolster the car’s upmarket credentials – it certainly feels posher in here than anything offered by Nissan, Renault, Ford and the rest of the mainstream.
And the CX-5 remains one of the best looking family cars on sale today – Mazda really does know how to style a car – and is especially crisp in the company’s trademark ‘soul red’ paintwork, an £820 option.
You won’t find either a ‘self-charging’ or plug-in hybrid version of the CX-5. Mazda’s idiosyncratic approach is perhaps typified by the fact that the petrol engines offered in the CX-5 aren’t turbocharged.
That means you don’t get the slug of low-down torque that so characterises modern petrol turbos; instead you get an engine that is far more responsive and which requires the driver to visit the upper reaches of the rev range to extract performance. Because of this, a petrol CX-5 can feel like something of a throwback at first… but then you start to wonder why all petrol cars aren’t like this any more.
The petrol engines are large capacity for their power outputs, too, especially compared to their turbo rivals. Mazda offers a 2.0-litre with 163bhp and a new-for-2021 2.5-litre with 191bhp. The less powerful petrol is front-wheel-drive and comes with either a manual or automatic gearbox, both with six speeds. The 2.5-litre is paired with four-wheel-drive and only available with the auto ‘box.
There are also two highly recommended diesel options. The 148bhp unit is front-drive only while the 182bhp version can be had with front- or four-wheel-drive. Both diesels are offered with manual or automatic gearboxes.
Trim levels start from SE-L and rise to GT and GT Sport. A special edition Kuro model is also on sale at the moment.
CX-5 prices start from £27,245 and stretch around £10k to the top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive GT Sport automatic models.
I think it likely that the SUV as we know it may have reached the peak of its popularity, and that family cars will start to become lower-slung. Prioritising aerodynamic efficiency, so important with electric cars, will see to that.
In the meantime, the Mazda CX-5 stands out from the family SUV crowd – and it really is a bustling crowd – and were I in the market for a car of this sort I would find it hard to choose anything else that satisfied my demands so comprehensively.
So, returning to my opening point: yes, there’s lot of variety and choice today, but let me make it easier for you – try the Mazda.