Mazda takes a good thing - its CX-5 - and tinkers with it

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I couldn’t help but see an old-style wagon — as in covered wagon — when looking at the giant wheels of the 2018 Mazda CX-5.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox AWD vs. 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD: A new little crossover vs. an old standard.

This week: The 2018 Mazda CX-5.

Price: $34,380 as tested ($30,695 for the trim level, plus $1,830 for premium package, which heated the steering wheel and rear corner seats, and added a beloved heads-up display).

Conventional wisdom: Motor Trend says you’ll like that it’s “fun to drive” with a “well-built interior” but not that it’s “not as spacious as some competitors” and has “flat seats, intrusive electronic nannies.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Designed with emotion.”

Reality: When the best just isn’t good enough … sometimes you start tinkering around and screw something up a little.

Catching up: Last week we spent some time in the 2018 Chevy Equinox, which took Chevrolet’s new design language and applied it to the small crossover model. The result was an improved Equinox, which almost had nowhere to go but up.

What’s new: For 2018, CX-5 further improves on performance and efficiency with new cylinder-deactivation technology that can reduce fuel consumption by shutting down two cylinders. This is unusual for a four-cylinder engine, and Mazda says it’s the only company that offers this technology on a four.

Tough decision: Sometimes Mr. Driver’s Seat gets in a new vehicle and the first impression goes one way, while later on feelings change.

The CX-5 started off feeling bouncy and uncomfortable, but it improved over time.

Up to speed: The 2.5-liter SkyActiv four-cylinder engine creates 187 horsepower. This sounds sufficient, but it’s really on the low end of our scale for this model year, and the performance shows. Zero to 60 takes 7.8 seconds for the front-wheel drive or 8.1 for AWD, according to Car and Driver.

It really pales in comparison with the Equinox’s possibilities, though; the turbocharged model I tested produced 252 horses.

I didn’t have the cylinder-shutdown technology available on the model I tested, though I trust it will work seamlessly enough to not have a noticeable effect on passing or other maneuvers. But that’s because passing in the CX-5 is already a questionable thing.

Shifty: The six-speed sport-mode automatic transmission has a shiftable side, and Sport mode in shift is the best place to run this. Sport mode in automatic seemed jerky.

On the road: Is Mr. Driver’s Seat turning into Grandpa Driver’s Seat? Somehow the thrill in the CX-5 — once one of my favorite small SUVs — seems to be gone.

In regular mode, the CX-5 seemed to have a bit of side-to-side sway, and certain highways really had some bounciness over the road seams.

On the ground: One factor could be the ginormous wheels and tires found on the newest models. Whereas earlier CX-5s came with 17-inch wheels, this model had 225/55/19-inch wheels. It’s the trend among manufacturers these days, and generally the ride and handling are improved while sacrificing fuel economy and snow performance.

Also, let’s talk about looks; the wheels make the CX-5 look like a Conestoga wagon. Get along, little Mazda.

Play some tunes: Mazda’s stereo sound remains excellent, about an A-, and among the best down here in the low end of the range. Operation is simple via dial and buttons, and the stand-up screen remains attractive.

Driver’s Seat: The leather-trimmed upholstery standard at this trim level was fairly slippery. I found myself not held in by the seat bottom or seat back, even though contouring was pretty good.

Friends and stuff: Rear seat legroom is fairly tight, even for a small crossover.

Cargo space is 59.6 cubic feet, slightly smaller than the Equinox.

Night shift: The interior lights in the test model were plasticky and cast a sickly glow. The headlights brightened the roadway just fine.

Fuel economy: Unfortunately, I managed to lose my recorded fuel economy. The estimates are 31 highway and 22 city, which is fairly disappointing.

Where it’s built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the CX-5 a 3 out of 5 for predicted reliability, matching its previous year. That’s down from 5 out of 5 before that.

In the end: Geez, with reliability down and some disappointing changes, am I really recommending the Equinox? Not there yet, but if the trend holds …

This is still a fun-to-drive crossover, but people in a real hurry to go need to look other places.