Compact SUVs, crossovers, 4x4s, off-roaders.  Call them what you will, their appeal shows no sign of diminishing.

Indeed, with our increasingly Biblical weather, there’s never been a stronger case for investing in something with a bit of ground clearance and a double-helping of traction.

For Mazda, though, this is almost uncharted territory.  Famous for fabric-topped funsters like the MX-5 and the supreme executive express that is the Mazda 6, the company is less well known when it comes to mud-pluggers, its only previous foray into the gloop being the largely MPV-based CX-7.

The Mazda CX-5 isn’t just a chance to make up for lost time, then, but also an opportunity for the company to show off its various SkyActiv technologies and bring a welcome air of efficiency to the SUV party.

SkyActiv starts with a light-weight body and chassis that use clever engineering processes to create a stiff yet light platform for the rest of the car’s systems.  The weight reduction helps improve both fuel efficiency and agility, while the increased strength provides for good crash performance.

All of this engineering is wrapped-up in a design that marked the debut of Mazda’s Kodo design language, and on the CX-5 this is most readily visible in the form of the large front grille, the chrome wing motif that flows into the headlights, and the flared wheel-arches.

This theme continues towards the back, with a roof-line that slopes gently into the tailgate via a neat roof spoiler, sculpted flanks and a high shoulder-line that flows into the rear lights.

Inside, there are a pair of sportily-bolstered front seats, attractively hooded dials, and a smattering of metal finishes that lift the overall ambiance.

The rotary controls for the heating and ventilation system are particularly pleasing to use with a satisfying click at each detent, while the phone, audio and navigation systems are governed by a similar dial behind the gear lever.

Dubbed the Mazda Multimedia Controller, it provides access to a series of menus displayed on the touch-screen in the centre console, but if twisting and turning your way through them isn’t for you, you can instead resort to poking at them with your pinky.

Comfort-wise, the interior boasts a wide range of flexibility in the driving position, with reach- and rake-adjustable steering and good seat travel in all directions, particularly for height which ranges from low-slung to sit-up-and-beg.

Space for rear-seat passengers hasn’t been neglected, and even with the sloping roof-line headroom for adults is good, although whoever draws the short straw and sits in the middle seat won’t feel quite as fortunate as those either side.

Part of the reason for that will be apparent when you fold the rear seats forward.  The CX-5 is unusual in having a 40:20:40 split seat, and each part can be folded independently using levers mounted in the boot.  This flexibility allows long loads and two rear passengers to be accommodated at the same time, and with all seats folded cargo capacity rises from 503 litres to 1,620.

Clever touches include Mazda’s excellent load cover that attaches to the tailgate so that it automatically gets out of your way for easy loading, plus there’s a dedicated space to stow it under the floor when not in use.  Accessing this underfloor storage is easy, too, with a split-folding floor that even includes a hook to hold it open.  Smart thinking.

Three engines are available in the CX-5: a 2.0-litre petrol with 165PS, plus two 2.2-litre twin-turbo diesels with 150PS and 175PS.

The 150PS diesel is likely to be the most popular, chiefly because of its impressive fuel economy of 61.4 mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 119 g/km.  It’s no slouch, either, sprinting from 0-62mph in 9.2 seconds and on to 126mph.

For sheer grunt, however, it’s difficult to argue with the 175PS diesel, its 420Nm of torque squirting it to 62mph in just 8.8 seconds.  CO2 emissions of 136 g/km place it in VED Band E (£125 pa), and although we couldn’t match the official economy figure of 54.3 mpg, we averaged around the 41 mpg mark during our time with it.

Both diesels feature unusually low compression ratios, primarily in the interests of achieving efficient combustion, but this also makes them uncannily smooth.  In fact, even at the red-line, a place most diesels fear to tread, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish them from a six-cylinder unit.

All three engines are mated to a new six-speed manual transmission that boasts a stubby gear lever and a beautifully short throw that wouldn’t be out of place in an MX-5 and this, coupled with the diesel engine’s grunt, makes snicking your way through the ratios a joy.

Luckily, the CX-5’s handling doesn’t let the side down, its front strut and rear multi-link suspension set-up – revised for 2014 – lending the Mazda a surprisingly flat turn-in.  Sure, body roll can build when pressing on through the twisties, but that’s the point: in the CX-5, you can press on.

On calmer journeys, the CX-5 quietly absorbs bumps and surface imperfections without disturbing those in the cabin, although the larger 19-inch wheels of the Sport model can introduce a slight fidget to the ride in town.

Find yourself in a muddy festival car park and the all-wheel-drive system – standard on the 175PS diesel and optional on the 150PS – should have little trouble extricating you from the gloop.  It’s an entirely automatic system, with no buttons or levers to worry about, and it can send up to 50% of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels when loss of traction is detected.

Three trim levels are available: SE-L, SE-L Lux, and Sport, each with an extra Nav option that adds TomTom satellite navigation.  Prices start at £21,595 for the 2.0-litre petrol SE-L, £23,295 for the 150PS diesel SE-L, and £27,495 for the 175PS diesel Sport.

All are well-specced with the entry-level SE-L fitted with 17-inch alloy wheels, climate control, cruise control, and touch-screen infotainment system with Bluetooth.  SE-L Lux models add an electric tilt/slide sunroof and heated leather electric seats with memory, while Sport upgrades the wheels to 19-inches and adds bi-Xenon adaptive headlights, reversing camera, and a Bose audio system.

All CX-5s feature Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support as standard.  The system uses near-infrared sensors to scan for vehicles in front, and can prime – or if necessary, apply – the brakes if it detects a collision is imminent.

A £700 Safety Pack option adds further electro-safety gubbins in the form of Lane Departure Warning, High Beam Control and Rear Vehicle Monitoring, the latter providing an alert for vehicles approaching in the driver’s blind spot.

All of that adds a reassuring air of safety to the CX-5’s list of other plus-points: it’s accommodating, incredibly practical, and powered by engines that – at least in diesel form – are nothing short of fabulous.

In fact, our only gripe would be the lack of a compelling entry-level model to compete with the new Nissan Qashqai which, in basic form, starts some £4,000 lower than the CX-5. Having said that, Mazda may already have the answer waiting in the wings in the form of their recently-announced 1.5-litre diesel engine.

So, while Mazda may have been fashionably late to the SUV party, it turns out the CX-5 was well worth the wait.

Entry-level Price £21,595 Price as tested £29,625
Engine 4-cylinder twin-turbodiesel, 2191cc Transmission Six-speed manual
Power 175PS @ 4,500rpm Torque 420Nm @ 2,000rpm
0-62 8.8 secs Top speed 129 mph
Economy 54.3 mpg CO2 136 g/km
Dimensions 4555 x 1840 x 1670 (LWH) Kerb Weight 1530 kg

Alex Kefford

Editor

Freelance journalist, ex-offroad driving instructor and long distance road-tripper. If you have any questions about this piece, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.