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Tuning out the Mazda CX-5 because of a stubborn radio

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Lively acceleration, silky-smooth power delivery, decent fuel economy, whisper-quiet in operation – you couldn’t ask for a better combo

I want to congratulate Mazda for fitting their 2021 CX-5 compact SUV with the most unco-operative stereo system I’ve encountered in 35 years of testing automobiles. It’s so difficult to access and use it might as well not be there.

I couldn’t figure out how to change stations without having to consult the owner’s manual – and when I did, it was virtually useless.

For example, the manual – which is about the size of the New Testament Bible – doesn’t list the stereo system. Go to the index and look under ‘radio,’ ‘stereo,’ or ‘sound system,’ and you find nothing. There’s reams of stuff about how to refill your windshield washer reservoir, or the company’s i-ActiveSense safety system, or information regarding the Mazda Connect system. But about the radio specifically: nothing.

And when I did eventually figure out – sort of – the stereo, I found that it’s a five-step process just to change stations. That’s infuriating, not to mention dangerous, because, in order to get to where you want to be, the driver’s attention is taken away from what they should really be doing: driving the car.

I struggle with today’s breed of driver-vehicle interface systems at the best of times, but this is a particularly onerous and recalcitrant setup. It’s completely out of sync with the rest of the vehicle, which, for the most part, is a model of common sense and driveability.

Offered in three basic trim levels – GS, GX and Kuro – the CX-5 is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It can be had with a normally aspirated engine or turbocharged, with front- or all-wheel drive.

My Signature edition – technically a 2021.5 model – had the turbo engine with all-wheel drive, and performance is excellent for a car of this type. Lively acceleration, silky-smooth power delivery, decent fuel economy, whisper-quiet in operation – you couldn’t ask for a better combo.

This engine will run happily on regular or premium-grade fuel, with a 25-horsepower difference in power output.

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So how can a car company come up with such a usable and well-engineered drivetrain while delivering a stereo system as driver-unfriendly and difficult to get along with as this one?

The CX-5 has 1,687 litres (59.5 cubic feet) of cargo space. The Toyota RAV4 has 1,690 litres, while the Honda HR-V has 1,665 litres.

What makes or breaks a car is its driver-friendliness. In every area but one – the truly awful radio – the CX-5 ticks the boxes

Rear cargo access is straightforward and sensible – pull a couple of seat-located levers and push the seat-backs down, revealing a mostly flat storage area. My tester also had an optional power rear tailgate, which is a nice feature. My standard yardstick – a complete five-piece acoustic drum kit – fits in no problem, with a little planning. Rear seat elbow room for passengers is more than adequate.

And you can get the Kuro model of the CX-5 with a feature that shuts down half the engine’s cylinders under certain conditions, usually highway driving. My test car didn’t have it, but it’s an excellent way to conserve fuel.

The compact SUV market is arguably the most competitive and densely populated segment in the industry. All manufacturers have at least one model and some – Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai, to name a few – have several. This makes competition fierce.

What makes or breaks a car is its driver-friendliness. In every area but one, the CX-5 ticks the boxes. But that one glitch – the radio – would be enough to keep me from buying this car. It’s awful.

Not so long ago, when you went to purchase a new car, you could ask for no radio. Pity the CX-5 doesn’t offer that option.

Mazda 2021 CX-5

Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Drive: front-wheel or all-wheel
Horsepower: 250 at 5,000 rpm
Torque: 320 foot pounds at 2,500 rpm
Base price: $42,750
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.8 city and 8.7 highway, with premium or regular gas
Some alternatives: Honda CR-V, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Hyundai Tucson, Subaru Forester, Subaru Crosstrek, Mazda CX-30, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Buick Encore

Ted Laturnus has been an automotive journalist since 1976. He was named Canadian Automobile Journalist of the Year twice and is past president of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). For interview requests, click here.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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