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Poster child of overlooked crossovers

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that the government is a little too eager to let large companies gobble up other large companies to the point where freedom of choice is an illusion.

Suppose you need a new piece of luggage for that summer vacation. Sure, the American Tourister is inexpensive, while a Samsonite is somewhat nicer for a little more money. Then there are pricier options like Tumi and Hartmann. But it’s a false choice; Samsonite owns and manufactures them all, not to mention a handful of other brands.

As for consumers, my bet is they don’t care as long as they can afford the products that their friends, family, neighbors and co-workers will know and admire.

Ask them what new compact crossover SUV they recently bought, and more often than not, they’ll mention a Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Jeep or Ford.

Never mind there are many more tempting choices that go criminally overlooked. Exhibit A: the Mazda CX-5. Consider it the poster child of overlooked crossovers. It’s truly an automotive Rodney Dangerfield with 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, even though Mazda’s redesigned CUV accumulated its share of accolades, including being named a 2018 World Car of the Year finalist and one of Car and Driver’s 10 Best Trucks and SUVs for 2018.

However, while automotive journalists have long sung its praises, consumers look at the CX-5, sniff and buy a crossover with sporty pretensions with a nasty continuously variable automatic transmission — a concession to the drudgery of EPA regulations, rather than the SCCA, the Sports Car Club of America. It’s like choosing to watch the Hallmark Channel.

OK, the CX-5 is no sports car. It has too many doors and too many seats, not to mention a ride height that’s more adept at laughing off inclement weather than tackling the track. Nevertheless, its ability to conquer switchbacks, carve through corners and treats twisting roads with disdain makes for a truly rewarding experience.

It’s light, tossable and fun to drive. Body roll is largely absent thanks to G-Vectoring Control, which slightly reduces engine torque in corners to tighten suspension response and improve control. It’s standard on all 2019 CX-5s.

Equally refreshing is the Mazda’s CX-5 array of engine choices, which tailors its personality to your driving preference and wallet.

Offered in ascending Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, Grand Touring Reserve and new top-tier Signature trim, the first four models come with a standard 187-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and sport mode that funnels power through the front wheels. A far livelier 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder is standard on the Signature and available on the Grand Touring Reserve. The Signature is also offered with a 2.2-liter diesel four-cylinder engine rated at 168 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque for those so inclined. All-wheel drive is optional on the Sport, Touring and Grand Touring models and standard elsewhere.

And, of course, the new turbocharged engine is powerful given its 250 horsepower rating, although to extract that power you need to use premium unleaded; regular unleaded reduces output to 227 horsepower. The added muscle and slick moves merely enhance a vehicle that punches far above its price, a feeling enhanced once you climb inside.

There you’ll be greeted by an instrument panel that’s sublimely simple, designed by artists who understand the ultimate luxury is simplicity, not overwrought expressionism. It’s the difference between a Kabuki mask and Haiku — of volume and exaggeration versus reductionism to what’s essential.

It’s not that Mazda won’t indulge you; of course it will. This year brings the availability of Apple Car Play and Android Auto; otherwise, the infotainment system remains largely unchanged. Navigating your favorite stations can be awkward unless you program them into the presets, although CarPlay, Spotify and others make broadcast radio redundant.

The cabin is beautifully crafted for the price, with impressive materials, plenty of soft touchpoints and surprising amounts of space for its size. Head and legroom are generous all around, and the seats are comfortably high and supportive, although the front center armrest is placed too far back to rest your arm on. The car is remarkably quiet and smothers all but the worst road imperfections.

It’s a sublime compact crossover, better than many of its competitors. It’s so good you wonder why Mazda hasn’t been swallowed by some larger automaker. But it hasn’t. That’s good; it allows you real freedom of choice, to opt for a vehicle that’s sublime, speedy and athletic, something you won’t find everywhere.

Just don’t tell the big automakers; they’ll want to buy Mazda, and that will ruin everything.

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