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Mazda wants to take on the premium segment, and it’s doing so with its new line of Signature series models. Available on the Mazda6, CX-5, and CX-9, the Signature trim adds higher quality leather, real wood trim, and more to each vehicle’s cabin. In short, the Mazda’s Signature models include the sort of simple touches that provide an air of elegance to Mazda’s cars and crossovers. But is it enough to push the brand out of the mainstream and into the luxury segment?

To find out, we took our long-term Mazda CX-5 Signature and put it up against the Lexus NX 300 F Sport. Brand cachet aside, these two compact crossovers share a number of key attributes: Both cast shadows within inches of one another, both rely on turbocharged four-cylinder engines for motivation, and both offer similar equipment levels. But does the Mazda have the goods to truly take on premium products, or is it just another mainstream crossover hiding behind a facade of supposed grandeur?

Performance and Handling

Lexus: Don’t let the $2,240 F Sport package fool you into thinking there’s anything remotely sporty about the NX 300. Save for replacing the NX’s standard 17-inch wheels and tires with 18-inch units, and opening the option sheet up to a set of adaptive dampers, there’s little else the F Sport package does to move the dynamic dial.

Unfortunately, the larger wheel and tire package and $770 worth of adaptive dampers do no favors to the NX’s lateral dynamics, which suffer from superfluous body motions and a somewhat choppy ride on rougher surfaces. Stab the mushy brake pedal and the nose dives; enter a roundabout too quickly and the body keels. Surely avoiding the F Sport package nets a crossover with a ride quality that befits its Lexus badge. That said, smaller wheels and the standard dampers likely aren’t enough to mask flimsy-feeling underpinnings that are easily flummoxed by road irregularities.

The NX’s torque-rich turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and six-speed automatic provide better dynamic qualities relative to its chassis. Thanks to a hearty 258 pound-feet of torque available from as low as 1,650 rpm, the 235-horsepower engine pushes the Lexus off the line with reasonable authority.

Still, the powertrain is far from perfect. With peak power produced at 4,800 revs and a redline of less than 6,000 rpm, the engine requires a good wringing to reach the meat of its narrow powerband – an effect that the gearbox’s hesitance to downshift exacerbates. At least tapping at the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, slapping the console-mounted gear shifter in manual mode, or swapping to the NX’s Sport or F Sport-specific Sport Plus drive modes helps things somewhat.

Rubbing salt in the wound, however, is the slow engagement of the $1,400 all-wheel-drive system, which requires ample slip from the front wheels before sending up to 50 percent of the engine’s power to the rear axle.

Mazda: In every regard, the Mazda emerges the dynamic victor. Thanks to competent and stiff underpinnings, firm but forgiving damping, and a properly polished powertrain, the CX-5 expertly combines passenger comfort with behind-the-wheel confidence.

While the Mazda certainly suffers from its fair share of body roll, it never unsettles the chassis while negotiating turns. Nor do the Signature trim’s 19-inch wheels and tires harm passenger comfort on pockmarked pavement. In fact, the Mazda’s ride quality is more emblematic of a luxury vehicle than the NX F Sport’s.

Yet, the CX-5 manages to entertain its driver like a well-honed sports sedan. Credit its tactile, well-weighted steering, as well as its clairvoyant six-speed automatic transmission that’s happy to drop down a couple of cogs at a moment’s notice. A Sport mode keeps the gearbox on its proverbial toes, while pulling and pushing at the gear shifter enables manual control (surprisingly, the CX-5 forgoes paddle shifters).

Power comes courtesy of a 250-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four that’s lone flaw is its lack of high-end grunt. While the engine redlines at 6,300 rpm, it’s out of breath by 5,000 revs. That’s no problem in typical driving, though, where the engine’s plateau-like powerband up to that point, not to mention its 310 lb-ft of twist, provides all the oomph necessary to pass slower-moving traffic and accelerate from a standstill with ease. Only during truly spirited driving will the CX-5’s limited high-end power leave its driver wanting as its crankshaft unenthusiastically spins toward redline.

Advantage: Mazda

Styling and Interior

Lexus: The NX’s exterior design is unabashedly brash. With its thin headlights, large hourglass grille, and extraneous body-side lines, Lexus’s compact crossover certainly turns heads – albeit not often for the right reasons. At least the $595 coat of Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 paint adds a touch of elegance to the NX. Opt for the F Sport package, and the little crossover adds an even more aggressive front fascia that includes a mesh-style grille and a more prominent lower lip that reduces the crossover’s approach angle from a Jeep Grand Cherokee-beating 28.7 degrees to a mere 16.8 degrees, a figure that barely betters that of a Toyota C-HR. Nevertheless, if you engage in driving that requires a Jeep-like approach angle, then you’re probably better off purchasing a more off-road-ready SUV and not an on-road-oriented crossover like the NX.

Things aren’t much better inside the Lexus, as its center console, which juts out more prominently than Jay Leno’s chin, invades the front-passenger compartment and limits knee room. Meanwhile, a plethora of small buttons crowd the center stack and make it difficult to adjust the crossover’s climate and stereo settings at a glance. At least the NX’s tomb-like cabin prevents any unnecessary exterior noises from reaching the ears of its driver and passengers.

Mazda: The CX-5 is among the most attractive compact crossovers sold today. Unlike the flamboyant Lexus, the Mazda’s design is decidedly restrained. Its clean and simple lines are elegant but not boring, while a polygonal grille nicely merges with the crossover’s thin headlights, which blesses the model with a handsome and distinct face. Adding to the CX-5’s general attractiveness are the Signature trim’s dark-finish 19-inch wheels and $595 worth of Soul Red exterior paint.

Regardless of trim, the CX-5’s interior feels far nicer than its $24,350 base price suggests. That notion lingers in the $36,890 Signature, as well. Credit details such as the heft of the dual-zone automatic climate controls, the use of high-quality plastics on the dashboard and door panels, and Signature-specific kit such as Caturra Brown leather seats and tasteful bits of real wood trim throughout the cabin. While there are compact crossovers from luxury brands with better built, higher quality interiors than the Mazda’s, the Lexus isn’t one such example.

Advantage: Mazda

Technology

Lexus: Although the NX comes standard with an 8.0-inch infotainment screen, adding the $1,860 Navigation package replaces the standard unit with a larger 10.3-inch display that includes an in-dash navigation system and 10-speaker premium audio system (the lesser setup relies on eight speakers). The big screen sports bright and clear graphics, however, Lexus’s wonky touchpad controller, which is difficult to operate at a glance, mars much of the experience. At least the NX now includes Apple CarPlay compatibility, a feature previously missing from the crossover.

Mazda: It takes a particularly poor infotainment system to make the NX’s seem like the comparatively better option, but the CX-5’s 7.0-inch screen manages to do just that. Slow to boot up and small in size, the nonsensical setup suffers from confusing controls and crowded on-screen buttons. Fortunately, it is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible.

Despite functioning as a touchscreen when the CX-5 is static or moving at less than five miles per hour, the system limits all inputs to a console-mounted control wheel once the vehicle is moving at city speeds. It begs the question: why did Mazda even bother with a touchscreen at all?

Some solace comes courtesy of the Signature trim’s 7.0-inch cluster screen that doubles as a speedometer and towers over the Lexus’s 4.2-inch cluster display (the screen is also available in Grand Touring and Grand Touring Reserve models). Better yet, the top-of-the-line Mazda also comes standard with a head-up display system; a feature that’s missing altogether from the Lexus.

Advantage: Draw

Practicality

Lexus: In spite of its two-box shape, the NX 300 is not a particularly practical crossover. Pop the $400 power rear hatch, and the Lexus offers a measly 17.7 cubic feet of space with all seats in place. That’s 1.3 cubes less than a Chevrolet Sonic hatchback affords behind its rear row. Folding the 60/40-split rear seatbacks brings the total up to a more respectable 54.6 cubic feet of space. Still, that’s 5.0 cubic feet down to the Mazda’s maximum space. The Lexus also suffers from a cargo floor that sits too high and makes for a comparatively tall lift-over height.

Up front, the driver and front passenger sit on firm but well-cushioned F Sport-specific seats. Alas, too large side bolsters on both the seats’ bottoms and backs ultimately inhibit passenger comfort for those of more generous proportions. At least the three-across rear bench’s reclining backs and adequate legroom provide reasonable accommodations for two. Like most vehicles this size, the Lexus’s center seat is better left unused.

Mazda: With its lower liftover height and 30.9 cubic feet of cargo space aft of the rear seats, the CX-5 is the more practical of these two crossovers. Whereas Lexus bundles niceties such as heated and ventilated front seats and a driver’s seat memory system into the $2,865 Premium package, Mazda includes these functions as standard equipment on the CX-5 Signature. Not to mention, the Mazda’s front seats offer more reasonable bolstering and better cushioning than those of the Lexus. The same goes for the CX-5’s reclining, 40/20/40-split three-across rear bench, which affords its passengers 3.5 inches more legroom than the Lexus.

Advantage: Mazda

Safety Systems

Lexus: The NX comes standard with a large roster of advanced safety kit, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high-beam headlights. Opting for the $2,865 Premium package adds a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and electrochromic exterior mirrors. (The package also nets non-safety items such as a moonroof and a power-operated tilt and telescoping steering column). An electrochromic rear-view mirror is a $125 option. Other safety-minded extras on this NX include $1,515 worth of triple-beam LED headlights, an $800 surround-view monitor, and $535 worth of front and rear parking sensors.

Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the NX its highest rating of five stars. Meanwhile, Lexus’s compact crossover earns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) highest honor of “Top Safety Pick Plus.”

Mazda: The Mazda’s list of safety features is no less impressive, and all CX-5s, save for the base Sport trim, come standard with automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlights, a blind-spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert – the latter two of which Lexus charges extra for. Opting for the Signature trim nets exclusive items such as front and rear parking sensors and a surround-view monitor. Alas, the low-quality feeds from the surround-view and backup cameras are disappointing.

Like the Lexus, the Mazda is a five-star recipient from the NHTSA and earns the mark of “Top Safety Pick Plus” from the IIHS.

Advantage: Mazda

Efficiency

Lexus: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the all-wheel-drive NX 300 F Sport consumes a diet of premium fuel that allows it to return 22 miles per gallon in the city, 27 mpg highway, and 24 mpg combined. Forgoing the F Sport package, however, raises the crossover’s rated highway fuel economy figure to 28 mpg.

Mazda: Like the Lexus, the Mazda earns an EPA-rated 22 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, and 24 mpg combined. However, the CX-5 returns these figures while sipping 87-octane fuel. That said, Mazda notes the crossover’s 250 horses are only available with premium fuel burning in its cylinders. Using regular gas lowers the CX-5’s total output to 227 ponies.

Advantage: Mazda

Price

Lexus: With a base price of $36,485, the NX 300 undercuts the CX-5 Signature by $405. Don’t get the impression that the NX is some sort of compact crossover value, though. While the entry-level NX includes niceties such as a proximity key with push-button start and dual-zone automatic climate control, it’s also missing a number of features that come standard with the top-of-the-line Mazda.

Notably, Lexus charges customers for the likes of all-wheel drive, an in-dash navigation system, heated and ventilated front seats, a power-operated hatch, a surround-view camera, front and rear proximity sensors, and a blind-spot monitor with rear-cross traffic alert. Adding all these features and more, as well as a $1,025 destination fee, to the Lexus ultimately brought its out-the-door price up to $50,765.

Mazda: The Mazda CX-5 Signature, meanwhile, comes standard with all of the above items that Lexus charges extra for. It also includes kit missing from the NX entirely, including a head-up display and heated rear seats. An optional coat of paint, a handful of accessory items, and a $1,045 destination fee brought this CX-5’s as-tested price up to $39,885, or more than $10,000 less than that of the NX’s.

Advantage: Mazda

Verdict

Mazda may lack the prestige of Lexus, but the brand’s lower-tier status isn’t enough of a deterrent to ignore the CX-5 in favor of the NX. The Lexus simply struggles to find an edge over the handsome Mazda. Badge snobbery aside, the CX-5’s larger cargo bay, more refined and engaging dynamics, and lower price make it the clear winner in this test.

Specs:

 

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

2019 Lexus NX 300 F Sport
Engine:

Turbocharged 2.5-Liter Inline-Four

Turbocharged 2.0-Liter Inline-Four

Output: 250 Horsepower / 310 Pound-Feet

235 Horsepower / 258 Pound-Feet

Transmission:

Six-Speed Automatic

Six-Speed Automatic

Drivetrain:

All-Wheel Drive

All-Wheel Drive

Fuel Economy: 22 City / 27 Highway / 24 Combined

22 City / 27 Highway / 24 Combined

Curb Weight:

4,050 Pounds

3,825 Pounds

Towing Capacity:

2,000 Pounds

2,000 Pounds
Seating Capacity: 5 5
Cargo Volume:

30.9 / 59.6 Cubic Feet

17.7 / 54.6 Cubic Feet

Base Price:

$24,350

$36,485

As-Tested Price:

$39,885

$50,765