Montana Road Trip with the 2016 Mazda CX-5

mazda usa corporation company logo medallionI head up to Northern Montana every few months to visit family and have gotten into the practice of driving there from Colorado because I just love the rural Montana scenery with its hundreds of hidden lakes and unexpected vistas. Colorado’s not a slacker when it comes to scenery, but there’s something about the far north with its mountains and brisk weather that’s invigorating.

This time my trip fell during, well, fall. An Autumn road trip offered the promise of a cool, brown color palette and likely rain and fog as part of the driving conditions. Talking with the Mazda team about it, they were eager for me to try out the second generation 2016 Mazda CX-5 on a serious road trip and offered up a Grand Touring AWD CX-5 for the almost 2300 mile roundtrip expedition.

The compact SUV Mazda CX-5 is one of their most successful vehicles since its introduction in 2012 and model update in 2014 to add some additional bells and whistles. Car & Driver loves it, rating the CX-5 as the best of all compact SUVs on the market. Competitors in this smaller sports utility vehicle space include the Toyota RAV-4, the Honda CR-V, the Nissan Rogue, and the Ford Escape.

From the first moments behind the wheel, the CX-5 is comfortable and the interior is well-appointed, making it easy to prep it for a couple of days on the road. The only wrinkle I found with the interior design and configuration was that the cigarette lighter (aka “12v power plug”) is hidden within the center console arm rest, which made the wiring a bit clumsy for my windshield-mounted Escort Max 360 radar detector.

As you can see from this photo I took by one of the many Montana mountain lakes, the CX-5 is a smart looking SUV, very at home in mountainous terrain:

2016 mazda cx-5

I’ve actually written about the CX-5 before, if you’re curious about the interior layout and in-city road handling experience: Zipping About Town in the Mazda CX-5. I’ve also written about the big brother Mazda CX-9 and the compact Mazda 3 sedan too, if you’re curious. It’s safe to say that I like Mazda vehicles.

There was a second reason I was really glad to have the opportunity to really have a serious road trip with the Mazda CX-5: I’m considering purchasing one to replace my much loved 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Highlander has been a champ, but it’s just too big now that most of my kids have matriculated and 95% of my driving is either solo or with a single passenger. I’ll get back to that topic a bit later…

A road trip isn’t fun unless you stop to enjoy the views and the interesting places along the way, and one spot I visit every time I’m heading up is the fascinating Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Run by the National Park Service, it’s a splendid presentation of the infamous “last stand” battle between Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and their Lakota and Cheyenne troops versus the US Cavalry, led by General George Armstrong Custer and his adjunct Major Marcus Reno. I’ve written about the park extensively — Walking in Custer’s Footsteps — and even contributed photographs to a book about the Little Bighorn battlefield.

mazda cx-5 at little bighorn custer battlefield

Little Bighorn Battlefield is located about an hour south of Billings, Montana, just north of the Montana/Wyoming border. Interestingly, the city immediately south of the battlefield is Garryowen, Montana. Garryowen was Custer’s favorite song, a peppy Irish tune, and one that was played during the Little Bighorn battle. I wonder how many people in town realize that, however.

Maybe 30min prior to reaching the border, I took this photo of a typical Wyoming vista:

wyoming rolling hills, autumn

To be completely candid, I’m not a huge fan of Wyoming. It’s windy, flat and fairly featureless, though every so often there’s a stunning rock outcropping or far vista that’s just made for a John Ford western. Wyoming isn’t the most populous of states either: they’re currently offering a bounty to people who were born in Wyoming and move back to live there again.

Still, driving through hundreds of miles of completely undeveloped Wyoming countryside reaffirms that there’s still lots of space for people here in the United States, though it might be slightly less desirable than, say, Malibu, California. But that’s my personal bias. Pretty sure that the cowboy / rancher types that populate the state are happy to be living there!

As I headed further north, the mountains begin to gain height and even had some early seasonal snow accumulation. This photo shows the cool, cloudy, rainy weather that is pretty typical of October in Montana:

montana rural hillside with snow-covered mountains and fog

The Mazda CX-5 was quite at home in this terrain, whether it was a wet, slick road or a highway with gusts of wind carrying clouds of orange and red leaves across the tarmac.

Lots of rain does have a side-effect, though: mud. As the road trip continued, the vehicle definitely picked up dirt, though since it is an AWD sports utility vehicle, I felt it was an entirely appropriate look:

mazda cx-5 muddy

Of course, as a seasoned auto photographer, I have learned you can also cannily position the car and sun so that things like muddy side panels can be minimized. I demonstrate this in the below photo, taken on a cool morning so far north in Montana that I could have visited Canada with an hour or two of extra driving:

2016 silver mazda cx-5 by montana mountain lake

Some people see vehicles as a way to get from point “A” to point “B” but I quite enjoy driving and exploring new territory, so when I see the road ahead, when I see a beautiful mountain vista, it fills me with enthusiasm and energy. What’s around the next corner?

As a result, when it was raining the morning I left Montana to head back to Colorado, I knew I’d have to drive a bit slower for safety, but that at the same time I would enjoy some gorgeous landscapes. Like this:

the foggy road ahead

Most of the drive I listened to audio books streaming via bluetooth off my Apple iPhone 7 — Stephen King’s Cell on the way up, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust on the way back — and it was comfortable and with cruise control, a really easy way to eat up the miles.

Tip: The sound system in the Grand Touring edition of the CX-5 is very, very nice and eminently listenable.

The only real issue I had with the vehicle on the 2200+ mile drive was that the Mazda navigational system glitched a couple of times. Once it just had no idea where I was on vehicle start:

mazda nav system fail #1

and a second time it just couldn’t quite figure out whether I was in The Matrix and hadn’t had a map loaded yet or what. Only slightly Twilight Zone, I suppose:

mazda nav system fail #2

A couple of times the navigational system got “stuck” too, thinking I was parked even as I zoomed down the road. After 5-10 minutes it would snap to the right location and be working fine again. Part of this might be satellite availability in the more rural areas for geolocation, but it was definitely odd! A quick Google search shows I’m not alone with this experience, but since industry buzz has it that the 2017 Mazda CX-5 has some major upgrades to the entertainment system, perhaps there’s a system update that fixes these glitches too.

One issue with any road trip is gas mileage and while I did have to stop and fuel up every 4-5 hours (70mph / 25mpg = 3 gallons/hr with a 15 gallon tank = 5 hours full to empty), it was pretty easy with gas at about $2.20/gallon averaged across the three states. Wyoming was noticeably cheaper because of its very low gas taxes, something I appreciated!

every road trip involves gas station fuel stops

I was happy with the 25mpg fuel efficiency for a compact SUV that doesn’t have the premium pricetag of a hybrid. My current vehicle – the Toyota Highlander – is a hybrid and it gets about the same mileage. It was definitely quite a bit more expensive, with a multi-thousand dollar surcharge for its hybrid subsystem.

Back on the road, I keep a keen eye for pretty photo opportunities and was delighted to find a meandering stream running parallel to one of the smaller Montana highways. Quite picturesque, if I say so myself:

meandering stream, autumn in montana

Hundreds of miles of cruise control and Neil Gaiman audiobook later, finally, I made it back into my home state:

2016 mazda cx-5 welcome to colorado sign

My home in Boulder, Colorado is about 90min from the Colorado/Montana state border, so there’s a definite sense of relief, of “almost home” energy that helps me get through that last hour or two. And, as with every road trip, it’s great to pull out of the driveway and begin your journey, but it’s also a relief to make it back home, to open your own front door and sleep in your own bedroom. I came home to my two girls who had stayed in Colorado while I headed north, a great bonus!

So how’d the 2016 Mazda CX-5 do with the great Montana road trip?

colorado montana road trip map usa

Very well, actually. The CX-5 is very comfortable on the road, has a splendid sound system and a smooth, reliable motor and drivetrain that made the vehicle relaxing to drive with cruise-control along hundreds of miles of highway. Plenty of cargo space for suitcases, games, sports gear and anything else desired, and when I had multiple people in the car, the back seat had plenty of legroom (as long as the front seat wasn’t pushed all the way back). Slippery roads, even muddy dirt roads were no challenge to the CX-5, and it handled potholes like, well, an actual SUV, not just a sedan with an SUV body grafted onto it.

My only concern was the navigational system. There was almost a daily glitch and while it’s not mission critical when the driving directions are “take this road for 386 miles”, it was still surprising and frustrating. Perhaps there’s a recall or update that hadn’t been applied or is coming soon, but I certainly hope Mazda figures out the bugs and fixed them for current and future CX-5 owners.

Am I going to buy a CX-5? I’m very, very tempted. And I just read that next month Mazda’s releasing the 2017 CX-5 and that it’s supposed to have some pretty sweet updates to both the exterior design and interior system. I can wait a month or two, so I’m going to be keeping a close eye on developments, and then I’ll decide.

I drove: Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD with a sonic silver metallic exterior and black interior, featuring the Mazda Skyactiv-G 2.5L engine with 184 horsepower and the Grand Touring Tech Package add-on. Base MSRP: $29,870. MSRP as configured: $32,310.

Disclosure: Mazda USA loaned me the 2016 Mazda CX-5 for my road trip so I could share my experiences with you. Thanks, Mazda!

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