REYKJAVIK, ICELAND -- "Skyactiv" finally makes sense. This October, an updated, 40-mpg (highway) Mazda3 with the brand's new gas direct-injection, 2.0-liter four, and six-speed manual or automatic gets the Skyactiv badge thanks to all those goodies. Afterwards, only Mazda's all-new models will wear the badge, which will be used in a manner similar to Mercedes-Benz's Bluetec and Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. It's a green-branding ploy.

Unlike either of those two automakers, Mazda is too small to get into hybrids or any type of advanced electric/battery powertrains. The strategy is to concentrate on what most experts say will continue to be the mainstream technology: highly evolved internal combustion engines, both gasoline- and diesel-fed, or what Mazda calls "sustainable Zoom-Zoom."

Mazda's first all-new Skyactiv model is the 2013 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover utility vehicle, due in U.S. showrooms in the first quarter of next year. I got an early first drive here ahead of the CX-5's Frankfurt International Auto Show debut, with camouflaged pre-production models in a place where there are no spy photographers. The drive included four versions: a front-wheel-drive gas-powered model with six-speed manual and 17-inch wheels; an all-wheel-drive Russian market model with the gas four, six-speed automatic and 19-inch wheels; and all-wheel-drive turbodiesels, one with the automatic, the other with the manual, both with the 19-inch wheels.

The Russian gasoline model holds horsepower to 148 for local tax purposes. The 2.0-liter, gas direct-injection engine we'll get is rated 163 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque. The 2.2-liter turbodiesel four is rated 173 horsepower and an astounding 310 lb-ft of torque. Mazda sets compression ratio for both engines at 14.0:1, a high number for a gas engine and low for a diesel. In the latter, super-low compression makes a lightweight aluminum block and a high, 5200-rpm redline possible.

Let's just cut to the chase and say the diesel manual is the compact CUV you want now. The Skyactiv six-speed manual is designed to be as close to an MX-5 Miata's as possible, with 45mm shifter strokes requiring 30 lb-ft of effort. It feels as close to a Miata manual as CUV engineering might allow. All that torque from the diesel moves the CX-5 smoothly and quietly, though the hundreds of extra revs allowed means you're not constantly reaching for the shifter. It doesn't require excessive downshifts, though. There's enough torque in fifth or sixth, even though they're overdrive gears, to accelerate up even a mountain road.

The diesel utilizes a two-stage turbocharger that uses the lower stage to build boost just a few hundred revs above idle, with max torque knocking on 2000 rpm's door. There's virtually no turbo lag.

The 2.0-liter gas four is 10-percent lighter than the old 2.0-liter four, with 30-percent less friction, plus a new piston design and 4-2-1 exhaust system. The '12 Mazda3 with this engine has a reduced, 12.0:1 compression ratio to keep it running on regular gas.

The bad news is that Mazda's North American arm is teasing us with this CUV. Yes, Mazda has said it will introduce the new Skyactiv diesel by the '13 model year. No, it hasn't said which model will be first. The company says it hasn't decided whether to market the CX-5 with a diesel in North America. The manual isn't certain for the U.S., either.

Diesels are a tough sell in mainstream models because emissions clean-up can make such engines as expensive as hybrids. At, say, $25,000, a $3000 option is a harder sell than it is on a $50,000 Mercedes, BMW, or Audi. Mazda says it can sell the Skyactiv diesel in the U.S. and meet emissions standards without after-treatment. It predicts best-in-class fuel economy at the various equipment levels for both engines, with the gas engine beating the 32-mpg/highway four-cylinder/FWD Chevrolet Equinox, and the diesel performing better than the European-spec Volkswagen Tiguan diesel.

The CX-5's wheelbase is 3.9 inches longer overall, and it's 154 pounds lighter than the Tiguan. Skyactiv means Mazda took weight out of every component on the CX-5, and it uses 60-percent high-tensile steel.

Mazda North America will announce CX-5 specifications for the U.S. market at the Los Angeles International Auto Show in November. Meanwhile, you can bombard the company with your demands for a stick-shift diesel all you want; Mazda needs mainstream buyers and not just core enthusiasts to make this one of its most popular models.

Handling is superb, not in that off-roader manner, but in that Zoom Zoom manner, and the electric power assisted steering (EPAS) is tuned for as much feel as possible and proper weight. This too shall pass up North America. All four prototypes, wearing European-spec summer tires, can dance around Iceland's twisty mountain roads like a Miata on steroids training for the Rubicon. In other words, it handles very well for a crossover. Though the front-drive model exhibits no torque steer (not from 155 lb-ft, anyway), its lower ride height compared with the AWD models and lesser tire spec cause some twitchiness when the nose gets light under acceleration.

The CX-5 is well-damped but too stiff (not harsh) on the crustiest Icelandic roads and whoop-de-doos. Mazda North American engineers promise softened damper tuning before the thing hits our shores with all-season tires in place of the stickier Euro summer tires.

Steering is excellent, and not just for EPAS. Road feel is pretty good, and weight changes from heavy (though not excessively so) to fingertip-light at high speeds versus low speeds. Anyone could parallel park it, especially since Mazda's sloping hood allows an excellent view through the windshield. The AWD gas version has no steering play off-center, making it a bit too twitchy for a tall vehicle, though the others have a bit of play up to roughly 5 degrees off-center, appropriate for the ride height. (Steering ratio is 14.5:1.)

It doesn't really matter, as North American engineers are retuning the EPAS as well, to bring down the gap between high speed/high effort and low speed/low effort.

Gas engine models are smooth and peppy enough to get you launched properly into traffic. They're not quick; they're just quick enough. The Skyactiv six-speed automatic's shifts are as smooth and well-placed as anything in the business, and it pays off to row the shifter's manumatic control, though Mazda rightly figures that too few people will try this. There are no paddle shifters.

Other features will need a more complete drive or test to evaluate. Placed below the two-row CX-7 crossover where far inferior Ford Escape-based Tributes once were nailed to Mazda showroom floors, the CX-5 has MacPherson struts up front and a multilink rear suspension, with disc brakes all around. The optional all-wheel-drive system nominally puts 100 percent of the torque to the front wheels, though it can split power 50/50, and has a power take-up program.

With its 103-inch wheelbase, the CX-5 offers a load of rear-seat legroom, though with no fore-and-aft or seatback controls back there. The rear seat folds down 40/20/40 from either the second row or from the cargo area. Front seats are comfortable, with lumbar support for the driver only, and a seat cushion that might prove too soft on longer drives. They are nicely bolstered, though, and they're the first of Mazda's new seat design. With 1.1 pounds taken out of each seat, it's also part of the SkyActiv system.

Where does the name Skyactiv come from? It's apparently one of those internal target words that Mazda designers devised to describe their philosophy going forward, much like that used at all Japanese automakers. Mazda just couldn't resist telling us the internal word, which -- best guess -- is "Sky" for clear and unpolluted, and "Activ(e)" for the relatively small, but hearty core of budget-minded driving enthusiasts it wants to continue to draw.

Fine with us. The first "Skyactiv" Mazda seems to have what it takes to be best in a boring class. U.S. market preferences be damned, please bring us the diesel.


2013 Mazda CX-5
BASE PRICE $22,500-$27,500 (MT est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINES 2.0L/163-hp/155-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4, 2.2L/173-hp/310-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT n/a
WHEELBASE 106.3
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 178.7 x 72.4 x 65.7
0-60 MPH 7.5 sec (MT est, diesel engine/manual transmission)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON n/a
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY n/a
CO2 EMISSIONS n/a
ON SALE IN U.S. First quarter 2012