The 35 MPG SUV? There's a CatchDespite the rise in gasoline prices, many Americans are reluctant to give up their sport utility vehicles (SUV). The comfort and convenience of these vehicles are treasured traits among families with cargo-hauling needs. The automakers have been transitioning their offerings from traditional body-on-frame truck-based SUVs to unibody car-based crossovers, but regardless of the under-body architecture, many folks still refer to the entire class of vehicles as SUVs.

When it comes to fuel efficiency, sport-utes face the triple-whammy of transportation physics: weight, aerodynamics, and drive train. Quite simply, they’re heavier and less aerodynamic than most passenger cars. Just as important, all-wheel-drive (AWD) and four-wheel-drive (4WD) drivetrains are a drain on efficiency, when compared to two-wheel-drive (2WD) setup.

The irony is that while most folks need the cargo capacity of a (gasp) station wagon, they do not need the ground clearance of a 4×4, nor the off-road capabilities. Yet that tall stance and gas-sucking drive train are de rigueur with most current crossovers, even as the class becomes more sleek and rounded than their SUV predecessors.

The manufacturers have responded to the demand for better gas mileage by downsizing conventional engines and with a smattering of hybrid drive trains. The downside to hybrid technology is the added cost and the fact that hybrids are most fuel-efficient in city driving and at lower speeds. Electric motor assist isn’t a big help at highway speeds. If you have a lot of ground to cover on the freeway, your dollars may be better spent elsewhere.

Enter the 2013 Mazda CX-5. With the entry-level Sport version rated at 35 miles per gallon (MPG) highway, the SKYACTIV-MT 6-speed overdrive manual transmission-equipped 2013 CX-5 is the most fuel-efficient crossover sold in America today for open road cruising. While the MPGs are high, there are a handful of things you’ll have to do without, like AWD and a fancy leather interior. But you won’t have to shell out a lot of cash.

Although the CX-5 Sport version is available with either FWD or AWD, only the FWD model is available with a six-speed manual. And that’s the rub. The manual FWD CX-5 is rated at 26 city / 35 highway miles per gallon, the FWD six-speed automatic is rated at 26 / 32, and the AWD automatic is rated at 25 / 31.

Mazda’s suite of SKYACTIV technology encompasses the engine, transmission, and aerodynamics and is designed to wring more miles from every gallon, without sacrificing driveability. If you enjoy changing the gears with a stick shift, the CX-5 is bound to bring a smile to your face. With 155 horsepower (HP) and 150 foot-pounds of torque on tap, the CX-5’s 2.0-liter SKYACTIVE-G engine delivers. It’s not fast, but it’s fun to drive.

On the interior tech side, the CX-5 provides standard USB and audio input ports, along with three 12-volt outlets (see video). Although there are standard steering wheel-mounted audio controls, hands free Bluetooth (for phone and audio) are optional at this trim level. A nine-speaker Bose Centerpoint Surround Sound audio system is only available in the Touring and Grand Touring models. If you’re a true tech/audio geek, this shouldn’t be an issue as you’ll likely be looking at aftermarket head units, anyway.

The CX-5 Sport starts at a very reasonable $20,995 when equipped with the six-speed manual. Opting for the six-speed automatic raises the price to $22,395. The base 2013 FWD Ford Escape S, by comparison, starts at $23,295 and is rated at 22 city / 31 highway. The more fuel-efficient Escape SE and SEL are outfitted with a 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, rated at 23 city / 33 highway, with a starting price of $25,895. The Escape is only offered with a six-speed automatic.

The bottom line? If you want the highest highway mileage you can get in a crossover, enjoy driving a stick shift and price is a significant factor, the 2013 Mazda CX-5 Sport delivers a compelling package.