First Look Review: 2023 Mazda CX-50
Mazda has always aimed to carve out a unique niche in the market, whether it was with the rotary engine, zoom-zoom driving experience, or its latest strategy, premium interiors. Now that the CX-5 compact crossover is nearly a decade old, it’s due for a successor—one that can compete with the rising tide of outdoor-oriented, Subaru-like offerings. As usual, Mazda’s version aims to deliver superior driving dynamics and a dose of sophistication.
The newcomer, known as the CX-50, is all-new for 2023 and specifically targeting North American market. Interestingly, Mazda will sell the CX-50 sold alongside the more svelte and car-like CX-5, despite their similar sizes. Compared to the CX-5, which is currently sold worldwide, the CX-50 caters to a slightly more overlanding/adventure audience, without losing sight of Mazda’s on-road handling prowess. As for packaging, it’s about 1.5 inches lower and six inches longer than the CX-5, with most of that length showing up in the wheelbase.
The majority of CX-50 buyers will likely opt for the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-four that uses 87-octane to deliver 187 hp at 6000 rpm, along with 186 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. That engine is standard on the base 2.5 S trim, which starts at $28,025, all the way through the 2.5 Premium Plus which starts at $37,625. Our time behind the wheel of the CX-50, however, was in one of the higher trim levels, all of which come with Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four already at work in the CX-5 Turbo, Mazda3 Turbo, and CX-9. The engine it tuned primarily for low-end torque and smooth drivability, producing 256 hp at 5000 rpm and 320 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm on 93 octane premium fuel, compared to 227 hp at 5000 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 2000 rpm on regular 87-octane gasoline. Both the naturally aspirated and turbo engines are paired with a six-speed torque converter automatic.
For this first-drive media event, Mazda brought nothing but the top-trim 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus, which starts at $42,775 and includes the full gamut of Mazda’s safety technologies: blind-spot monitoring, driver attention alert, lane keep assist, and rear traffic alert. This equipment all comes standard across the CX-50 line, while the 360-degree view monitor and rear smart brake support come standard only on the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus.
Mazda gave the CX-50 more traditional, upright SUV looks highlight its outdoorsy attitude. The result is an athletic design that manages to avoid looking like a high-tech hiking boot. Despite its compact size and Mazda’s promise of a low roof height to accommodate easy access to roof-mounted storage or tents, there’s quite a bit of front-seat headroom, even with a sunroof.
We had no issue getting comfortable in the moderately bolstered seats, and thanks to the ample headroom and generous travel of the telescoping steering column, there was a fairly large range of seating positions we found comfortable. It’s also worth mentioning that the CX-50 offers plenty of front shoulder room—the B-pillar does not encroach at all on passenger space. Those with broad shoulders know how annoying it can be to have the pillar and shoulder belt mount close enough to touch, or just as bad, be tossed into them when on a bumpy road.
The center console, which is thankfully rather tall, allows for a decent amount of knee room for front passengers. It places the cupholders forward of the shifter and the knobs that control the infotainment system.
Second-row passengers have noticeably less headroom than the front row, and legroom is definitely compromised when the front seats are adjusted all the way back to accommodate tall occupants. If four tall occupants are riding together, the front passengers will have to squish themselves forward a bit, but it’s still a viable option.
Mazda’s chassis tuning for the CX-50 focuses on comfort, with a touch of body roll in corners as you’d expect from a crossover this size. Still, the steering is tight, precise, and nicely weighted. Like the Miata, as well as the company’s sedans and hatchback, the CX-50 uses “G-Vectoring Control” to improve driver confidence. The system takes the car’s steering angle, speed, and throttle position into account and can adjust the throttle input to get the vehicle’s weight to transfer forward ever so slightly, helping the front wheels to grip better.
The winding back roads of our route were fun, in large part because the CX-50 felt so lively. This is a segment with sluggish handlers like the CR-V and Forester, so any dynamic polish on part with the outgoing CX-5 is a stand-out achievement. As for the 2.5-liter turbo powertrain, it offered up responsive torque and strong acceleration. Turning on Sport Mode doesn’t wildly change programming parameters. Instead, the transmission will hold gears longer to prevent shifts from happening mid-corner. The result is even better response from the engine, with the tach needle closer to its torque peak.
Likewise, the Off-Road Mode doesn’t vastly change the feel of the vehicle. Mazda’s approach to building a more off-road competent crossover was to look at actual usage. And to nobody’s surprise, the vast majority of off-road adventures begin with loads of miles on pavement, with only the last couple of miles venturing off the pavement. Rather than compromising the on-road driving experience, Mazda used brake biasing and some interesting tuning to make the most of the CX-50’s capability. On gravel or dirt roads, the Off-Road Mode helps maneuverability by dialing up the intervention of G-Vectoring Control. When speeds get higher, G-Vectoring Control goes from invisible to more noticeable and helps keep the vehicle feel predictable. At the same time, on loose surfaces the traction control programming does allow a bit of yaw in case you’d like to mimic your favorite rallycross pilot.
We ventured onto a couple of steep, rutted, loose dirt hill climbs on two-track roads, and the CX-50 scrambled its way up with confidence, proving that not all off-road jaunts require a ton of ground clearance and lockers. It’s no Wrangler or Bronco, for sure, and Mazda isn’t pretending otherwise. But for a customer base that defines “off-roading” as really “off-pavementing”, a few inches of ground clearance and a bit of traction control can get the job done.
We tried towing with a dual-axle box trailer loaded up to hit the CX-50’s max tow rating of 3500 pounds (the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter is rated to tow 2000 pounds). That kind of load can accommodate pop-up camp trailers to an Airstream Basecamp. Our short test highlighted the Tow Mode’s ability to move the load and the suspension’s stability through low-speed curves. The properly loaded trailer, with somewhere in the range of 350 pounds of tongue weight, tracked nicely and the turbo-four didn’t complain about the added bulk. Naturally, however, acceleration was noticeably slower when the motive mass nearly doubled. The only real criticism we could lever on towing was that the mirrors could offer more coverage.
In our couple of hundred miles behind the wheel, we grew to appreciate Mazda’s philosophy toward driver engagement. Of course, the emphasis on the driver being united with the vehicle (the oft-mentioned jinba ittai, or “horse and rider” analogy) is palpable in actual act of driving. That doesn’t come as a surprise. What’s particular impress is that the philosophy comes across in the other interactions; digital screens are placed more in line with the driver’s view of the road, for example. The CX-50’s wide screen is a bit farther away from the driver than you might expect given the current trend toward IMAX-sized screens.
Mazda’s infotainment uses a touchscreen, but it’s built to use the multi-function dial mounted in the center console. Those in attendance at the first-drive event were warned that there’s a steep learning curve and that drivers may only fully grasp the full functionality once they spend quite a bit of time interacting with the system. With several hours behind the wheel and only a few minutes of futzing around with the audio system, we became comfortable enough to switch between Mazda’s navigation system and the audio inputs, along with our favorite channels, without needing to look at any buttons. For those that wish to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, that’s also an option, although the monitor is far enough away that the touchscreen may be a reach for some drivers.
The CX-50 has both the features and pricing to take on segment stalwarts like the RAV 4 and CR-V, not to mention styling that hints at the traditional tough SUV better than either. It may even give Forester buyers a reason to look in another direction when it becomes available later this year starting at $28,025, including destination. Mazda has the capability to build around 150,000 CX-50s each year at the Huntsville, Alabama, factory that it operates jointly with Toyota, and if the CX-50 is highly successful it could point Mazda’s crossovers for North America in a more off-road-oriented direction. If the company can do so without sacrificing its superior driving experience, then this is a niche well worth pursuing.
2022 Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus
Price: $41,550/$43,070 (base/as-tested); 2.5 S starts at $28,025
Highs: Great blend of comfortable suspension and nimble handling, practical packaging, clean styling.
Lows: Could use mirror extensions when towing.
Summary: The CX-50 offers an upscale interior, engaging dynamics, and it’s attractive all-around—a niche few rivals can claim to have hit.