2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review: Refining The Trend
Like so many automakers, Mazda is changing to fit current market trends. That means a shift away from products like the Mazda6 and a double– or triple-down on crossovers. The 2023 Mazda CX-50 is the newest model to support that strategy, bringing the brand deeper into the world of high-riding vehicles.
The CX-50 precedes future crossovers like the CX-70 and CX-90 and has the additional task of introducing Mazda buyers to the growing trend of ruggedized SUVs. After a day spent driving and filming it, I believe that the CX-50 will do that and more, ultimately becoming a smash hit.
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Gallery: 2023 Mazda CX-50: First Drive Review
Love At First Sight
The CX-50 looks like a CX-5 that ventured into rock climbing and started shopping at REI. It has the same vibe as other toughened-up crossovers like the Subaru Forester Wilderness, Honda Passport Trailsport, and Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road, with extra body cladding and dark accents.
Size-wise, the CX-50 is six inches longer and 3 inches wider than the CX-5, but its overall height is lower, despite having more ground clearance. While the dimensions help the CX-50 look more aggressive, it’s the smaller design details that really make the difference. An extra-wide grille spans the entire space between the headlights, with a thick piece of black plastic tracing the grille’s shape. Just below, thin horizontal running lights glow amber, similar to what you’d find on a Kia Telluride’s headlights.
The aforementioned cladding is not overwhelming and actually improves the car’s overall look, something that can’t be said of the smaller CX-30. If I had a nit to pick, though, the combo of chrome and black on the wheels and window trim is a miss – Mazda should’ve gone all-in on black. Thankfully, the upcoming Meridian trim solves that problem with more dark trim and accessories. And regardless of accent choice, Mazda’s new Zircon Sand Metallic paint makes the CX-50 dazzle in its surroundings, even when subjected to the elements.
Concrete And Dust
Engineers emphasized that, despite the CX-50’s off-roady additions, this SUV was designed and tuned primarily for on-road duty. Our first drive test route from Santa Barbara, California, to a ranch in Cuyama reflected that balance with a route that kept the car on pavement more often than not.
The CX-50’s standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine aligns closely with the segment, putting out 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet. However, I spent my day in the more powerful (and more expensive) Turbo model. It offers 256 hp and 320 lb-ft – numbers that are much closer to premium crossovers like the BMW X3.
While the power gives the CX-50 an extra kick of excitement, no doubt, it feels a bit overkill for a non-performance SUV. And because it requires premium fuel to achieve that power figure, the EPA rating of 23 city, 29 highway, and 25 combined is a major downside – that said, it will run on regular fuel if need be, though with some power loss. For most customers, the math on the non-turbo engine just makes more sense.
All-wheel-drive comes standard on the CX-50 and works with Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control to keep the car neutral in corners. Not that I felt a particular urge to carve up a road in this 3,900-pound machine, but when I came in hot and fast, the CX-50 responded with fantastic manners. Just like the CX-5, this compact handles itself with poise. It’s far and away more fun on a tight road than a Honda Passport or Subaru Forester, further demonstrating Mazda’s stubborn commitment to driving dynamics above all else
Eventually, the roads ran out and turned to dirt, as I embarked on a light off-roading journey in the CX-50. Its 8.3 inches of ground clearance best the CX-5 by 0.7 inches, though the Forester Wilderness still caps all other small crossovers at 9.2 inches. Every CX-50 available for testing also had regular all-season tires, and the only trim level equipped with all-terrains will be the forthcoming Meridian.
Just like the CX-5, this compact handles itself with poise. It’s far and away more fun on a tight road than a Honda Passport or Subaru Forester.
Mazda admits that this car is built to get you and some friends to a campsite, not to overcome any severe obstacles. The video below shows the steepest hill I encountered the entire day, which wasn’t exactly extreme. The CX-50 will likely be a fun car-camping canvas for many, but out of the box it lacks the technical hardware to be an off-road leader.
An Invitation Inside
The CX-50’s interior quality is truly a step above its rivals with a fun mix of colors and materials throughout. Just like in other Mazdas, the seats are soft and cozy with great support, as well as heating and ventilation, at least on this trim. The caramel brown contrast stitching across the dash looks super cool, as do the vertical HVAC vents. Even in less obvious places, Mazda opted for high-quality trim and textures which make the entire experience feel more elevated than basically any other crossover south of $50,000.
While quality is up, overall space is not. Despite its bigger size, the CX-50 offers no more legroom than the CX-5 and loses on headroom slightly because of its lower roofline. And somehow, its also down on cargo space to the CX-5, offering 56.3 cubic feet of space compared to 59.6 when the second row is folded down.
With recent updates to its tech hardware, the CX-50 offers wireless Apple Carplay and Android Auto standard. A 10.3-inch display is perched up on the dash and works primarily with a center console control wheel. That is until you switch to start using Carplay, in which case it offers a touchscreen if you prefer that. But it’s so far from the driver that touching the screen isn’t an appealing option. Mazda has long believed in the idea of keeping minimal information in front of the driver (including offering touchscreens), but as cars become more and more complex I think it’s only a matter of time before that thinking becomes obsolete.
Even with underwhelming space and questionable tech inconsistencies, I would still cite the CX-50 as the best interior experience among its competitive set. Hours of driving left me still able to go further without question. This car is ready for just about any road trip you can throw at it – though you may have to put some gear on the roof, of course.
A Compelling Price
With all that it offers, price is about the only thing that can hold the CX-50 back from selling in big numbers, and Mazda looks to be avoiding that situation. The 2023 Mazda CX-50 starts at $28,025 with a $1,225 destination charge, a total that’s just $900 more than the base CX-5. Somehow, there are nine trim levels above that, which gets way too complicated, so here’s a simpler breakdown. Upgrading from the base engine to the Turbo adds $9,600 to the price at $37,625, while a fully loaded Turbo Premium Plus model sneaks in at $43,775.
The Subaru Forester Wilderness costs $33,020, while the bigger Honda Passport comes in at $37,870. Finally, the Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road starts at $35,465. Whether or not the CX-50 will cost more or less than these rivals depends entirely on if you opt for the Turbo.
Because it’s priced so closely to the CX-5, I believe that many shoppers will likely swap into the CX-50 because of its tougher look, and I won’t blame them for it. Mazda’s newest crossover doesn’t have a significant leg up on its rivals when it comes to going off-road, but it bridges that deficit with exceptional interior comfort and killer overall styling. We’ve seen the rugged crossover done before, however, Mazda brought its own twist to the formula and ended up with a very pleasant product.
CX-50 Competitor Reviews:
- Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk: Not Rated
- Subaru Forester Wilderness: 8.5 / 10
- Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road: 8.3 / 10
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