GearJunkie’s Bryon Dorr spent a long day driving the all-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 crossover in Santa Barbara, Calif. After carving up some backroads, making some dust off the pavement, towing a 3,500-pound trailer, and many hours on the highway, he came to a few conclusions.
The CX-50 is a compact crossover utility vehicle that will impress people that enjoy driving. While Mazda is pushing the outdoorsy off-road angle in its marketing, the reality is that this new CUV is really good on the pavement. And it’s competent enough to get you to some fun campsites and trailheads when the pavement ends.
With an almost wagon-like design, the CX-50 offers the North American market what it continually asks for. This rig is a rugged-looking, outdoor-adventure-aspiring, good on-road handling, quality towing and gear-hauling, reasonably priced, compact crossover with a premium interior.
The Mazda CX-50 is built on the same platform as the 3 and CX-30 — not the CX-5 as you might expect. It’s also the first Mazda that’s “purpose-built” for the North American market. Lastly, it’s the first Mazda built in the new MTM (Mazda Toyota Manufacturing) Alabama factory.
2023 Mazda CX-50 Review
I specifically sampled the top-trim Mazda CX-50 Premium Plus. However, I didn’t get a chance to experience any of the other nine trims. Here’s what my experience with this version of the vehicle revealed.
- Class-leading on-road manners
- Premium interior
- More spacious inside than it looks from the outside
- Turbo version can run on 87 octane gasoline without issue
- Suspension not well suited for off-road terrain
- Overly heavy steering
- Firm ride and seats
CX-50 Driving Experience
The Mazda CX-50 is a driver’s CUV — if there is such a thing. Most crossovers offer numb, disconnected driving experiences. On the contrary, the CX-50 offers a fun, engaging drive, as I’ve come to expect from a Mazda.
The thin leather-wrapped steering wheel, which even telescopes/adjusts perfectly for my tall frame, offers great control and good feedback from the road. The steering is precise but overly heavy. The driver’s seat has lots of quality adjustability, but the bottom cushion is a bit short and the entire seat a bit firm.
While Mazda has shied away from driving modes in the past, the CX-50 gets four: Normal, Sport, Off-Road, and Towing. Unlike most vehicles where the driving modes instantly change the feel of the vehicle, Mazda designed its driving modes to not change the feel of the vehicle. Instead, it offers the same quality baseline driving experience in a variety of conditions.
One party trick that Mazda is promoting on the CX-50 is G-Vectoring Control (GVC). If you’re familiar with the performance driving principles of left foot trail braking and forward weight transfer on turn-in, then you’ll understand what Mazda’s GVC system is trying to do for you.
It pulls back the torque just a bit — without you noticing — as you start to turn, and it gets the weight of the vehicle on the front tires for improved cornering turn-in. The GVC system does work well, especially in Sport and Off-Road driving modes.
While the brake pedal is a bit mushy at the starting moments of pedal travel, it does eventually bite. And it does a great job of getting this machine slowed and/or stopped.
The CX-50 also responds well to left foot braking, a performance driving technique that many modern vehicles tend not to respond well to, usually cutting power.
The throttle response when you mash the skinny pedal is average. But it gets quite a bit better in all the driving modes besides Normal.
Mazda engineers said that the time between initial pedal engagement and engine acceleration jerk needs to be under a quarter second to not notice a delay in throttle response. They tuned this pretty well on the CX-50.
Let’s Talk the CX-50 Motor
With the Skyactiv-G 2.5 Turbo four-cylinder motor, you get 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque to play with. I found the power to be plenty to get the job done, but not all that inspiring.
If for some reason, you need to do triple-digit speeds, the CX-50 Turbo pulls relatively steadily past 100 and is super-stable and confidence-inspiring. Based on testing, I’d for sure splurge on the Turbo motor option, as the base motor only has 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque.
I found the 6-speed automatic to provide really smooth up-shifts — even in Sport mode — when accelerating hard. While most manufacturers have moved on to 8-, 9-, and 10-speed transmission, Mazda says that it stuck with the in-house-designed 6-speed because the lower gear number offers fewer interruptions, meaning you’re “in the right gear more often.” This is the same one Mazda has used for a few years now.
While this transmission does provide the Mazda driving experience, it does not provide the fuel economy that the higher gear transmissions can offer. The base motor gets 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option I tested gets 23/29 mpg. The 2.5 Turbo can be run on either regular or premium fuel. And it will automatically adjust for the fuel you use.
While you’ll get more performance out of premium fuel, Mazda engineers told us that you’ll likely get better fuel economy from using regular. We like the sound of that, as fuel prices continue to rise.
On the pavement is where the CX-50 really shines. It does what you tell it to do when you tell it to do it. I find this to be lacking in many modern vehicles, as the computer overlords take over.
While cabin noise and ride comfort could be better — especially on the highway — backroad cruising and carving are where the CX-50 is in its element. For around-town and backroads driver engagement, I’d put the CX-50 up against any sub-$50,000 crossover.
In the Normal drive mode, the CX-50 is mostly front-wheel drive. Note that the AWD system prioritizes fuel economy. The rear driveshaft is still spinning, however, so the AWD system can be engaged quickly when needed.
Mazda says the Normal drive mode is best for on-road snow conditions as well. It prioritizes maximum acceleration over minimum wheelspin — which means the wheels can spin a bit without power being cut.
In the Sport driving mode, the GVC system is increased to tighten steering response. This works well and is noticeable, but the steering does not get heavier. This is a good thing, as it’s already overweighted.
Sport mode also ensures the transmission doesn’t try to shift mid-corner, which could upset the chassis. Gears are also held longer, keeping revs up to stay in the powerband. I found that I greatly preferred driving in Sport mode all the time. But it probably hurt my fuel economy.
Off-Road With the CX-50
The i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system is standard equipment on all Mazda CX-50s. And it seems to work quite well. Note that it allows a 50/50ish power transfer front to back.
While I didn’t get it out in the snow or rain, I did get it on some steep, loose dirt and fast, gravelly roads. The system offered impressive confidence to push the vehicle to the limits of its tires and suspension.
The CX-50 falters a bit off-road because of its suspension, however. It is stiff and great for on-road performance, but not great for off-road comfort. And it offers little wheel travel.
Gravel roads and smooth dirt two-track are tons of fun, but more rugged terrain requires very slow speeds and very thoughtful wheel placement.
Mazda created the CX-50 as an outdoor adventure vehicle. But I’d say that the focus is on harmony with nature versus a focus on conquering nature and off-road obstacles.
The ruggedized compact crossover segment is hot. But like many — we’re looking at you, Honda Trailsport Passport — you get rugged looks minus any substantial off-road capability.
The CX-50 does offer a respectable 8.6 inches of ground clearance. This is an inch more than a CX-5. It also offers an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle. It does not have hill descent control. But it does have an Off-Road driving mode.
The Off-Road Mode is designed to work well for both gravel roads and low-speed off-road maneuvering. When on gravel roads at higher speeds, the system is tuned for stability, with torque-controlled yaw control, higher rear torque bias, and stronger GVC for precise steering.
At low speeds, the system is optimized for traction. And traction control is optimized diagonally across the vehicle, ensuring optimal traction in rugged terrain.
The transmission also stays in lower gears longer. And finally, the idle speed is increased when facing uphill for optimal needed power delivery.
There is an optional 360-degree camera system that works pretty well, but it has one major flaw. It turns off above 10 mph.
While not an issue at face value, I found myself crawling up a steep, loose hillside with a blind crest, and the camera cut out mid-climb, as the wheel speed was over 10 mph due to slippage versus actually moving too quickly.
Towing With the CX-50
The CX-50 offers a pretty impressive 3,500-pound towing capacity, but only 2,000 pounds with the naturally aspirated motor. A lot of vehicle cooling systems were implemented to get this higher tow rating. While it could use some bigger tow mirrors for most trailers, the Turbo Premium Plus model towed a full 3,500 pounds impressively well.
The Towing drive mode was designed to provide a similar driving experience to not having a trailer hitched, making it super easy for people new to towing.
When a trailer electrical harness is attached, the CX-50 lets you know it’s ready to go into Towing Mode and disables Sport Mode. Once selected and the trailer stays hooked up, the Tow Mode will remain active for multiple key cycles.
Towing is impressively confidence-inspiring and easy, even at max capacity, although the front end does get a bit light. The GVC system helps enhance the steering, even with a light front end, and the brakes seemed plenty strong to handle both vehicle and trailer. The CX-50 is a perfect companion for small tear-drop style campers.
The interior, at least in the Turbo Premium Plus model, feels more luxurious and less rugged than the outside styling and marketing might suggest.
I really liked how clean and simple the interior is while offering quality touch-point materials. The clean, straight horizontal lines in the interior help make it feel way more spacious than it actually is — and especially wide.
A first for Mazda is the panoramic moon roof, which is super nice when out exploring the great outdoors and trying to soak up some vitamin D on your adventures.
The roof is also said to be stronger than on other Mazda crossovers. And it’s built specifically to better handle carrying bulky heavy loads like rooftop tents.
A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch screen. Neither is a touchscreen for most functions, instead accessed via a rotary controller on the center console.
New, however, is touchscreen functionality when using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, with the wireless versions both standard across all CX-50 models.
The driver’s gauge cluster is a bright and vivid digital display, displaying mostly analog gauges. The heads-up display on the Turbo Premium Plus is super crisp. But I noticed that it’s very hard to see with polarized glasses.
2023 Mazda CX-50 Options and Pricing
At launch, you can choose between six base motor trim levels. These include S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus. Additionally, there are three turbo motor trims: Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus.
A fourth turbo option is coming soon, the more off-road oriented Meridian Edition with 18-inch black wheels wrapped in mild-AT tires, a platform roof rack, hood graphics, and more.
The big thing missing from the CX-50 lineup is a hybrid. But a Toyota-sourced hybrid powertrain is coming soon. It doesn’t seem like the CX-50 will get the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) treatment anytime soon, if at all, however. PHEVs that are coming from Mazda soon include the CX-30 and CX-90.
Pricing for the 2023 Mazda CX-50 starts at $26,800. The starting price of the Turbo Premium Plus model we tested is $41,500. The more ruggedized Meridian will slot in under the Turbo Premium Plus, but pricing has not yet been announced.
Vehicles are rolling off the Alabama assembly line already, but don’t expect the full lineup to be available until later this year.
To build out and price your own Mazda CX-50, go to Mazda.com.
A Few Comparisons When Looking at the CX-50
CX-50 Compared to CX-5
About half of Mazda’s current North American sales are the CX-5. The CX-50 doesn’t replace the CX-5, but instead adds another option to the Mazda crossover lineup. The CX-5 is a global market vehicle made in Japan, while the CX-50 is a North American-only vehicle made in Alabama.
While the CX-50 is about 6.5 inches longer, 3 inches wider, and 2 inches shorter than the CX-5, it offers slightly more cargo space and a lot more usable cargo floor space. It can tow 1,500 more pounds and offers about one inch more ground clearance.
The CX-50 boasts muscular bodywork and black fender cladding, for that ruggedized look. It also offers the same drivetrain options, is on an older chassis architecture, and has a starting price of $900 to $2,900 less across its range of models.
We’re honestly not sure why you’d buy a CX-5. Besides a small bump in price, less headroom, and more plastic body cladding, the CX-50 is a better vehicle all around.
Mazda CX-50 vs. Subaru Forester Wilderness
The first vehicle that came to mind when I saw the CX-50 and how Mazda was positioning the vehicle is the Subaru Forester Wilderness. While the Forester matches up well in many areas, it falls short in many.
The Forester has considerably less power (only 182 horsepower) and poor towing capabilities (only 1,500-pound rated) in comparison. It also has a much more numb-feeling steering system, worse throttle response, and not nearly as good a transmission.
It has considerably less cargo room behind the rear seats. Although, because of its height, it does offer more overall cargo room when the middle seats are folded down.
Where the Forester shines over the CX-50 is in ground clearance, offering nearly an inch more at 9.2 inches. The Forester also has rugged interior materials and optional skid plates, and it’s probably a generally better off-road companion.
Pricing between the two is hard to compare, as they are optioned very differently, and the Forester doesn’t offer a Turbo engine option. The Forester Wilderness is about a $35,000 vehicle.