Driven: 2023 Mazda CX-50 Sets A New Bar For Soft Roaders

Test Drive / Comments

But is it the ultimate family machine?

Mazda's CX-5 is a great crossover and a popular seller for Mazda globally. However, one of the largest automotive markets in the world has plenty of big roads, plenty of land to explore and enjoy, and the people there tend to prefer larger vehicles. Hence, the CX-50 is designed for the North American market and Mazda is selling as many as it can make. When we first drove the CX-50 at the launch event, Mazda was keen to show off its interior room, soft roading ability, and even its towing capability. We enjoyed our day with the 2023 Mazda CX-50 and walked away impressed, and we looked forward to spending a week with it in our own, much less controlled environment.

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Exterior: Pure Mazda

Stylewise, the CX-50 is a more purposeful-looking vehicle than the CX-5. It's not necessarily lower, but the wider track and hatchback car-like proportions give it that impression. The bold black body cladding manages not to detract from the sophisticated styling. Although the CX-50 follows Mazda's current Kodo design language, it loses the concave shape on the side that can be a photographer's nightmare and on darker colored vehicles, often looks like a dent caused by an accident, and gains prominent fender flares that we appreciate. The LED headlights, rear roof spoiler, dual exhaust outlets, and roof rails are all standard features.

Lower trim versions ride on 17-inch wheels, but pricier models have 20-inch alloys. All-season tires are standard across the lineup, but it comes with a temporary spare tire. This, we feel, undermines the CX-50's credentials as a dirt-track warrior, as that's where you're most likely to get a flat, and a temporary spare could easily leave you stuck.

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Interior: More Pure Mazda

Although others are catching up, Mazda's interiors have been the best in class for a while. The CX-50 is no different in that Mazda hasn't followed the annoying trend of making things that should be knobs and buttons part of the infotainment system. Simple and with proper feedback is best for user interaction, and everything is where it should be. The build quality and materials used are excellent, even on lower trims, but the cabin space is the headline.

Elbow room over the CX-5 isn't a problem, and even less so in the CX-50, while rear passengers get 39.8 inches of legroom, enough for tall adults, and headroom isn't compromised by a sloping roof. The base model's driver seat is manually adjustable, and it's not until the Premium Package that you get six-way power adjustment. Cargo space doesn't set any records at 31.4 cubic feet, but it's plenty for a family weekend away.

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Infotainment: And Pure Mazda Again

Mazda isn't convinced people should be reaching over and using touchscreens while driving and likes the screen to be set high up, close to the windscreen, so it's easy to glance at. Some may disagree, but we appreciate this arrangement and the scroll wheel in the center consol used for navigating the infotainment system. The screen is an 8.8-inch display (upgradeable to 10.5 inches via higher trim levels) complimented by a seven-inch TFT LCD unit for the gauge cluster. Mazda's Connect software is well laid out and easy to navigate, and, while not the best or most tech-laden in the class, it has all the basics, including standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. An eight-speaker sound system is standard, but a Bose system we're unenthusiastic about is available.

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Drivetrain: Very Mazda

The base engine for the CX-50 is a naturally aspirated four-cylinder making 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque, which isn't quite enough if you like to hustle. The 2.5-liter Turbo engine, however, produces 227 hp and 310 lb-ft, which is plenty, and it doesn't feel like the engine is being thrashed when overtaking particularly slow traffic. The most Mazda thing, though, is that if you fuel the CX-50 with premium gas, and the turbocharged engine makes 256 hp and 320 lb-ft.

The base engine is on par with the competition, but with all-wheel-drive as standard, we hope for something more to back it up. To get the most out of the CX-50, you really do have to go up to the $37,150 2.5 Turbo trim level. If you're looking for a weekend family adventure vehicle, meaning four people plus gear getting out into the countryside with hills and slippery surfaces, that's the real cost of entry. Plus, towing capacity goes up from 2,000 pounds to 3,500 pounds.

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On And Off The Road: Remarkably Well Balanced

The CX-50's road manners are excellent, and the dynamics are focused. "The ride is firm but smooth; it's quick when called upon, and everything from the throttle control and braking is precise and responsive without having any sharp edges," is how we described the CX-50 on the road, and we stand by it. If you like to drive with enthusiasm, it's a lot of fun while staying predictable, and Sport mode gives things an even more enthusiastic edge.

The real magic is in how Mazda has managed the weight transfer in corners. It's controlled electronically while still feeling natural. The tuning is damn near perfect. Then, if you want to get car-nerdy, the steering is sports car-like in its precision and feedback, but it's a little heavier than most crossover drivers will be used to.

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The driving-dynamics wizardry continues off-road. Mazda set about tuning the CX-50 to remain predictable even on slippery surfaces, and the result is amazing up to a certain point - that being when you reach the tire's grip limit. This was demonstrated to us by Mazda on a couple of turns on a dirt track, so, of course, we explored it more on long dirt roads, which became muddy roads in the rain. It's remarkable how stable and unperturbed the CX-50 remains over dirt and mud. Other soft roaders we've reviewed recently reached the limits of their stability at lower speeds, while the CX-50 was much less inclined to be unpredictable at 5-10 mph more.

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Conclusion: Mazda's Best Yet, But At A Price

The Mazda CX-50 2.5 S starts at $27,550 and, with the base engine, will make a solid and capable commuter and family vehicle. From there, there's plenty of choice in comfort and feature levels, as there are five more trims available before you reach the 2.5 Turbo model at $37,150. Then there are a further two more models before you meet the top of the range, the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus at $42,300.

Mazda aims to move up in the premium market, and with the 2.5-liter turbo engine, the CX-50 is a winner and does everything Mazda's splashy marketing claims. Mazda is clearly still chasing the more limited budgets, though, and we think a front-wheel-drive model with a de-tuned version of the turbo engine would make it a killer deal for those that won't ever venture far off the beaten tracks. Our recommendation is to shop around for what suits your lifestyle and budget while remembering how good the safety ratings for CX-50 are. If you're looking for a commuter, family hauler, and weekend adventuring soft-roader, then test drive the CX-50 along with the Subaru Outback - then tell us what color CX-50 you bought.

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