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Driven: 2023 Mazda CX-50 Is Fun but May Not Be for Everybody

Driven: 2023 Mazda CX-50 Is Fun but May Not Be for Everybody

Defined by fun and adventure

  • All-new small crossover SUV
  • Sporty handling
  • Moderate off-road capabilities
  • Likely future hybrid model
  • 2023 model kicks off the first CX-50 generation

What is the CX-50?

Initially, it seems odd that Mazda has come out with the 2023 CX-50. This all-new small SUV shares showroom floor space with the existing and similarly sized CX-5 SUV. Then again, with vehicle inventory being so low at the moment, perhaps having an additional model to sell alongside the praiseworthy CX-5 is a good idea.

In actuality, there are several reasons why the 2023 Mazda CX-50 exists. For starters, it has added appeal for drivers seeking more excitement and performance than the typical small SUV delivers, and it further complements those qualities with improved off-road and towing capabilities compared to the CX-5. As is usually the case, these enhancements come with their own set of advantages and drawbacks, and those drawbacks may be enough to steer shoppers back to the more conventional CX-5. It makes sense then that Mazda will sell both the CX-5 and CX-50 concurrently.

How does the CX-50 drive?

The 2023 CX-50 will be Mazda's first vehicle to come out of the new Huntsville, Alabama, plant that is a joint venture with Toyota. You can choose between the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine (187 horsepower, 186 lb-ft of torque) and the turbocharged version (256 hp, 320 lb-ft on 93 octane fuel or 227 hp, 310 lb-ft on 87 octane). These are the same engines offered with the CX-5 and are paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with standard all-wheel drive.

We had the opportunity to drive the turbocharged model and came away impressed. Acceleration is brisk and is accompanied by a pleasing engine note and quick gear changes. We expect the CX-50 to accelerate to 60 mph in the 6.5-second range, which is comparable to the CX-5 with the same turbocharged engine. It has more than enough power for the majority of drivers and should bring a smile to those who seek performance.

As well as the CX-50 accelerates, its handling is what sets it apart. It's surprisingly sporty, and on some very challenging twisting roads, this compact SUV could be as fun to drive as a much smaller hatchback. The firm suspension keeps body roll in check when cornering, and the all-wheel drive supplies an abundance of traction when it's powering out of a curve. It's wildly rewarding and unusual for an SUV that doesn't have a BMW or Porsche badge on it.

Sporty handling has long been one of Mazda's key traits, but the CX-50 has another trick up its sleeve: off-road capabilities. While most compact SUVs could tackle a rutted dirt road or perhaps some light terrain, the CX-50 proves it can handle much more. We drove the CX-50 on a prepared off-road course, and it easily cruised along a dirt trail and ascended a steep hill. Even though hill descent control isn't available, this small SUV remained very controllable when pointed down the even steeper backside of the climb. These abilities are unusual for an SUV that doesn't have a Jeep badge on it.

Much of the CX-50's adventure abilities can be attributed to the new Off-road drive mode that cleverly combines the steering and traction control systems to keep the vehicle on its intended path with ease. Depending on the trim level, the CX-50 also has either 8.3 or 8.6 inches of ground clearance; the latter figure is comparable to the outdoorsy Subaru Forester's (8.7 inches). A CX-50 Turbo Meridian Edition will also debut later in the year with all-terrain tires, tougher-looking styling cues and more available outdoor-specific accessories.

How comfortable is the CX-50?

There is a price to be paid for the CX-50's exceptional handling abilities, and that is a very firm ride quality. We think the typical driver will find it too stiff, in fact. You'll feel every imperfection in the road, and undulations will result in some rather noticeable jostling too.

On a smooth highway, however, the CX-50 is pleasantly calm and comfortable. The front seats provide adequate cushioning for long drives and decent lateral support when you're tossing the vehicle around in the curves. As well as the CX-50 handles, we'd welcome more aggressively bolstered sport seats as an option. Road noise is more noticeable than in other SUVs in the class, and it can become downright intrusive on coarse asphalt surfaces. At highway speeds, we also noticed some wind noise around the mirrors.

How's the CX-50's interior?

A lot of new cars these days are adopting a sleek, high-tech cockpit with big touchscreens, digital gauges and minimal buttons. But the Mazda CX-50 sticks to a simple style — we're happy for that. Mazda puts the driving experience front and center and aims to minimize distractions from technology or other features. The interior design, with its broad horizontal dash and small infotainment display on top, has many similarities to the CX-5's.

The materials used throughout the cabin are slightly higher quality than what you'd find in competing vehicles from Honda, Hyundai and Kia. There's plenty of passenger space up front and the rear seats can easily accommodate adults. Taller occupants may be at the limit for headroom back there, but legroom should be adequate. Sadly, the rear seats do not slide or recline.

How's the CX-50's tech?

Technology isn't as high a priority as it is in some other SUVs. That said, the tech features that are available are well tuned and easy to use. The infotainment system has either an 8.8-inch center display screen (base 2.5 S trim level) or a 10.25-inch display (every other trim). You control the infotainment system with a dial controller on the center console, but the display works as a touchscreen too. The touchscreen functionality is best when you're integrating your phone by way of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Apple CarPlay is wireless, while Android Auto requires a USB cable.

The CX-50 comes standard with all of the typical advanced driver aids such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and lane keeping assist. We never experienced any glitches or false alarms from the CX-50 during our initial test drive. The adaptive cruise control does an excellent job of maintaining the gap to vehicles in front with smooth braking and acceleration, and it's very helpful on long stretches of highway cruising. The available surround-view camera system also gives a good indication of obstacles around the vehicle. It's particularly helpful when off-roading, but the cameras only operate up to 10 mph.

How are the CX-50's storage and towing?

Behind the rear seats, the CX-50 can hold up to 31.4 cubic feet of cargo. That's marginally better than the CX-5, but is quite a bit smaller than other SUVs in this class. By comparison, the Honda CR-V can hold up to 39.2 cubic feet. The space itself is narrower and longer than in the CX-5, something that Mazda says should be a plus for adventure-bound owners and their gear.

Interior storage is adequate but not impressive. You get a small rubberized tray to keep your phone in place, and a few moderately sized cupholders, bins and door pockets. You might be wanting for more storage on a road trip.

The CX-50 once again distinguishes itself from much of the class, but this time in regard to towing. The base engine is limited to 2,000 pounds while the turbo maxes out at 3,500 pounds. Many rivals are limited to under 2,000 pounds, and the CX-50 has the added bonus of a specific drive mode for towing. Like the Off-road mode, it combines the steering, engine and traction control systems to make a trailer feel less like a burden by making it easier to keep the vehicle centered in its lane and tracking straight.

How economical is the CX-50?

Mazda estimates the base engine will return 27 mpg combined (24 city/27 highway) and puts the turbocharged engine a bit lower at 25 mpg combined (23 city/29 highway). These figures are a few mpg below what other rival SUVs get. The all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester gets 29 mpg combined, for example.

But since the CX-50 is being built alongside Toyotas, we're confident that some technology-sharing will take place. If that becomes a reality, we would expect a hybrid powertrain to join the CX-50 lineup within a year or so.

Edmunds says

Mazda makes an effort to offer more performance and refinement than rivals, and the CX-50 doesn't disappoint. The enhanced off-road capability is a welcome bonus too. But the firm ride quality may be a turnoff for some people, so we suggest a thorough test drive before deciding on your purchase.