With the introduction of the 2023 Mazda CX-50, the brand is taking its aspirations from elegant to L.L. Bean.
Make no mistake: this is still every bit the stylish sport utility we’ve come to expect from Mazda, just different. Flowing lines are augmented with chiseled ones, while cladding all the way around gives this small sport utility an undeniably Subaru-like presence.
It’s also the latest in the segment to shift in a decidedly outdoorsy direction, with rivals ranging from Jeep to Toyota all offering pseudo-adventure rigs about this size. They certainly aren’t hardcore off-road machines, but they’ll get you and the family to that favourite camping spot without worry – and they’ll look good doing it.
In the case of the CX-50, it’s less about what’s been added to improve functionality and more about the fundamentals themselves. Forget chunky tires, a lifted suspension, and skid plates; the CX-50’s roofline has been simultaneously reinforced and lowered, the former meaning it can handle heavy loads like a couple people sleeping in a tent, with the latter making whatever’s up there easier to access in the first place.
Does that lowered roof make it more Subaru Outback than Forester? Not quite, but the CX-50 doesn’t stand as tall as the average entry in the segment. Even compared to the similarly sized CX-5, this fellow Mazda model stands more than 60 mm (2.4 in) shorter overall despite boasting greater ground clearance.
The result is an interior that’s noticeably short on rear headroom. In fact, at just 952 mm (37.5 in), there’s less space to sit upright in the back seat than there is in the significantly smaller Mazda CX-30. The rest of the dimensions are just fine, particularly up front, with none of the problems from the back seat finding their way forward.
Cargo-carrying abilities have been emphasized, with a boxy space behind the back seats and a flat load floor all the way through. According to Mazda, there’s 889 L of cargo room with the rear seats upright and 1,595 L with them folded – not quite class-leading, but competitive. Plus, standard roof rails mean all kinds of equipment can be stashed up top.
While their overall approaches may differ, the CX-50 and CX-5 mirror each other mechanically. That means the same standard all-wheel drive system, as well as matching transmissions and engine choices. The standard motor across the simplified two-trim lineup is a naturally aspirated 2.5L four-cylinder, while the GT is available with a turbocharged version that makes 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque (running regular-grade gas cuts those numbers to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft).
With peak output arriving at 2,000 rpm, the turbo motor makes easy work of the CX-50’s 1,777-kg (3,918-lb) curb weight, not to mention any weight being pulled behind it. While there was certainly no hiding from the roughly 1,588 kg (3,500 lb) of the camper trailer towed during testing, the powertrain itself was more than capable of moving it, pulling strongly up steep ascents while barely breaking a sweat. Skipping the turbo motor means a max rating of 907 kg (2,000 lb), meaning those with aspirations to tow should head straight for the upgraded engine.
A Little Rugged
Where the CX-50 distances itself from its CX-5 sibling, albeit slightly, is with its off-road drive mode, as well as the ground clearance that’s been added. While the CX-5 makes do with a ride height of about 190 mm (7.5 in), the CX-50 gets a Subaru-like 210–219 mm (8.3–8.6 in), depending on trim and wheel size. It’s still easy to climb into, with wide doors and low sills, but is a little better suited to off-pavement adventures.
Just to reiterate, this isn’t the kind of SUV that’s built for full-fledged overlanding; for that, refer to the likes of the reborn Ford Bronco, the Jeep Wrangler that can do it with a plug-in hybrid powertrain, or the fixed-roof Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. Instead, it’s got the same kind of capability as a Subaru Forester or Outback. That means unserviced access roads are fair game, while proper trails are best avoided.
Even so, with its standard all-wheel drive and an off-road drive mode that optimizes its ability to shuffle torque side to side, the CX-50 handled itself well when put to the test on a deeply rutted gravel road still covered in sections of thick ice and snow. Hill climbs made of mud caused by the spring melt were no match for the traction control system that reacts to wheel spin by forcing more where it’s best utilized.
Back on the pavement, the drive feels a lot like that of the CX-30 – not especially surprising given it rides on a scaled-up version of that subcompact’s platform. There’s a strong sense of rigidity here, although the suspension does well to soften impacts at speed. It’s not quite as balanced as the CX-5, nor is it quite as forgiving as the Forester, but there’s nothing wrong with the way the CX-50 drives, either.
The Canadian lineup is fairly straightforward, with a pair of trims to choose from and a good selection of equipment between them. Every CX-50 comes with all-wheel drive, a drive mode selector with sport and off-road settings, roof rails, and a height-programmable power tailgate. The rear doors open a full 90 degrees, too.
Beyond those functionality features, standard amenities in the $37,900 GS-L trim include heated front seats and steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, a panoramic sunroof, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – both of which can be used via the 10.25-inch touchscreen atop the dash (the rest of the interface can only be operated by a confounding console controller). Advanced safety and driver-assist items like blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assistance, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic are also standard.
The $42,850 GT trim, meanwhile, adds leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a 12-speaker stereo, built-in navigation, satellite radio, a wireless phone charger, and a head-up display. On the safety front, there’s a surround-view monitoring system, traffic sign recognition, low-speed reverse automatic emergency braking, and front and rear parking sensors, among a few others. It can also be had with the optional turbo motor for an extra $2,500.
There are plenty of intriguing options to choose from in the pseudo-adventure segment, and the 2022 Mazda CX-50 is yet another to add to the list. While there’s room for a more capable model in the future in the same way Subaru has done with its new Wilderness trims, there’s an acceptable aptitude here given what the CX-50 is up against.