2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review: Destination Outback

The continued popularity of the SUV is pushing manufacturers to explore previously uncharted parts of the market.

Take Mazda. The artist formerly known as the Zoom-Zoom brand has steadily increased its crossover quotient, to the point they now account for 80 percent of the brand’s sales in the US. The compact CX-5 leads the charge; with 168,383 sold in the country last year, it makes up over half of Mazda’s yearly sales. Clearly the brand has found something good here—but also something that it can’t easily change.

That’s where the new 2023 Mazda CX-50 steps in. According to Mazda’s own research, more people are looking to outdoor activities than only a few years ago. (No prizes for guessing why.) The CX-50 promises a more rugged experience than the CX-5, a vehicle to out-Outback the Outback. After a day spent driving the CX-50 on and off roads, with and without a trailer, we’re confident in saying the handsome new Mazda has found its target.

Get a Quote on a New 2023 Mazda CX-50

What’s new?

The CX-50 is a whole new model, following in the add-a-zero footsteps of the sub-compact CX-30. Like that model, the CX-50 is larger than its corresponding single-digit sibling. At 185.8 inches (4,720 millimeters) from tip to tail, it’s 5.7 inches (145 mm) longer, 4.6 inches (117 millimeters) of that going into the wheelbase. Mazda’s designers have pushed the shape down and pulled it outwards, not to mention teased out the fenders with big, boxy flares. The end result is a lower, wider rig that looks great all clean, or under a fine layer of trail dirt.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Mazda CX-5 Review: For Those Who Think Young

Our favorite features? The concave surfaces of the black plastic cladding on the wheel wells, subtly reinforcing the shape of the flares. The soft beat of the turn signals is a nice touch cribbed from the CX-30, as well, including the slim, low-mount items up front. Thin taillights, with a great amount of 3D surfacing to them, emphasize just how wide the CX-50 is. To that end, Mazda says this is the widest hood it’s ever installed on a road car. The proportions are what really sell the CX-50, giving it significant road presence without being shouty. It still boasts 8.6 inches (218 mm) of ground clearance, too.

Despite the size, the CX-50 rides on an adapted version of the CX-30 platform, not CX-5. Buyers get the same drivetrain options that they do in either of those SUVS: a pair of 2.5-liter four cylinders, the base engine naturally aspirated and the optional unit turbocharged. Both hook up to a six-speed automatic and standard all-wheel drive. 

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2023 Mazda CX-50 interior and comfort

Climb into the CX-50 interior and there’s an elegance that we’ve come to expect from Mazda. The dashboard is clean and simple, favoring straight lines to once again emphasize the width of the SUV. Early positive signs are the contrast stitching stretching across the dashboard, doors, and seats. Most every touch point is crafted from a soft-touch material, too. Mazda’s steering wheels continue to be some of the best in the business. Large yet with a thin cross-section, and wrapped in smooth leather, it nails an important touch point.

The door panels of this early production model do feel a little brittle, however. We’re also not sold on the strip of plastic surrounding the horizontal vent in the dashboard. Mazda’s designers didn’t go far enough to make the vent “hidden,” resulting in the plastic being the focal point instead. Minor quibbles, none of which stop this from being a much more pleasant space to spend time in than an Outback. Nonetheless, the CX-50 doesn’t feel quite as sure of its premium aspirations as the CX-30 does in the class below.

The optional terracotta leather interior option does spice up the look. Regardless of color, the CX-50 seats are supportive and offer a large range of adjustments, ensuring good comfort for a wide variety of driver shapes and sizes. Thanks to low seat mountings, the CX-50 still offers an okay 38.6 inches (981 mm) of front headroom. Mazda’s first panoramic moonroof beams more sunlight into the cabin, ensuring back-row passengers aren’t left in the dark. Like the CX-5, the CX-50’s rear doors open 90 degrees. The company has carved out fractional legroom gains here, but the important story is that a nearly flat floor means going three up won’t result in a knees-to-chest situation in the middle perch.

Mazda focused on a wide, deep cargo hold with the CX-50. The company says it was to encourage buyers to slide things like large coolers in length-wise. Official measures are 31.4 cubic feet (889 liters) with the seats up, and 56.3 cubes (1,595 L) with them down. In addition, Mazda has prioritized roof storage in a way it never has before, and to that end will offer numerous accessories through its dealerships.

SEE ALSO: Ford Bronco Sport vs Subaru Outback Wilderness Comparison

2023 Mazda CX-50 technology and features

This top-trim CX-50 tester comes with a 10.25-inch infotainment screen set atop the dashboard. In Canada every CX-50 will come so equipped; in the US, lower trims use an 8.8-inch unit. It includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but the bigger news is that both of those now feature touchscreen functionality. Yes, Mazda has heard our complaints … but there’s a catch. The touch controls are defaulted to off, and users need to dive into the menus to turn it on. What’s more, the setting probably isn’t where you’d expect; it’s under the individual paired phone. Beyond that, the screen’s position deep within the dashboard means its best-suited for passengers to poke around only. Well, when stationary, since touch doesn’t work in motion. So close, Mazda, yet so far.

The standard rotary dial controller set in the center console still works well within the main menus, but it’s unpredictable in phone apps.

Other premium goodies are more welcome, specifically the head-up display and surround-view monitor. The optional 12-speaker Bose stereo puts out crisp, powerful sounds, too.

Mazda’s entire lineup achieves an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ safety rating, and although the CX-50 has yet to be tested, it’s expected to do the same. It features the usual smattering of driver assists, such as automated emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and full-range adaptive cruise control. Higher trims add the afore-mentioned 360-degree camera, rear automatic brake assist, parking sensors, and Mazda’s Traffic Jam Assist, which combines the cruise and lane assists. It works well.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness Review: First Drive

2023 Mazda CX-50 driving impressions

One word keeps popping up in our driving notes: smooth. The CX-50 is predictably excellent on the road, sure-footed and confident. The massaged proportions manage to make the CX-50 feel more four-square than the CX-5, yet no larger to place on the road. Steering effort is higher than the competition, but that lends the CX-50 added confidence.

Mazda encouraged us to flit through the MI-Drive drive mode selector. Normal, Sport, and Off-Road are available during regular use; when a trailer is connected, Towing replaces Sport. Normal is well-judged for everyday use, providing linear throttle response. The peak 320 lb-ft of torque hits early, allowing drivers to ride the wave, with just the faintest whoosh from up ahead. The transmission could use another gear or two for highway efficiency, but it shifts smoothly and predictably. Drop into Sport mode and the throttle response gets sharper, while the ‘box holds ratios for longer.

Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control also subtly alters its methods, sending more torque to the rear axle under acceleration, and less when cornering. Even during Normal mode, GVC subtly dips engine torque as the CX-50 enters a corner, to improve turn-in bite. It’s wholly natural in feeling, and the resulting improvement in steering feedback and consistency makes the CX-50 seriously good on the tarmac.

SEE ALSO: Toyota RAV4 vs Nissan Rogue Comparison

Of course, the CX-50 is about off-road as much as on. To that end we pointed it down a light trail and switched to Off-Road mode. Again, smoothness: Mazda’s engineering team aimed to minimize corrections and improve stability on the loose stuff, and it has succeeded. The added ride height meant clearing rocks was easier, too. If there’s a limiting factor here, it’s the short sidewalls of the CX-50’s 20-inch tires. The upcoming Meridian edition will rectify this with chunky 18-inch all-terrain tires, and the requisite off-roader graphics. Mazda kept mum on that one during the day, however—and the upcoming Apex Edition.

Mazda rates the CX-50 to a maximum of 3,500 lb, so we did a short loop with a 3,470-pound trailer slung out back. In essence, Towing mode does the same trick as Off-Road, tweaking the transmission, AWD, and GVC to boost stability. Switching in and out of the mode, it was clear that it minimized the need for steering corrections, but in a way that felt natural.

Start-stop tech is standard on the Turbo, helping it hit 23 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined. Canadian figures are 10.4, 8.1, and 9.4 L/100 km, respectively. The nat-asp mill uses cylinder deactivation, scoring slightly better figures. For those looking for even more savings at the pump, a Toyota-sourced hybrid drivetrain will be arriving in the near future.

2023 Mazda CX-50 pricing and competition

In the US, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 will start from $28,025 including destination. As if Mazda’s targeting weren’t clear, that’s just $295 shy of the opening bid on a 2022 Subaru Outback. Both cars come with their respective naturally-aspirated mills and AWD as standard. Opting for the turbocharged motor will run you at least $37,625; our loaded-up tester crossed the line at $43,170, including that new Zircon Sand Metallic paint.

Canada’s trim walk is simplified, focusing only on higher trims. The “base” is thus the well-equipped GS-L at $39,850 CAD, and the $44,800 GT model above that. The turbo engine is a $2,500 upgrade on the GT, with every paint except black extracting an additional $250 to $450. The Terracotta leather is another $200 surcharge, bringing the final tally to $47,750 CAD.

That’s a decent amount of coin on either side of the border. The CX-50’s more premium feel goes a long way towards justifying that, however.

SEE ALSO: Hyundai Tucson Hybrid vs Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Comparison: Fuel-Sipping Family Haulers

Final Thoughts: 2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review

Like the CX-3 and CX-30 before it, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 differentiates itself enough from its older sibling. Also like those two, the double-digit offering threatens to make the single-digit irrelevant, with a more rounded package that might appeal to more buyers. The CX-3 still soldiers on in Canada, but it’s not surprising the US said no when the CX-30 is so good.

Listen to Mazda tell it, and the company believes there’s three sub-sections of the market: one prioritizing on-road behavior, another looking for trail-based adventures, and the third group with no preference one way or the other. It sees the urbane CX-5 on one end of the spectrum and this CX-50 on the other. That’s all well and good, but in its current form, CX-50 makes so little on-road concessions that we see it appealing to more people. Whether that cannibalizes some of Mazda’s best-seller’s figures remains to be seen. Either way, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 proves Mazda can play off-road, too. It should be another win for the brand.


FAQs

  • How much does a 2023 Mazda CX-50 cost? 
    • The new model starts from $28,025 ($39,850 CAD), including destination. Canada’s lineup skips over the lowest equivalent trims, which is why the price is comparatively high.
  • When can you buy the 2023 Mazda CX-50?
    • Mazda’s latest compact SUV should be trickling into dealerships right around now. Production started in January.
  • Does the 2023 Mazda CX-50 have a third row?
    • No it does not; you’re looking for the Mazda CX-9 there.

Discuss this story on our Mazda CX-50 forum

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