By on March 28, 2022

There’s an argument to be made Mazda is the little car company that could. Representing a sliver of the American market compared to its larger competitors, the Hiroshima-made vehicles are typically infused with the type of driving fun that’s seemingly been surgically removed from the vehicles with which it competes.

Actually, the term ‘Hiroshima-made’ is no longer totally correct. With the introduction of the 2023 CX-50 crossover you see on these digital pages, Mazda now has a manufacturing footprint in this country to the annual tune of 150,000 vehicles. It’s only fitting they’d deploy this new capability for the type of rig most Americans prefer: An all-wheel-drive crossover with an off-road attitude.

(Full disclosure: Mazda flew me to California for this drive program and housed me in a pleasant Santa Barbara hotel. Their burgers were tasty.)

The 2023 CX-50 has been designed for the North American market, says Mazda, and will only be sold on this side of the pond for now. Note the ‘for now’. Oddball naming conventions notwithstanding, the CX-50 shares little with a CX-5, and all its body panels are new, according to our translator-assisted conversation with the lead designer from Japan. It retains the typically handsome Mazda style while infusing a bit of off-road sneer by swapping round headlights for ones that are more square, extra black cladding that has a bit of depth, and a palette of new paint choices.

Sitting on a different platform, it measures 6.7 inches longer in total length on a wheelbase spanning 4.6 inches more vast compared to the CX-5. Width is up by just over 3 inches, largely thanks to those flared hips, but the overall height is shorn by 2.2 inches. Cargo volume jumps by only half a cube but it’s worth noting the CX-50 cargo area is notably longer from seatback to tailgate in an apparent effort to cater to lifestyle types who’ll probably be packing Yeti coolers adorned with stickers from a local dispensary.

How does this translate in the real world? Your author, who measures 6’6” in his size 13 stocking feet, was astonished to have ample headroom in the front row of seats even with our tester’s panoramic moonroof (Mazda’s first, by the way). This was unexpected given the CX-50 packs an extra inch of ground clearance compared to the CX-5 but is lower overall to the top of its roof. Doctor Who fans can insert their own joke here about this car’s TARDIS-like ability to be unexpectedly bigger on the inside. Urchins relegated to the back seat will find similarly spacious accommodations, though those of us with NBA-like stature may find their pate connects with the roof more than they’d like.

The interior is typical Mazda, which is to say it looks a lot more expensive than the sticker price suggests. Soft-touch surfaces abound, including a supple spear of leather with impressive stitching underneath the climate vents. Pod-like registers on either side of the gauge cluster are a new Mazda design, and it works well.

Mazda has finally relented on their ‘no touchy the screen’ edict which barred users from making any infotainment inputs via the central tablet-style unit and instead directed them to a control dial and hard buttons mounted on the center console. While the stated goal of reducing driver distraction is laudable, using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto with the dial has always been a headache since those UX platforms were explicitly designed for touch inputs. For now, Mazda is only relenting on permitting touch inputs for those two smartphone integration tools and not their native software. We’ll see if that changes.

Under the hood is a choice of familiar engines – a 2.5-liter four-banger making 187 horsepower and a like amount of torque. A turbocharged mill good for 256 ponies and 320 lb-ft of twist is offered further up the food chain. Given the CX-50 assignment of pushing Mazda toward a slightly more off-road demographic, all-wheel drive is standard across the board. There’s a six-speed automatic handling gear changes and while it may be down a couple of cogs in gear count compared to the competition, its behavior beats the tar out of any miserable CVT found in other machines. There are driving modes for Sport and Off-Road, plus one for Towing.

Interestingly, one of the development leads told this author that the different driving modes are not meant to make the car feel different. Say what? Their goal, he explained, is to make the CX-50 feel broadly the same over a variety of different surfaces. In other words, the control system is designed to permit the same level of Mazda handling sharpness it has on pavement when it either hits the dirt or hooks up to a 3,500-pound trailer.

Mazda has always marched to its own drumbeat, one which generally has included driving fun as part of its mission statement, so the desire to use their G Vectoring Control in a unique way on this new model was key to program goals.

And it works. Flicking the CX-50 around a loose gravel surface at 35 mph in Off-Road mode produced a largely seamless experience, one in which the car didn’t pitch or scravel for traction when asked to wildly change direction. Driving the same route in Normal mode resulted in more wiggling of those flared rear wheel arches and an absence of that sharp Mazda handling we’ve come to expect. Ditto during towing, where turning off the Towing mode introduced a wander the type usually undertaken by dads in a new hardware store. Note that Towing mode only appears when a trailer’s wiring is connected and kicks Sport mode off the roster. Thanks to this, the system requires a Mazda-sourced harness and hitch, so don’t think you can run down to U-Haul and buy a hitch for this thing. A trailer brake is also absent but that’s less of a big deal on a machine with a 3,500lb max tow rating.

The trick is the proper deployment of that G Vectoring Control – which is not, it should be noted, torque vectoring in a true sense – and its ability to gently cut a minuscule amount of torque to certain wheels to imperceptibly shift the car’s weight distribution in response to driver inputs. In certain handling situations, this will ‘load up’ the front tires and smooth out handling.

Once CX-50 engineers were tasked with developing Off-Road and Towing modes, they could take advantage of GVC for more than just providing crisp on-pavement response. The system, with a cacophony of clicks and metallic grunts, shoved the CX-50 up a 25-degree dirt incline without much issue. We’ll note the Goodyear tires Mazda is fitting to these machines are tarmac-tuned, so customers who swap them for a more aggressive set of all-terrains should see even more off-road bite.

There will be two different production lines at the production facility in Alabama. Toyota will be making its vehicle on a line dubbed ‘Apollo’ while Mazda takes control of the Discovery line. The significance of using these names at a pair of companies that have historically aimed for the stars is not lost on TTAC authors.

Mazda engineers took great pains to tell us these two lines are truly separate since their development and engineering processes are quite different from those at Toyota, resulting in a situation a world apart from other joint ventures in which the same car is produced on both lines and then different badges slapped on during final assembly. The arrangement sounds more like two friends splitting the rent so they can afford to live in a tony part of town – after all, having production lines in America for American-bound vehicles has tremendous advantages from logistics to eliminating pricing fluctuations due to a yo-yoing Yen.

The base trim of the Mazda CX-50 will have an MSRP of $26,800 and rise to $36,400 when equipped with the standard engine. Turbo models pick up right where that pricing leaves off, topping out at $41,550. They’ll be in dealers this quarter.

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 won’t steal sales from rigs like the similarly-sized Cherokee Trailhawk – an absence of lockers and 4-Lo takes care of that – but it will be on the list of shoppers looking at machines like the new Trailsport line of rigs at Honda. It’s more than capable enough to tackle that two-mile dirt trail to an overlanding campsite yet retains the Mazda DNA which makes it sharp on pavement compared to its competitors. Toss in a head-of-class interior and you’ve got an attractive package from the little car company that could.

[Images: Mazda, © 2022 Matthew Guy/TTAC]

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40 Comments on “2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive – Treading New Ground...”


  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Blazer-esque side windows.

  • avatar
    ajla

    clickamericana.com/wp-content/uploads/Vintage-1974-Gran-Torino-
    Elite-1160×1536.jpg

  • avatar
    AK

    Seems like a downgrade from the Cx5.

    Good job Mazda.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      Where was the downgrade? It’s basically the same size, has similar interior with some updates, has about the same room, a little longer cargo area, has more ground clearance, has better tech for off-road driving, and the price is almost the same.

      • 0 avatar
        AK

        It’s bigger (especially wider). I suppose that could be a positive though I wouldn’t consider it so. Better tech for off-roading… sure. That’s where people are taking these. I’m sure I’ll see loads of them with a tent on the roof at Costco, toasting marshmallows in the parking lot.

        Meanwhile the torsion beam rear, ugly styling, less comfortable seats and louder interior noise are all the cons.

        I’m not saying they wont sell these. I’m just saying they made a worse/cheaper CX5 and are selling them to idiots who think they need a little more space while they pretend to be rugged outdoor enthusiasts.

        • 0 avatar
          SPPPP

          I kind of like the styling, though I find the CX-5 more beautiful. The seats look OK to me, but I haven’t had a chance to sit in them for comparison. (Let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that both the CX-50 and the CX-5 give us options of cloth and real leather, in addition to pleather. Mercifully.)

          I guess you have a point about the rear suspension design. On the other hand, I have driven the current CX-5, and I found it competent but unexciting. Though I tend to be a purist in mechanical matters, I think Mazda may be on to something – that it doesn’t matter that much in this application.

          So I don’t really see it as worse, but just a different flavor. With the caveat that I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

          In a world where the Kia Carnival starts at $33,555 and the Chevy Trax costs $22,100, being able to get a CX-50 for $29,300 or a CX-5 for $28,400 (including destination) seems pretty exciting.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Better than a wagon in most every way. Search your feelings…you know it to be true. You’ll still hate it though. But you’d buy your wife one if she wanted it and happilt take it on trips over whatever enthusiast approved $#!+box the interwebs told you to buy.

    I’ll check back to see how the Canadian Cheese D!cks on here manage to insert US politics into this discussion.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      Guilty.

      Signed,
      A CX-9 leasee (indeed, it’s my wife’s car, and yes, it’s what we take on trips because the complaining that happens if we take my wagon is unending).

      I would question whether this is better than a V90 wagon, though. At least for interstate/hotel/Trader Joe’s parking lot duty. Definitely cheaper than the Volvo.

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Hamilton

      Art,
      No US Politics but it looks like mandatory certificates for our friends at the EU. Here is the document:
      https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/13375-Verlenging-van-de-verordening-inzake-het-digitaal-EU-covidcertificaat_nl

    • 0 avatar
      Lynchenstein

      What’s all that about? Are you off your meds?

    • 0 avatar
      Daniel J

      I drive a 2018 Mazda 6 and the other half drives a CX-5.

      Because our roads here in N. Alabama have gotten so crappy over the years, I’ve thought about going to something like this. The CX-5 seats are too narrow and short for me as a daily driver. I’ve been looking an either a Santa Fe or Santa Cruz but this might be a good solution if the seats are a bit better.

    • 0 avatar
      Danddd

      I’ll stay with my 3 series wagon over the CX50 or 5. But if I had to, the CX5.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    So, on-road where you spend 99% of your time, how did it differ behind the wheel from the CX-5? And which would you prefer?

  • avatar
    KOKing

    Mazda’s really taking the old euro adage of ‘same sausage, different lengths’ to heart. At more than a few car lengths, I can’t tell any of the newer Mazdas (or Benz SUVs once again) apart.

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      At least the Mazdas all look good. Merc ranges from handsome to a melting bar of wax.

    • 0 avatar
      Varezhka

      Looking at CX-5, CX-30, MX-30, CX-50, and CX-60, I feel that Mazda mix things just enough to keep things interesting while still keeping a consistent design language. Opinion may vary of course.

      Now VW on the otherhand, I can hardly tell apart their vehicles across brands (VW, Audi, Skoda) let alone the 17 different SUV models within the same VW brand.

  • avatar
    SPPPP

    This looks like a really impressive effort from Mazda. I am not 100% sure why both the CX-5 and this are needed. I wonder if this might replace the CX-5 within a few years. Though, they are on the same platform, so I guess they could keep them both around with relatively low cost.

    • 0 avatar
      Varezhka

      They are actually on a different platform.
      CX-5 is based on Mazda’s updated 6th generation platform (aka. Skyactiv gen. 1.5). It’s a heavily revised version of the platform debuted in 2012. Meanwhile, CX-50 is based on the 7th generation “small” platform shared with the current Mazda3, CX-30, and MX-30.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      It’s good all around – too many of the tall wagons are brain-dulling boring to drive, and way overpriced.
      The wagon wheels need to go, though. Why do manufacturers think that they are necessary? A bit more window glass would be terrific, as well. And do the orange-brown seats look as bad in person as they do in the picture?
      And kudos to Mazda for building ’em in the US, where there will be sold.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    This looks like a decent alternative to the Santa Fe we just got.

    @Matthew Guy: I’m sympathetic to the 6’6″ sunroof dilemma (same height), and I’ve always avoided them for that reason. Our new SF has one that fits me, however.

    By comparison, the SF 2.5 Turbo has 281 HP, 311 ft-lbs torque, and the 8-speed dual clutch transmission (push button). It’s pretty snappy, and provides a pleasant driving experience if you appreciate the way a manual shifts.

    I really like the terra-cotta CX-50 interior in the review. But the infotainment interaction you describe would be maddening, not to mention paying the dealer for a trailer hitch.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      One wonders if an enterprising aftermarket supplier, of the ilk that provides dongles that you can plug into the OBD port to retain certain settings between ignition cycles, will be able to provide a dongle for trailer wiring that will make the car think a Mazda hitch is attached when you go attach a U-Haul hitch.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    “the Hiroshima-made vehicles are typically infused with the type of driving fun that’s seemingly been surgically removed from the vehicles with which it competes.”

    Pathetic automatic scum

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Nice writeup.

    “There’s an argument to be made Mazda is the little car company that could.”
    • There’s also an argument to be made that our friend Mazda has a little bit of a weight problem.
    (I’m not close enough to her to mention it – you tell her)

    [Mazda is starting to look better to me, but then I surf over to rockauto and price out some components like alternators and freak out a little bit. There is a reason my driveway is full of high-volume models.]

    If you can’t build in the U.S., Alabama is a good start.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    I’m normally not a big fan of brown, but that shade is a bit of a looker.

    Any idea whether the touchscreen capability is backward upgradeable? I have my 2021 Mazda3 with the current generation MazdaConnect software and would be curious to investigate.

    Finally where does this stack up sizewise compared to the CX-9? I recently had one as a loaner while my car was being looked at and, though smaller than other cars in its category, the thing felt like a moose. It was too big for what I’d ever need.

    • 0 avatar
      Varezhka

      Based on the dimensions, CX-50 looks like a smaller Subaru Outback. A little shorter, lower, but slightly wider. Seems a good size for me but I’d withhold judgment until I see it in flesh.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    @Matthew:

    I’d be interested to know how the ride quality here is with 20″ wheels and 45-series tires. That’s usually a good recipe for crappy ride quality on anything but glassy-smooth roads. I drove a CX-5 Turbo last year, and it had 19-inch rims with 55-series tires. Ride quality was meh.

    Otherwise, the only observation I have here is that Mazda seems to have figured out how to charge quite a a bit more for a CX-5 – a top of the line Signature CX-5 is $38,000.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    I like this vehicles proportions, options, etc. Looks good, the 2.5t is a nice mill. Price seems about right. I will consider this if I buy in next year or two. Still holding out for a straight six cx-70 though. I do have to say that I find it unacceptable for a newly designed car to have a 6 speed auto in 2022. I believe Mazdas new rwd platforms have 8 gears. I expect that transmission will find it’s way into the cx-50 during it’s lifespan. Should be good for at least 1-2 more mpg and probably help 0-60 as well. That said, an 8 speed transmission, at least, would be a condition of me finding one a home in my driveway.

    • 0 avatar
      Ah_non_e_mouse

      “All CX-60 engine variants will be equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission…”

      https://www.carexpert.com.au/car-news/2023-mazda-cx-60-full-engine-range-on-the-table

      Since the CX-70 and CX-90 are on the same platform one would deduce they will have the same transmission.

  • avatar
    rw33

    I have an 18 CX5 which I’ve loved! But now it’s way too tight with a babyseat in the back. Next car will need to be bigger and I don’t think this upgrades in usable space that much. Throw in the fake vents in the front and the oversized fenders for the non-Meridian trim and I don’t think it looks better. Also it stil uses the 6speed (thankfully no cvt). I’m more excited for the CX70 or even 90.

  • avatar
    deanst

    Same old engine, old transmission, and sub par storage space. I guess it all comes down to image, so this is a step in the right direction. I can’t wait for the era of elevated station wagons to pass. How long did the minivan mania last?

    (I say this is a Mazda owner and enthusiast.)

  • avatar
    legacygt

    I don’t have a problem with this car. I actually find it kind of appealing. But what’s going on with Mazda marketing? We had the CX-_ lineup and it all kind of made sense. Then they introduced the CX-_0 nomenclature and things got very confusing. CX-30 is decidedly less off-road oriented than any CX before it. But now the CX-50 is more off-road oriented than any Mazda crossover. Is this just a matter of the market moving and Mazda trying to catch up?

  • avatar
    Crashdaddy430

    Why does this and the CX-5 exist in the lineup at the same time? I don’t understand why somebody would choose one model over the other. Way too close in size, category, and price.

  • avatar
    1337cr3w

    So when the CX-5 is inevitably phased out at the end of this generation, we’ll have a more expensive replacement in the CX-50 with worse driving dynamics (thanks to the torsion beam), visibility, NVH, and seat comfort.

    Why can’t the US get a Mazda hybrid? The CX-60 looks pretty nice https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a39371226/mazda-cx-60-revealed/

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    The rubberband nail attracting tires need to go as do the undersized windows. They are probably smart to keep the same engines but the old 6 speed needs to go- it’s 2022

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