Muddying the Waters

2023 Mazda CX-50 has a tough exterior, but is refined on the inside.
Jan 6, 2023
Barry Spyker

Mazda’s latest compact SUV, the CX-50, already is gaining traction, saddling up comparatively alongside the Japanese carmaker’s top seller, the CX-5. So what gives? What does the CX-50 add to the lineup, besides a zero at the end?

The 2023 CX-50 is the sibling who likes to play in the dirt. It looks more rugged and is more rugged — it even has an off-road drive mode. And, it has a greater towing capacity so it can pull a small boat or camper to that favorite spot by the lake. I guess that explains why Mazda calls it an “adventure crossover.”

It’s also five inches longer and two inches wider than the CX-5, has a firmer suspension and standard all-wheel-drive. One more distinction: It’s not even based on the CX-5 but rather, the CX-30.

It wears rugged body cladding all around, from front to rear and around the wheel wells. Its wide stance and smooth profile, high-strength roof rails, and reinforced B-pillars help secure outdoor equipment. The CX-50 also introduces new Mazda colors to accent the outdoor vibe, like Zircon Sand Metallic outside with terra-cotta inside.

Power is generated by a 2.5-liter inline-four engine that comes in two versions: a naturally-aspirated version that’s good for 187-horsepower, or the preferred turbocharged plant that is found in higher trims like the Premium Plus (one of 9 trims). That one gets 256-hp and a solid 320 pound-feet of torque, which boosts towing cap to 3,500 pounds.

Both are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that delivers power to all four wheels. It’s a smooth-shifting tranny and it finds the right gear at the right time.

The result is a CX-50 turbo that is plenty brisk on the road, accelerating to 60 mph in just under 7 seconds and hitting 80 mph in around 12 seconds. That’s among the quickest in its class.

That’s only half the fun. It’s also one of the best handlers in a segment that includes Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage and Subaru Forester. Its firm suspension (firmer than its foes) keeps it stable and well poised on corners. Steering is on the heavy side, especially around town, but it’s quick to respond.

The sacrifice for better handling is a firmer ride on asphalt, and a dash of road noise from wider tires wrapped around 20-inch wheels doesn’t help. Still, the CX-50 manages to tame the potholes and railroad tracks and keep the passengers comfortable.  

Three drive modes make adjustments for conditions. Most of the time Normal mode will suffice; Sport mode peps up engine response, but seems to do little for steering or suspension. The Premium Plus Turbo adds a Towing mode.

Finally, Off-Road offers a responsive traction control system for improved grip on rougher terrain. With a ground clearance of 8.6 inches, it inspires confidence on mud, gravel and sandy trails. But look elsewhere for hardcore off-roading: It is not equipped to be a rock crawler.

Fuel economy is somewhere in the middle of the pack. The turbo engine loses only 1 mpg to the base, so no worries there. It gets an EPA-estimated 29 mpg highway, 23 city, with a combined figure of 25. Estimated annual fuel cost is $1,750, for those doing the math.

The cabin retains a rugged look, yet is impressive in its refinement and elegance. Soft-touch panels are everywhere and stitching, fit and finish are impeccable. Heated and ventilated seats, front and rear, are exquisite in the terra-cotta trim.

Seats up front are well bolstered, comfortable and roomy for six-footers. Driver and passenger seat are power adjustable, with lumbar feature going to the weary driver. Rear seats are ok for kids, but less so for full-size humans. Access is easy with rear doors that open extra wide.

There are plenty of nooks and crannies to store stuff, including large door pockets, and a glass-sliding moonroof sheds light on them. Cargo space is lean versus rivals, especially considering it’s built for adventure. It’s probably adequate for most with 31.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats. The rear seats fold flat to avail another 25 cubes.

The Mazda Connect interface uses a 10.25-inch screen controlled by a dial on the center console. Oddly, it has touchscreen functionality but only when operating Apple CarPlay or Android Auto; at least wireless connectivity is offered with both. Operation is a little sluggish sometimes. Also, the infotainment screen is recessed and may not be an easy reach for all.   

Navigation has good graphics, and voice commands can be used to input addresses. Climate is controlled the old-fashioned way, with buttons and knobs for quicker changes. A 12-speaker Bose audio system is a top-shelf addition to the Turbo Premium Plus.

Behind the heated steering wheel is a programmable digital display flanked by analog tach, speedo and other gauges. A head-up display has pertinent driver data including cruise control conditions and road-sign recognition.  

CX-50 comes with a competitive suite of safety and driver-assist features, including adaptive cruise control, traffic-jam assist, 360-degree monitors, adaptive headlights, lane-keep assist and lane-departure warning, and driver attention alert. 

This is the first model from the Japanese carmaker coming from a new Huntsville, Alabama factory, part of a joint venture with Toyota. 

If you like to get dirty and dabble in off-road territory, the CX-50 belongs in your sights. For hardcore off-road types, Mazda plans to go one better with the Meridian Edition, due out later in the model year. 

Barry Spyker was the automotive editor and columnist for the Miami Herald.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus

MSRP: $43,170 (Includes navigation with 10.25-inch screen, wireless phone charging, head-up display, 12-speaker Bose audio system, heated/ventilated front and rear seats)

What’s all the excitement about? Turbo power, crisp handling and an off-road drive mode, plus  towing capacity up to 3,500 pounds

Powertrain: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine produces 256 hp and 320 pound-feet of torque; Mated to 6-speed automatic transmission

How’s the performance? Quicker than most rivals with 0-60 mph in just under 7 seconds; All-wheel-drive plus off-road drive mode/traction control system enhance grip on muddy trails

Fuel economy: EPA-estimates 23 mpg city, 29 highway, for 25 combined but that may be optimistic in real-world driving.

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