If the CX-50 is the Mazda's attempt at beating Subaru at its own game, then this Meridian Edition is aimed right for the successful Wilderness models. This is the slightly more off-roady version of the Japanese automaker's mid-size crossover. It gets unique 18-inch wheels, Falken Wildpeak AT tires, and a matte-black hood decal among other trim pieces.
I've typically approached these off-road versions of modern crossovers with skepticism. They can appear to be more style than substance, without any meaningful hardware upgrades beyond tires and perhaps a slight lift. A play at the overlanding crowd… or at least those who want to ape the overland aesthetic. Plus, in the case of Mazda, this is a sporty brand. Why is it doing this?
There was no need for worry. The Meridian Edition appears to be a real sweet spot in the CX-50 range, and even if you never take it off road, may be the one to get.
Where the CX-50 Turbo rides on 20-inch wheels and lower-profile tires that my colleague Brian Silvestro says contribute to an occasionally harsh ride, the Meridian Edition's 18-inch alloys and 60-profile tires give it exceptional comfort. I did not take advantage of the Meridian's off-road capability, but over crumbling city streets, the extra cushion is much appreciated. Of course, this comes at the expense of higher tread noise at highway speeds, but it's not too loud, so the tradeoff seems well worth it. Plus, the Meridian Edition doesn't totally spoil the Mazda's sporting character.
The people at Mazda care about vehicle dynamics a lot, and it's very evident with the CX-50. It feels sharp and taut, even though the Meridan's off-road tires don't naturally lend themselves to enthusiastic driving. Mazda products usually feel of a piece. The rate of response from the steering and the throttle and brake pedals are evenly matched, and this helps produce a smooth, cohesive driving experience. Achieving this requires putting a lot of effort into the little details, things other automakers often gloss over. It makes simple driving tasks, grocery-store runs, commutes, and highway slogs a pleasure.
So too does the engine itself. While the base CX-50 gets a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the Meridian Edition gets a turbo for 256 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. It's the perfect engine for this sort of car, with a strong emphasis on low- and mid-range torque. The engine is smooth and quiet, too, and in typical Mazda fashion delivers good fuel economy of 23 mpg city, 29 highway, and 25 combined. While so many automakers have gone to automatic transmissions with seven or more gears, Mazda still uses a six-speed here, and frankly, it's a refreshing change of pace. There's no hunting or shuffling through a series of super-short gears for a quick burst of acceleration. Sure, you don't get super-quick responses from the paddle shifters, but no one buying this sort of car expects that.
The interior feels very upscale for the price, as we've become accustomed to with Mazda, and the dark brown leather trim is a particular highlight. It's very minimalist with just a simple digital screen replacing the traditional speedometer and, a rarity in our modern world, an analog tachometer, plus fuel and temperature gauges. There aren’t crazy levels of configurability or haptic touch pads or screens for screen's sake or any of the other silly things that annoy us in modern cars. The climate controls even use knobs and buttons. What a thought!
Mazda's infotainment system is divisive, though. It's very simple, and controlled only with a rotary knob in the center console. The touch screen only works for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Mazda argues this is better for keeping drivers focused on the road, though it is unconventional in today's touchscreen world. Give it a try before you commit to the car, though I will say I got used to it pretty quickly, as the menu structure is very intuitive.
Equipment wise, the Meridian Edition won't leave most wanting. Perhaps the most notable exclusions are a heated steering wheel and cooled seats—both of which come on the CX-50 Turbo Premium and Premium Plus. But across the CX-50 range, you get adaptive cruise-control and lane-keep assist, so what more do you need? Of course, the only difference between the CX-50 Turbo and Meridian is the wheels/tires and some exterior trim, so you could just save a couple thousand and get that, but then you're stuck with the 20s. And frankly, the Meridian edition just looks cool. Apparently I like some overlanding style myself.
With its MSRP of $42,175, the CX-50 Meridian's Subaru equivalent is the $41,225 Outback Wilderness. The Subaru is a bit bigger, but the Mazda is just the nicer car in every way. The extra $1000 gets you something that feels a lot more premium and is sweeter to drive. With its more traditional all-wheel-drive system, the Outback is perhaps the better off-roader, but no one's buying these things for anything more challenging than a dirt road.
Perhaps then, Mazda isn't beating Subaru at its own game. It's just making a better car.
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