The 2023 Mazda CX-50 has three selectable driving modes: normal, sport, and off-road. The little Mi-Drive switch beside the gear lever, of course, makes this a statement of fact, but it's also a pretty apt figurative description of the CX-50's whole vibe. This car is a bit of a shapeshifter.
It can go from competently crawling up a snowy, icy slope one moment to carving up a bendy, dry backroad the next. And then when you want it to calm down as a civil, smooth commuter vehicle to take you home, it's real good at that too. Normal, sport, off-road—the transitions are seamless.
2023 Mazda CX-50 Specs
Mazda might be one of the last automakers you think of when you think "butch" but the CX-50 aims to buck that image. It's lower and wider than the CX-5, more squat—its punchy fender flares make it look like a CX-5 that's been hitting the gym, eating nothing but unseasoned, grilled chicken breast, and can come in really handy when it comes time to move apartments. Nonetheless, it does this while still retaining Mazda's attractive design language with its squared-off Kodo-design grille, heartbeat turn signals, and Mazda's ever-dazzling Soul Red paint.
Just like the outside, the CX-50's interior is a blockier, more rugged interpretation of the Mazda look and layout. The HVAC vents are truckishly vertical and shapes are more square, but, in typical Mazda fashion, the details remain relatively fancy for the price. Knobs are knurled, the chrome is tasteful, and slightly whimsical orange stitching and squishy leather adorns the dash and door cards. Compared to the CX-5 Signature, however, it does feel slightly lower rent. This may be down to personal preference, but I miss that vehicle's wood trim and more car-like style. CX-50 also seems to use hard plastic in more places than the CX-5 does.
There are two engine choices with the CX-50: a base 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder making 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque or a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque on regular fuel. The turbo's figures bump up to 256 and 320, respectively, if you opt for 93 octane. The CX-50 tested here is, of course, the turbo.
Driving the Mazda CX-50
At this point, no one should be surprised at a Mazda product that drives way better than it has to but—feign shock and awe, everybody—the CX-50 is excellent behind the wheel. It's easy, intuitive, and comfortable all around. The way it steers, accelerates, rides, and stops: none of it's too light, floaty, hard, or twitchy. It's just right. The brake pedal, in my view, deserves special commendation for being one of the most friendly and well-calibrated ones I've ever encountered regardless of segment or price, and hands-down the best in this car's arena.
The steering is positive, responsive, and feels way more attached to what's going on underneath you than what you get in other crossovers like this. The steering wheel rim itself too is thin and sporty, like it came off of a Porsche. Highway cruising is smooth while city crawling is trivial, and that turbo powerplant creates more than enough power and torque for normal driving. Even when taken onto a twisty road, it feels at home. There are sedans out there that aren't this competent or fun.
And because I happened to drive this thing while there was still snow on the ground, I can indeed attest that a CX-50 with AWD and Pirelli Scorpion winter rubber will climb up a snowy hill and carve massive powerslides in a parking lot buried in fresh powder with little drama or complaint.
Frankly, the only mainstream crossover that can be compared to this in terms of driving experience is its own CX-5 stablemate. This is likely a deliberate, creative choice on behalf of Mazda's engineers but the CX-50 drives a tad... burlier than CX-5. It feels lower, wider, and heftier because it is lower, wider, and heftier. Even the noise its engine makes is ever-so-slightly more truck-ish. Ride comfort is consistently and appropriately good, but harsher bumps did come with a bit more crashiness than what you'd get from the CX-5 or, like, a Toyota RAV4. The busier ride is far from a dealbreaker, but those looking for ultimate ride comfort may want to keep their options open.
For what it's worth, though, there's a chance Mazda has already gone ahead and addressed these mild dynamic shortcomings because it's already announced that the 2024 model year CX-50 will feature new dampers and recalibrated power steering.
The Highs and Lows
Even before it receives that light update, though, the CX-50 is an attractive, well-driving, well-engineered car all around.
Despite it not being a touchscreen, Mazda's rotary knob-based infotainment system has quickly become one of my favorites in the entire industry. The clean-looking software is simple and clearly designed so that the knob can do most things quickly. Even inputting a location name was relatively trivial. There are just the right amount of shortcut buttons to make traveling between nav, media, home, and bookmarks a cinch and there’s a proper volume knob in a logical, comfortable place. A lot of automakers could stand to learn a lot from this system.
The rear seats are appropriately spacious, with lots of legroom thanks to a sizeable cubby underneath the front seats where you can insert your feet while headroom feels about average for the class. One final pro to shout out is the fact that washer fluid comes out of the wipers, a luxury car-esque touch that cuts down on overspray and makes for a better clean.
As good as the CX-50 is, there remains room for improvement. For example, the driver's seat bottom isn’t quite as comfy or supportive as I’d like. And again, the interior materials are notably less nice to me than the ones found in the CX-5 Signature—there’s a particularly unsightly seam between the top of the dash and the middle vent area. It's inconsequential, I know, but it sticks out.
Mazda CX-50 Features, Options, and Competition
The 2023 Mazda CX-50 starts at $28,175. Standard equipment includes an 8.8-inch infotainment screen, eight speakers, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a seven-inch LCD gauge display, 17-inch wheels, and the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine. On the other end of the spectrum, the top-of-the-line Turbo Premium Plus car packs the turbo motor, heated rear seats, ventilated and heated front seats, a wireless phone charger, and 12-speaker Bose audio, among other luxuries. There are precisely seven other trims in between the base and Premium Plus, but for reference, the latter starts at $42,925.
The trim walk is different in Canada where this tester hails from but, for what it's worth, this top GT Turbo example costs $47,950 CAD as tested, per Mazda Canada's spec sheet.
Shoppers in this segment are spoiled for choice. Everybody knows about the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which are solid buys if you're OK with not having the most exciting or interesting thing on your driveway. There's also the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage for those looking for Korean value and style. The Ford Escape and its much sicker and surprisingly capable Bronco Sport sibling may be worth a look, too. But if it were my money, the sheer fashion and luxury car-mimicking quality of the Mazda CX-50 and CX-5 are hard to beat.
According to the EPA, the CX-50 gets 23 mpg in the city, 29 on the highway, and 25 combined, which is appropriate for this sort of car and matches its all-wheel-drive Hyundai Tucson rival. The Honda CR-V, however, gets 29 combined mpg thanks to a liter of less displacement while the 2.5-liter Toyota RAV4 bests them all with 30 mpg presumably thanks to Toyota Efficiency Witchcraft.
Most competitors also offer hybrid versions of their compact crossovers which obviously boast even better numbers than these, but Mazda remains one of the few electrification holdouts in this segment.
Value and Verdict
When it comes to compact crossovers, most examples only specialize in (at most) two out of these three: daily ability, off-road prowess, and backroad huckability. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 are great at the normal day-to-day stuff but aren’t very exciting to hoon or very capable off-road. The Subaru Forester dominates on a trail thanks to symmetrical AWD but, as avid readers of The Drive may vividly recall, struggles as a car you’d wanna live with on the daily. Mazda's own CX-5, meanwhile, is mighty sporty and a properly nice commuter but I suspect isn’t quite as burly or good off-road as this.
The CX-50 somehow successfully straddles all three. Starting in the high-$20,000s and topping out in the $40,000s, the Mazda CX-50 is priced right in line with its competitors and exudes a versatile personality that puts it right at the top of the class. As a city dweller who rarely does any sort of off-road work, the only mainstream compact crossover I'd have over this would probably be the more pedestrian-but-luxurious CX-5.
Imagine being so good at building compact crossovers that the only one that can really compare to your new compact crossover is, well, your other compact crossover. Like having to choose whether you'd like your CX-50 painted Soul Red Crystal or Zircon Sand Metallic, it's a good problem to have.
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