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Quite sporty, but needs more

Quite sporty, but needs more

mazda cx-50 full overview

We admire Mazda’s commitment to making cars with great handling, but the all-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 shows how a good thing can go too far. Car enthusiasts will find the CX-50 entertaining (if not always enjoyable) on a twisty road, and its off-road traction and towing stability are impressive. However, Mazda seems to have overlooked the fact that most midsize SUVs live off-the-curve lives, and the CX-50 disappoints some in terms of day-to-day roominess.

A Mazda SUV for the Rest of Us

Before we get taken off the manufacturer’s greeting card list, a little recap: the all-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 is a five-passenger compact SUV designed expressly for the U.S. and Canadian markets. It addresses what some might see as gaps in Mazda’s compact CX-5, with more room for passengers and cargo and better towing and off-road capabilities. While most Mazdas are imported, the CX-50 is built in Alabama at a new factory operated jointly with Toyota.

Compared to the CX-5, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is about 6.5 inches longer and 3.0 inches wider, with about an inch more ground clearance (exact figure varies by size wheels and tires), but a 2.0-inch lower roofline. The CX-50’s boxy body flares out at the bottom like a set of bell bottoms to emphasize the CX-50’s greater width, while black fender cladding emphasizes its off-road intentions. While it would seem logical to build a long-wheelbase CX-5, the CX-50 shares its platform (and torsion beam rear axle) with Mazda’s smallest CX-30.

The CX-50’s interior is classy and upscale as expected; we particularly liked the contrast-colored stitching and two-tone upholstery on our Premium Plus review model. But the back seat lacks headroom; when equipped with the panoramic sunroof, it has 1.5 inches less noggin space than the CX-5. Cargo space, at 31.4 cubic feet, is just 0.5 cubic feet more than the CX-5 and about 6.0 cubic feet less than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Like the CX-30, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 offers two powertrains: a pair of 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines, one turbocharged and one no. Mazda gave us a taste of the turbo engine, which develops between 227 and 256 horsepower and 310 and 320 lb-ft of torque depending on whether you use 87 or 93 octane gasoline. It’s a gem of engine, with strong overtaking power up to triple-digit speeds. But we can’t imagine living with the non-turbo 2.5, which delivers 187 hp and 186 lb-ft. This engine is about adequate in the CX-30, and the CX-50 weighs 320 pounds more than this vehicle, so how is that going to work? Mazda’s aging six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive are standard, and fuel economy ratings are decent (25 to 27 mpg in the EPA combined cycle), but fall short of class leaders. Mazda plans to add a Toyota-sourced hybrid powertrain as an option in the not-too-distant future.

Ideal for curves

It’s no surprise that the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is at its best on a twisty, winding road, where its admirably precise steering and well-damped suspension give the kind of precision we’ve come to expect from a German sports car. Mazda’s G-Vectoring system intelligently uses the center and rear differentials to control weight transfer; among his tricks, he keeps the weight on the front to refine the turns. Few cars (and even fewer SUVs) react as intuitively to steering commands as the CX-50 – like the Miata, you can practically think about it through curves.

But as talented as the CX-50 is, you can’t say it’s always enjoyable. The steering, while exceptionally precise, is also heavy. The ride is pretty firm, and in the chassis’ heroic effort to keep all four tire contact patches glued to the ground, the CX-50 hops and weaves over uneven pavement. It seems that even Mazda’s suspension magic can’t overcome the handling problems of a torsion beam rear axle. We also felt the vague tug of steering torque at certain engine speeds, especially when exiting corners. And remember we mentioned the width of the CX-50? On some narrow roads, the CX-50 felt as big as a full-size pickup. We were able to make quick progress over the tougher sections, but our speed was hard earned—the CX-50 felt like it was working against us rather than with us.

Those rough roads made up less than 30 minutes of the roughly five hours we had behind the wheel of the CX-50, and we spent the other four and a half hours dealing with the aftermath. The ultra-precise steering feels reckless on the road and requires constant correction. If we looked at the small central screen to change radio stations, we’d look up to find the CX-50 heading into the next lane. Normally, a lane-centering system would offer some relief (on the highway, at least), but Mazda doesn’t believe in it; instead, it has lane departure warning that doesn’t do any warning until you’ve practically hit the mirrors with the car next to you. Mazda says the driver should always be careful, and of course that’s correct, but it makes us doubt the usefulness of the system. Hard driving and lots of road noise rounded out the experience and made us wish our ride could have been shortened by an hour or two.

Driving modes

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 offers several drive modes, which Mazda has staunchly avoided in the past. We looked for a stark difference between Normal and Sport modes, but Mazda intentionally avoided it; the company’s idea is that drive modes should not change the character of the car, but rather preserve it, in other words, ensure a consistent driving experience even when conditions change.

It’s a notable goal, but it also misses the point somewhat. In our view, one of the purposes of multiple driving motions is to give the driver a break from less demanding conditions. Good as the CX-50 was on this twisty path (and yes, we tried it in Normal and Sport modes; the differences were quite subtle), it would have been a lot less tiring on average roads if we had been able to dial in the effort steering and off-center response. Adjustable suspension with a smoother ride and a true lane-centering system would have been nice, but probably too much to ask.

Mazda’s philosophy works best on dirt and gravel surfaces, where Off Road mode makes the car react like it does on dry pavement. Over rough enough terrain to put a wheel in the air, the CX-50 did a great job of getting power to the ground. Unfortunately, the CX-50 doesn’t have a downhill mode, which Mazda considers a gimmick. It might be, but after descending a steep, loose grade while trying to modulate the brakes with the CX-50 in a half slide, we were reminded that a gadget that provides the peace of mind is really helpful.

CX-50s with the turbocharged engine can tow up to 3,500 pounds. We were lucky enough to tow at full capacity and were impressed with the stability of the SUV. The CX-50 has a tow drive mode (which overrides Sport when a trailer is connected) which again uses the center differential to shift weight forward and improve steering response. We found the difference too subtle to notice, but to be fair, a strong sense of self-preservation kept us from jerking the steering wheel with the trailer attached.

A lot of choices

Mazda plans to launch nine versions of the 2023 CX-50, starting with the naturally aspirated 2.5 S. Priced at $28,025, it includes all-wheel drive, adaptive cruise control, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. The non-turbo 2.5 model will be offered in S, Select, Preferred, Preferred Plus, Premium and Premium Plus trim levels, while the turbocharged 2.5 will be offered in Turbo, Premium and Premium Plus models. We drove the latter, priced at $42,725 with dual-zone climate control, power tailgate, panoramic sunroof, Bose stereo and leather seats (heated and air-conditioned in the front and heated in the rear). A 10th model, the premium Meridian Edition, will feature black wheels, off-road tires and hood graphics; Mazda has yet to announce its price.

Overall, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is an SUV that average drivers will likely find too determined. Mazda has focused on making the CX-50 perform well in the curves, and that’s an admirable trait, but it comes at the expense of everyday comfort. And while rear room and cargo space are better than the CX-5, they’re not best-in-class specs.

Perhaps the use of the CX-30 platform was a mistake by Mazda, as the CX-5 has a much better ride compromise, and perhaps a simple stretch of this longtime favorite would have worked better. Adjustable steering feel and damping – and more noise isolation – would make the CX-50 a much more livable SUV.

This seems good! More details?

2023 Mazda CX-50 2.5T Premium Plus Specifications

ARRANGEMENT Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
MOTOR 2.5 L/256 hp/310 lb-ft DOHC 16-valve inline 4-cylinder direct injection turbo
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
UNLOADED WEIGHT 3,907 pounds (manufacturer)
WHEELBASE 110.8 inches
L x W x H 185.8 x 75.6 x 63.9 inches
0-60MPH 8.1 s (MT east)
EPA FUEL ECONOMY 23/29/25 mpg (east)
ON SALE Spring 2022