2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review: Borrowing Subaru’s Playbook To Make Something Special

With bolder looks and even some off-road gadgets, CX-50 has a lot of attitude as compared to its competition.

byPeter Holderith|
2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review: Borrowing Subaru’s Playbook To Make Something Special

The compact SUV segment doesn't have to be boring, but often it just can't help itself. The Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevy Equinox, and a seemingly endless number of cars from other automakers pack the class with a whole lot of meh, which is good for sales and broad appeal, but not so good for being pinned up on the walls of children's bedrooms. That's changing, though, because the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is an honest shot at making the segment a little more special. 

Mazda already makes a very similar vehicle, the CX-5, and it does very well, constituting—quite staggeringly—over 50 percent of the automaker's North American sales. It makes sense to lean into this segment, then, but the CX-50, meant to stand shoulder to shoulder with the recently refreshed CX-5, is cut from a different cloth. It reminded me a lot of Hyundai's charming new Santa Cruz pickup, actually, and follows a recent trend of crossovers being more focused on their off-road capabilities than ever before; think of the CX-50 as what the Ford Bronco Sport is to the Ford Escape and what the Subaru Outback Wilderness is to the regular Outback.

Peter Holderith

2023 Mazda CX-50 Specs

  • Base price (as tested): $28,025 ($43,170)
  • Powertrain: 
    • 2.5-liter inline-four | six-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
    • 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four | six-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
  • Performance
    • NA engine: 187 hp @ 6,000 rpm | 186 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
    • Turbo engine: 256 hp @ 5,000 rpm | 320 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Curb weight: 3,706 to 3,907 pounds
  • Ground clearance: 8.6 inches
  • Off-road angles: 18.0° approach | 18.4° breakover | 25° departure
  • Cargo volume: 31.4 cubic feet | 56.3 with rear seats folded
  • Max towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
  • EPA fuel economy
    • NA engine: 24 mpg city | 30 highway | 27 combined 
    • Turbo engine: 23 mpg city | 29 highway | 25 combined 
  • Quick take: The CX-50 is Mazda's take on a "soft-roader," and it strikes a balance that is unique, appealing, and very Mazda.
  • Score: 8/10

What you should know first is that this car, while similar to the CX-5, does not ride on the same platform. It actually shares its basic underpinnings with the recently revealed CX-30, MX-30, and Mazda 3. The automaker was quick to note that this car also does

not replace the CX-5 in any way. It's just a bit suaver than its existing counterpart, being slightly lower, longer, and wider.

My last sentence gets at the core of what this thing is. It's stylish. It's a lifestyle vehicle. As I mentioned before, it reminded me a lot of the Hyundai Santa Cruz despite not being a pickup. This thing has attitude. It's a car that, despite being very similar dimensionally to a lot of other mundane, yet popular, SUVs, adds up in a lot of small ways to set itself apart. 

I really want to hammer this point home. The CX-5 is already out there, putting the minds of suburbanites at ease alongside the aforementioned offerings from Toyota, Honda, and Chevy. But comparing the CX-50 to those cars isn't really relevant. The closest thing Toyota makes to this car is the Venza; a stylish alternative to a more conventional crossover. Back when he reviewed the Venza, our managing editor Jerry Perez said it "should have been weirder." Is Toyota capable of making weird cars anymore? I'm not so sure. Mazda, on the other hand, sometimes has trouble striking the right balance between weird and practical, with the MX-30 being the most glaring example. With the CX-50, the automaker has found a sweet spot that I hope trickles down into the rest of its lineup.

All CX-50s come standard with a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. The optional premium engine is a 2.5-liter turbocharged unit that produces 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. The standard engine is the naturally aspirated version of this same motor, although I did not get the opportunity to drive a CX-50 equipped with it. Cars with the base engine get a comparatively paltry 187 hp and 186 ft-lbs of torque as compared to their premium-fueled, turbocharged siblings. Bear in mind this car weighs 3,700 pounds with the base engine and 3,900 with the more powerful drivetrain. In a nutshell, more basic CX-50s are probably not going to press you back in your seat. And for those who are a bit more efficiency-conscious, a hybrid CX-50 with a drivetrain sourced from Toyota is coming soon, too.

The outside is where you get a hint of what this thing is meant to do. It's Mazda's design language taken to a place it hasn't been before: it's more squared-off, more rugged. I like it a lot and I think plastic cladding, when done right, really works. This is another place where the CX-50 is similar to the Santa Cruz.

The inside is also a breath of fresh air, even in terms of Mazda's own lineup. I liked the smaller CX-30 when I drove it last year, but it wasn't without its flaws. The inside felt cramped and visibility was poor. Just the same, the switchgear was getting there, but not quite premium-feeling enough. That's changed here. The design on the inside is bold yet practical, the visibility is more than acceptable, and everything feels great. Solid, reassuring clicks define all of the common interactions and everything is arranged in a way that makes sense, even for a first-time user. The interior has a quality to its ergonomics that Toyota is either incapable of or unwilling to achieve.

And here's the part I wasn't expecting to write: this car handled great. It's fun for what it is. Right, I know, every car Mazda makes has a reputation of being the "Miata of its segment," but if you go into driving any Mazda thinking that's going to be literally true, it can distort your perception of the car. Other automakers are also capable of making cars handle well. To keep the comparison going, I thought the Santa Cruz drove exceptionally for what it was. But the CX-50 takes things to a new level. 

The steering is both very accurate and it has plenty of good feel, too. Its weight in corners, as well as at low speeds, is confidence-inspiring and feels very natural. Just the same, the brakes trade the touchy, sharp response of other new cars for an extremely well-weighted pedal that enables supreme precision. Both of these things work well with the car's 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four. It's a solid engine that feels sophisticated enough for the vehicle around it. It sounds fine, it's free of unpleasant vibrations, and its 256 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque are more than it needs—in a good way. It also works well with the car's seemingly outdated but still effective six-speed automatic transmission. Manual gear changes via the paddle shifters happened quickly and confidently, and there was rarely a hesitation when it came to giving me the gear I needed. 

But where a base CX-50 and the more expensive, turbocharged version will likely perform similarly is how they ride and their capabilities off-road. 

The suspension tuning in the car I drove provided a great compromise between comfort over imperfections and handling prowess. All CX-50s are equipped with a system that cuts the throttle an imperceptible amount on corner entry, which shifts weight to the front tires to provide a better steering response. Combined with a slight amount of body roll and a level of grip that was surprising, to say the least, this thing was legitimately good to drive on a tight back road. Seriously. I've driven other similar cars in similar situations and this Mazda is head and shoulders above anything else in the segment.

Peter Holderith

All versions of the compact SUV get drive modes for off-road and normal day-to-day cruising, with turbocharged cars getting an additional mode to complement their 3,500-pound towing capacity—standard CX-50s can tow just 2,000-pounds. What's important is that these settings make an effort not to make the car feel different in certain scenarios, but to make it feel the same. On the dirt, for instance, Mazda engineers said that the car was tuned to react in the same way it would to inputs on a paved surface. This, surprisingly, was true. In its normal driving mode, the vehicle's traction control is doing something along the lines of damage control once the surface gets loose, but in off-road mode, the entire car was much more predictable and neutral. A sudden corner entry that got the rear end of the CX-50 wagging around on the dirt in normal mode was, in contrast, a controllable, and predictable maneuver in off-road mode. 

The one mode for all off-road situations really hints at the balance this car strikes between on-road performance and off-road capability. On paper, the CX-50 has no special hardware that puts it ahead of any other comparable crossover. Its standard all-wheel drive on all trims is activated with a clutch pack when it's relevant, it has right around eight and a half inches of ground clearance, and it rides on regular street tires. The reality of off-roading, as Mazda engineers were very keen to point out, is that you spend most of your time driving on the freeway to get to a trailhead. As such, the focus for this car is being uncompromised in regular on-road situations, but still capable off-road thanks to carefully a tuned AWD system and other features like the car's 360-degree camera system. If this is starting to sound like Mazda's taking a page out of the Subaru playbook, then you'd be right. 

This might seem like not enough to really cut the mustard. But it was, and I say that while very aware of what a good 4x4 is like. What really struck me about driving this car on unpaved surfaces was that its capabilities seemed very appropriate. A Jeep Grand Cherokee with the right packages, for instance, will do things that exceed your expectations. It's doing them, it's great it can do them, but it doesn't feel like such a civilized SUV should be doing those things. That is, of course, very pleasantly surprising, and part of the Jeep appeal.

Peter Holderith

Mazda, on the flip side, has found a way to make meeting expectations work. The CX-50 looks more rugged and therefore you can expect more rugged things out of it. It can climb steep grades on a loose surface, absorb big impacts without a fuss, and manage its traction in a way that feels natural, not like it's trying to impress you. I drove it harder and harder—perhaps a little harder than Mazda would've wanted but still within reason—and it just kept on feeling like it did in any other situation. 

All of this comes at a reasonable price, too. The base model CX-50—which I did not drive—starts at $28,025. The lack of power in the base model might not sound that appealing, but if you don't care about the extra time it would take to merge or rip up a backroad, it's likely fine. Plus, you get a lot of standard equipment no matter which engine you choose. Lane-keep assist, radar cruise control, and automatic high beams are included at no additional cost on every CX-50, for instance, as are wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

If you want the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine, which in my opinion you probably do, the price jumps to at least $37,625. The test car was fully loaded, coming in at right around $43,000. That might sound like a lot, but it feels worth it. More than worth it, actually. The top trim Premium Plus gets you heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, and heated rear seats. The rear passengers also get HVAC vents, a charging port each, and plenty of legroom. I'm around 5'11" and I had plenty of space in the back with the front seat adjusted to my normal driving position. The front passengers also get a USB charging port in the center console, a wireless charging pad, and a conventional 12-volt outlet.

This car's competition could arguably be incredibly vast, however, the Outback Wilderness and the Hyundai Santa Cruz remind me the most of the CX-50. The Subaru also has a turbocharged four-cylinder, all sorts of off-road hardware, and extra body cladding. But the CX-50 definitely strikes me as more premium; its interior is far more upscale than the Subaru's—and its higher price tag than the Wilderness' $38,120 sticker reflects that. 

Both the CX-50 and the Santa Cruz have 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines with the option to add a turbocharger, both have an off-road identity at the core of their existence, both cost around the same, and they are a similar size—the Santa Cruz is longer because of its small pickup bed. It's really a close race between these two when it comes to the best "soft-roader" out there. The Santa Cruz has 5,000 pounds of towing, a more versatile cargo area, as well as a more powerful engine. However, I prefer the Mazda's interior, and the Santa Cruz is admittedly a weird car that not everyone sees as unusual in a good way. 

The CX-50 is better to drive on the road, and it gets a combined 25 combined mpg versus the Hyundai's 22 mpg as well. Likewise, rear heated seats aren't an option on the Santa Cruz, and fewer features are offered as standard, notably radar cruise control. Also, the interior of the CX-50 is all physical switchgear that just works right and feels right. The Hyundai's capacitive interface and less ergonomic interior don't quite stack up to the Mazda, and the Santa Cruz cannot be had with a heads-up display, either.

The CX-50 is for outdoorsy people, people who kayak, mountain bike, snowboard, you name it—who also want something a little more premium in their lives. It fills that niche well. It's not quite as compromised to an active lifestyle as the Santa Cruz and Outback Wilderness are, but as much as I like the Santa Cruz, I think that's honestly for the better. And that brings me to my final point: This car is the right amount of weird.

To be blunt, have you ever looked at Mazda and sort of wondered "what is gonna happen here?" Sometimes, I worry if Mazda's focus on being unique and making its vehicles fun to drive is almost to a fault. The MX-30 is an example I'll bring up again. It's a compact EV with rear suicide doors and 100 miles of range, which is just not enough, especially for its sticker price of $34,645. To boost this range, Mazda wants to add an unconventional rotary engine. This is a decision that feels pretty questionable, just like Mazda's attempt to move upmarket and its focus on driving dynamics even in segments where it may not necessarily be relevant. Mazda has always made stylish and fun cars, but sometimes they don't cut it in practical ways normal buyers care about. 

But this is absolutely not one of those times.

The CX-50 is a relief. It's an upmarket-focused Mazda finally putting down what it knows it can do; great driving dynamics and sharp styling, combined with what it needs to do; practicality and a focus on a segment—and by extension a region—the brand should be expanding into. I'm not sure if the Santa Cruz or the Outback Wilderness are really big deals for Hyundai and Subaru, but the CX-50 is certainly one for Mazda. Once the hybrid comes along, it will be an even easier sell in a segment where the scrappy little Japanese automaker must succeed. 

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: peter@thedrive.com