The people that once gave you rotary engine cars are now offering a ruggedized crossover that invites you to take it for an adventure deep into the woods.
Here’s the proposition: Want something rugged, crossover-ish, with room for up to five people and their stuff, and has good ground clearance?
How about a…Mazda?
The people that once gave you rotary engine cars – including the iconic RX-7 – and the rebirth of the roadster with the MX-5 Miata, are now offering a ruggedized crossover that invites you to take it for an adventure deep into the woods.
This is not a precedent for the brand. You may have forgotten about how Mazda turned their B-Series pickups into 4WD hustlers aimed squarely at Toyota’s high-riding 1980s icons. Or, the fact that their MPV minivan had a 4WD option with a raised ride height that sold for a minute here in the USA. Let’s not forget about the shared SUV models that Ford lent to the brand – I believe one of them was called the Navajo.
Yet, they sold alongside what I consider the soul of Mazda’s lineup. The RX-7 and MX-5 Miata, along with the Mazdaspeed twins and the more desirable versions of the 626 and MX-6, as what I consider the essence of this brand.
Then again, industry trends are what everyone wants to profit from. The SUV and crossover have become the norm. Mazda was already deep into building them for the masses. You cannot fault them for doing so.
In the case of the 2023 CX-50, Mazda decided to go the ruggedized route. Something akin to the Subaru Outback, but with their own touch and flavor. After all, Mazda is still climbing the demographic ladder into the lofty heights chasing upwardly mobile customers.
There is one thing to clear up before I dive further into the CX-50. We should not confuse this new ruggedized crossover with the similarly sized and volume-selling CX-5.
To begin with, they are from completely different platforms. The CX-50 rides in a stretched architecture that is rooted in the Mazda3 and CX-30. Therefore, its dimensions do not match up with the current CX-5 at all. The CX-50 is over five inches longer in length and rides on a longer wheelbase. It is lower by a couple of inches.
The big difference is in ground clearance. The CX-50 sits 8.3 inches above the surface, over a half-inch above the CX-5. That will play a huge part as to why the CX-50 is giving Mazda a new entry into another industry trend of vehicles that want to cater to consumers with a much more active lifestyle than those who identify themselves as having one.
It is also the first USA-assembled Mazda in several years, now produced in a joint assembly plant with Toyota in Huntsville, Alabama. To be clear, it shares nothing with the other vehicle built at that facility – the Toyota Corolla Cross.
About the CX-50, there are plenty of design features you can pick out from Mazda’s own styling language. The grille retains a basic shape, but it is widened and lowered. Part of the grille assembly is an interesting pair of plastic extensions that resembles bumper guards. The roofline appears to be an extended version of the CX-30’s with more glass overall. You also have LED lights up front and back.
One design element sort of threw me off. Mazda added these big “vent” portals both front and back. We found that the front ones had some small opening to allow for air to come through, the rear ones are just plastic trim pieces. Not to mention the plastic wheel arch and lower rocker panel moldings designed for protecting the CX-50 from getting too dirty.
The finishing touch is a set of 20-inch alloy wheels for our Premium Plus tester, set of Goodyear Eagle Touring tires.
Mazda’s familiar design touches are also found inside the CX-50. The analog-digital instrument cluster is commonly found on other Mazdas, but the entire dashboard is not. Smaller vents and a soft-touch panel are what separates the CX-50 from the rest of the Mazda lineup.
However, the touch capacitive Mazda Connect infotainment screen is still not within reach of most drivers. That is a shame. Move it up a few inches and maybe drop the large controller on the center console? Nah, that won’t happen. The 12-speaker Bose surround sound audio system does make it from the challenge Mazda Connect provides audiophiles. But, hey, you do get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for additional infotainment functionality.
Seating is for five people. More realistically, four adults. The front seats felt firm, though there was some bolstering to be had. Headroom is great for front and back occupants. Rear leg room is fine, but getting out could be a challenge with the smaller lower door jambs. Cargo room starts with 31.4 cubic feet behind the rears eats, expanding to 56.3 cubic feet with those seats folded down.
Our Premium Plus tester came equipped with Mazda’s Skyactiv 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, putting out 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. That is if you put in Premium fuel. You can run this on regular fuel, but you will lose 25 horsepower and 10 pound-feet of torque in the process. This CX-50 is equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to all four wheels.
Performance was as expected from this engine. It revs up nicely and serves up boost when needed. It also does a good job keeping pace on the highway without hesitation. I wished fuel econony was better, as I observed an average of 23.9 MPG.
The ride quality felt a bit on the firm side. While it is smooth on better stretches of highway, you certainly can feel it go through rougher patches of road. The CX-50 serves up a quiet ride through the tires installed on this tester. Handling is fine, with some lean and roll when pushed to the limit.
There are a few modes available on the MI-DRIVE system. One of them is Off-Road, which ups the revs – just like in Sport mode – and prioritizes all-wheel drive for maximum traction.
The steering system was a bit of a letdown, as it took a lot of turns to maneuver the CX-50. Overall effort was a bit heavy, however on-center feel was fine. The brakes offered up a solid pedal feel. Normal and panic stops returned great results with solid action down to the wheels.
My 2023 CX-50 tester was the top-of-the-line 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus – one of four turbocharged models in this lineup. The sticker price came to $43,970. With a total of the trim levels, the 2023 CX-50 starts from $27,550.
For what it is, the Mazda CX-50 is suitable to be consider among other ruggedized crossover-ish vehicles. It does the job, yet one would have to consider some things before committing to one. Do you need the turbo? It certainly helps, performance-wise. Would you take it off-road? A gravel road would be fine, to be honest.
There are more pertinent questions that I hypothesized about the CX-50. One centered around the idea that the CX-50 might return Mazda back to its roots – maybe before the :”oom-Zoom” advertising tag was applied. Another wondered if this vehicle is this another step for Mazda towards becoming an upmarket brand.
The answer to both questions became somewhat clear: This is a new direction for Mazda. One that could possibly help the brand’s cause for the better.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Mazda North American Operations
All photos by Randy Stern