I’ll cut right to the chase – the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is the type of car you get from a manufacturer that is putting in an honest effort to make a good car. I’d go so far as to say the CX-50 could be the new gold standard of midsize CUVs from non-premium brands. I mean that. And my words carry a lot of weight since this is my first car review.
In actuality, there were a ton of firsts in these past few days – for both Mazda and me. Let’s talk about me first (the way I like it). This was my first time going to California (and technically west of Pittsburgh). It was my first time flying alone. It was also my first time driving a Mazda. Oh, and it was my first time staying in a hotel by myself. But enough about me. Let’s get to the car.
(Full Disclosure: Mazda flew me out to Santa Barbara and put me up in a hotel with a nightly rate slightly higher than most car payments. They also (pink) wined and dined me and gave me a brand new top-trim CX-50 to drive around this beautiful state.)
Mazda saw that nearly every automaker has created their own off-road vehicle and remembered that, they too, like money, and thus, the CX-50 was born. It’s a vehicle meant for the outdoor enthusiast in us all – with more rugged looks than most Mazdas with some solid off-road credentials to boot. Mazda being Mazda, the CX-50 also comes into its own when the going gets twisty. I don’t know how they manage to do this, but we will get into that later.
Upon first inspection, the CX-50 looks pretty redundant in the Mazda lineup. Mazda already has the CX-5 which is roughly the same shape and size as the new CX-50, but the CX-5 may actually be the redundant one.
You may think given the similarity in size that both vehicle are based on the same platform, but that isn’t the case. The CX-50 is actually a stretched version of the CX-30 architecture. If you’re confused by Mazda’s naming scheme, I promise you are not alone. But, we don’t judge a car based on its name, rather its merits. And, the CX-50 has a whole slew of those.
There are currently nine – and soon to be 10 – trim levels available for the CX-50. It starts at $26,800 (not including $1,225 for destination) for a base “2.5 S” model, but can be optioned all the way up to the top trim “2.5T Premium Plus” that starts at a fairly reasonable $41,500 – which isn’t terrible considering what you get. From the get-go it comes fairly well equipped. An eight-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an eight speaker sound system and a drive safety suite all come as standard.
As I said, the CX-50 is designed to have a lot more off-road capability than your average Mazda, but that hasn’t stopped it from getting that signature on-the-road feeling the Japanese company is known for. Flick the Mi-DRIVE mode toggle switch into “Sport” and you can really feel everything get a little bit tighter. It isn’t dramatically different than normal mode, but Mazda says that’s on purpose. They would rather have all modes feeling good rather than one being nerfed to heighten the feelings of another.
Feel through the steering wheel is pretty much what I would consider perfect – or as close to perfect as a midsize CUV can get – but you really do feel just about everything from the electric rack. It’s got more than enough power to squirt you out of corners faster than is really necessary. Needless to say, it gets down a backroad in a way that you would actually describe as “fun.”
However, the backroad isn’t really where the CX-50 is going to be spending most of its time. In reality you’ll use this car to blast down the highway or bop around town. This is where the CX-50 really comes into its own. It really just – I don’t exactly know how to describe it – gets the job done. Radar cruise works well and will bring you to a complete stop in traffic.
This is where the CX-50 surprised me the most. Many car companies are coming out with “off-roaders” that are little more than an appearance package, but this Mazda really held its own beyond its looks. Granted, my drive didn’t allow for any real off-roading – no rock crawling or serious articulation to speak of. When you do switch the CX-50’s Mi-DRIVE toggle to “Off-Road,” where the real changes happen with the electronic gubbins underneath.
There is only one off-road mode – rather than designated ones for sand, rock, mud, etc. Mazda did that on purpose to simplify the experience. And honestly, the only thing you really notice is the gauge cluster changes to a nice beige-ish color and the idle speed rises a few hundred RPMs.
Mazda knows the customer for the CX-50, and that customer isn’t doing any extreme off-roading, so they tailored it to be something to handle a bumpy dirt path and the occasional very steep hill. At those two tasks, the CX-50 excels. And, “Off-Road” mode really does do something – I don’t know exactly what because I’m not smart enough to know – but something does indeed change.
I tried the same course in both “Off-Road” and “Normal” modes and the former really does help you get along the trail or up the hill. The front-facing camera doesn’t hurt either for navigating through tight terrain or driving up a 35-degree incline where all you can see is sky.
The car also has about 8.6 inches of ground clearance – but that changes depending on how big of a wheel you spec. Something else to note is the CX-50 does not have skid plates underneath, though Mazda doesn’t anticipate that being much of an issue if you stick to what the vehicle is intended to do.
I’m not the biggest fan of how CUVs look – I don’t hate them, but they just don’t do it for me. That being said, I really do dig the CX-50’s looks. It’s lower, wider and longer than the CX-5, so its squatted stance gives a real presence on the road. It – as it seems all off-road CUVs are required to have – has plastic cladding around the wheel wells, but it works.
There are seven colors to choose from – none of them are particularly inspiring other than Mazda’s signature Soul Red Crystal Metallic. There are also a bunch of other muted colors to accentuate the car’s “off-roadiness,” but it’s pretty standard fair in terms of car colors in the modern age. Summed up – I like it. It looks good, which is the nicest thing you can really say for a midsize CUV.
Oh, and before I forget, Mazda has strengthened the CX-50’s roof and B pillar to accommodate a roof-top tent as well.
Mazda is aiming to go upmarket, and the interior of the CX-50 is where their intentions really show. Everything is laid out cleanly. The over-10-inch infotainment system is controlled primarily by a knob and buttons in the center console. Mazda doesn’t believe in touch screens, and frankly, I agree with them. However, if you use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, you can use a touch screen. Mazda says that’s because those apps were designed with touchscreens in mind.
Material choices for the most part were very nice. There are plenty of soft touch surfaces where you’d expect them. I loved the seats – primarily because after five hours of driving, my back didn’t hurt. At this point you’re thinking, “Andy why does your back hurt at 25 years old?” Well, to that I say, I know I am aging rapidly.
The CX-50 also comes equipped with Mazda’s first ever panoramic sunroof – which is really nice when you’re in California.
There is plenty of interior room in just about every measurement other than one – rear-seat headroom. I’m 6’1” and could fit in those rear seats just fine. However, my head was nearly one with the ceiling. At least if you’re shorter than that, it should be comfortable. Trunk space is also cavernous.
In fact, the trunk is longer than it is wide, which is pretty wild. Put the rear seats down, and you can fit so much shit back there. I mean, it could also be a totally viable place to sleep if you are camping and don’t feel like messing around with a roof-top tent.
Power is provided by either a 2.5-liter four popper with a turbo strapped to it or a naturally aspirated version of the same engine. In turbo guise, the engine makes 256 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque on 93 octane. However, rather cleverly, the CX-50 is also just fine running on 87 octane. Keep in mind that sacrifice in octance will come with a bit of a power loss – numbers drop to 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. On the 91 octane fuel in California, those numbers landed somewhere in the middle.
This engine in the CX-50 can also tow 3,500 pounds – which we did in tow mode. The car certainly loses a lot of pep when a trailer is strapped to the back, but it can still get up and go. Expect 23 miles per gallon city, 29 highway and 25 combined with the turbo. I cannot say that I saw those numbers on my drive, but I was also driving like a bit of a hooligan in the Golden State. You can probably expect real world mpg numbers to be closer to those advertised.
If you don’t want to pony up the extra cash, the car can also be had in naturally aspirated form with 187 horsepower and 187 lb-ft of torque. I wasn’t able to drive that model, so I can’t speak to how it feels power-wise. With the lower output though, means the tow rating is drastically cut – down to just 2,000 pounds. Fuel economy is slightly better than the turbo – 24 city, 30 highway and 27 combined.
Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission – though there are different gear sets depending on the engine. In a world of 8, 9 and 10 speed auto boxes, it was a welcome characteristic that the transmission wasn’t gear hunting the whole time.
Safety wise – the CX-50 has radar guided cruise control, lane keep assist, brake assist, a 360-degree camera system, blind spot monitoring and parking sensors – pretty much the standard fare.
There aren’t many things I’m not a fan of with the CX-50, but no car is perfect and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you otherwise.
My first issue is related to material choice – specifically the choices made in the center tunnel. It’s hard plastic right where your knee rests – an odd choice considering just about everything else is soft-touch. It wasn’t too big of a deal, but I could definitely feel my knee banging into it while going around tight corners. More minor than that though is the choice to use piano black plastic on the center console. My car had fewer than 1,000 miles on it and it was already scratched up – which isn’t great.
The rear seat headroom could also be an issue if you are transporting people who aren’t short, fairly often. There is also a bit more road noise than you would really want, but I guess just turn the radio up.
My final issue has to do with the CX-50’s dimensions. She’s a sizable 75.6 inches wide. Now, this didn’t really impact highway or urban driving, but when the going got twisty you could definitely feel yourself squeezing in some spaces – especially if another car was coming the opposite direction.
It should be said, none of these issues are reason enough to not buy the car. They’re just things to consider when looking at potentially buying the car.
When it comes down to it, the Mazda CX-50 is a real quality vehicle. It’s a CUV I would honestly recommend to anyone in the market for on. It’s fun enough, capable enough, and good-looking enough to make anyone’s list.
But, if you have any more questions or think I left something out – drop me a line in the comments.