Designed to project a rugged off-road persona, the brand-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 follows the U.S. market trend of automakers creating products that appeal to outdoor-oriented car shoppers. And even while this new vehicle offers off-road capability that entices owners to venture farther off the beaten path, the good news is that the 2023 Mazda CX-50 also provides excellent on-road driving dynamics and the fun experience that driving enthusiasts appreciate and expect from every Mazda product.
Similar in size to the popular Mazda CX-5, the new CX-50 is not intended to replace the established compact crossover, which has become Mazda’s top model thanks to its best sales year ever in 2021. While the design of the second-generation CX-5 is refined and elegant, the new CX-50 slots into the lineup to project a more powerful, rugged stance with more traditional SUV styling. Mazda anticipates that each vehicle will appeal to different customers and increase overall sales.
Designed specifically for the North American market, the 2023 CX-50 is the first Mazda vehicle built at the new Mazda Toyota Manufacturing — or MTM — plant in Huntsville, Alabama. This new facility also builds the Toyota Corolla Cross, although these Mazda and Toyota vehicles do not share any parts. The CX-50 gets built on the same platform as the CX-30 and Mazda3, so it differs from CX-5. The result is a CX-50 larger than the CX-5, with the new model possessing an overall length of 185.8 inches, which is 5.7 inches longer than CX-5. The CX-50 rides on a 110.8 inch wheelbase (4.6 inches longer than CX-5) and is also 3.0 inches wider for additional interior room.
Expected to begin arriving at dealerships this spring, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 will initially be offered in nine trim levels — six with a 2.5-liter normally aspirated engine, and three with a turbocharged 2.5-liter powerplant. The CX-50 2.5 S will start at $26,800 followed by Select, Preferred, Preferred Plus, Premium and Premium Plus, which tops out at $36,400. Powered by the 2.5-liter turbocharged engine, CX-50 2.5 T starts at $36,400, followed by the 2.5 T Premium at $39,559 and the 2.5 T Premium Plus at $41,500. Prices do not include a destination and handling fee of $1,225.
The Meridian Edition will arrive later this year, equipped for more outdoor activities thanks to 18-inch black alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, hood graphics, rocker panel trim, crossbars, a roof platform and front and rear splash guards. Meridian Edition pricing will be announced closer to the on-sale date.
The 2023 Mazda CX-50 will be offered with the same two engines as the CX-5, both mated with a 6-speed automatic transmission and standard i-ACTIV all-wheel drive. The normally aspirated 2.5-liter engine produces 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The 2.5-liter turbo produces 256 horsepower and 3,200 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm with 93 octane fuel. Premium fuel is not required, although power output drops to 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque when 87 octane fuel is used. U.S. EPA fuel-economy ratings for the standard 2.5-liter are 24 city / 30 highway / 27 combined, while the powerful 2.5 T is not far behind at 23 city / 29 highway / 25 combined.
Mazda Intelligent Drive Select, known as Mi-Drive, offers three standard drive modes: Normal, Sport and Off-Road, with Towing replacing Sport once a trailer is plugged in. At a press event, Mazda engineers explained that while other manufacturers’ drive mode systems aim to make a vehicle feel different in various modes, Mi-Drive is designed to make the CX-50 respond in a similar way even when conditions require different vehicle tuning. Mazda engineers have developed G-Vectoring Control to improve steering response and feedback by shifting weight to the front tires in response to steering wheel motion.
In Normal mode, Mi-Drive maximizes efficiency and the traction control prioritizes acceleration over minimizing wheelspin. In Sport mode, the GVC is tuned to improve steering response and the transmission shifting gets adjusted to avoid shifting in the middle of a corner. Off-Road mode is tuned for stability on loose gravel or dirt surfaces, and the GVC offers more precise steering response and minimum torque to the rear wheels is increased. For low-speed driving, Off-Road mode is optimized for traction with maximum rear torque available from a start and traction control tuned for diagonal torque transfer — both of which shift focus to low-speed control. Off-Road mode also increases idle speed when the CX-50 is facing uphill.
When equipped with the 2.5 T engine, the CX-50 has a tow rating of 3,500 pounds. As mentioned previously, once a trailer gets plugged into the CX-50, Towing mode replaces Sport mode in the Mi-Drive menu. Towing mode utilizes the GVC to reduce the effect of trailer weight on steering response. In addition, rear torque split adjusts to reduce the tendency of additional trailer weight causing the vehicle to sway, while the transmission shift mapping changes to perform better with a heavy load.
The 2023 Mazda CX-50 interior has a horizontal dashboard that emphasizes the vehicle’s additional width, as well as a low dash height to create a more open feeling. The spacious feeling increases even further with an optional panoramic sunroof. In keeping with the interior styling of many vehicles today, the 10.25-inch center screen sticks up like a tablet from the dash. Touchscreen functionality is enabled for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, although the Mazda Connect infotainment system still operates via a controller on the center console.
We like the overall look of the new CX-50, which sports a more traditional SUV profile accentuated by fender cladding and lower black trim around the entire vehicle for a rugged stance. The grille fits the look and size of the vehicle as well. The 2023 Mazda CX-50 is offered in seven color choices. Two of the colors, Polymetal Gray Metallic and Zircon Sand Metallic, stand out and complement the overall vehicle intention.
The interior design of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 also fits well, evoking a sporty vibe that includes a smart layout for all controls. The 2.5 T Premium Plus has leather seats with contrasting stitching, and the panoramic sunroof creates a pleasant environment. Other amenities include heated / ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a 12-speaker Bose audio system and active driving display.
Although we prefer the center screen to be more integrated with the dash than the exposed tablet style, we do appreciate the additional touchscreen for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. The touchscreen’s inability to operate the Mazda Connect infotainment system is a reminder that Mazda engineers still have some work to do to create a better interface. Too many functions, such as changing the radio station, require multiple steps that must be repeated to make a second adjustment.
As much as we like the looks of the 2023 Mazda CX-50, on-road driving is where this vehicle really shines. The new CX-50 delivers the driving dynamics and fun quotient we have come to expect from Mazda throughout its model lineup. During a recent media drive from Santa Barbara northeast through Northern California Wine Country, our test vehicle for the day was a top-of-the-line CX-50 2.5 T Premium Plus with the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine.
Originally developed for the larger CX-9, Mazda’s powerful 2.5 T engine boasts abundant low-end torque — which is even more evident in the smaller CX-50. The additional torque registers immediately; for normal acceleration and everyday driving, little throttle input is required in most situations. And the CX-50 has plenty of torque available at any speed — often without a need for the transmission to downshift unless aggressive acceleration becomes necessary.
Not surprisingly, spirited driving on winding back roads reveals the true nature of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 2.5 T. In Sport mode the transmission holds the lower gear longer; the driver can also shift manually with paddle shifters. The chassis and steering feel responsive and balanced, with the GVC and torque split tuned to improve both turn-in and rear-end tracking to maintain balance through corners. With Sport mode the improved responsiveness is palpable, allowing more aggressive turn-in and plenty of power at the rear wheels.
Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to drive the CX-50 with the normally aspirated engine, although its power ratings are on par with most competitors in the segment. We have driven the CX-5 with the non-turbo engine and anticipate that the CX-50 2.5 S will be equally engaging and an attractive alternative in the segment. However, the turbocharged unit is so good in this vehicle that we highly recommend opting for the 2.5 T if possible. Even while delivering an additional 69 horsepower and 134 lb-ft of torque compared to the 2.5 S, the U.S. EPA fuel-economy ratings drop a mere 1 mpg city, 1 mpg highway and 2 mpg combined. The 2.5 T begins at the $36,400 price point, which might be a consideration for shoppers when deciding among trim levels.
During our press drive, Mazda also gave us the opportunity to test the CX-50 on a loose-surface handling course as well as on a dirt off-road course with steep hill climbs. The handling course made it easy to note differences between the Off-Road mode and Normal mode. The CX-50 responded to steering inputs and tracked through corners better in Off-Road compared to Normal mode, which allowed the vehicle to slide more easily in the same corners.
On trails, Off-Road mode settings improve the CX-50’s performance on steep climbs, starting out from a higher idle with more torque delivered to the rear. On standard all-season tires, the CX-50 climbed smoothly as the tires lost grip and the AWD system transferred torque to maximize grip. We didn’t get to do any rock crawling or tackle more extreme terrain, although the CX-50 performed well on dirt trails.
During our time with the 2023 Mazda CX-50, we also had a chance to see what Towing mode offers with the 2.5 T engine. Switching between Towing and Normal both out on the highway and on a smaller curvy road, we could easily compare how the Towing setting improves steering feel with a trailer behind, and also helps reduce the tendency for the trailer to sway the tow vehicle. Kudos to Mazda engineers for their good work in this mode.
For years Mazda has focused on producing vehicles in various categories that offer the same fun-driving spirit of the popular MX-5 Miata roadster. Translating those characteristics to the CX-5 compact crossover has made that vehicle Mazda’s top-selling model. With the new 2023 CX-50, Mazda creates a fresh, more rugged design that is also larger than CX-5 but continues to offer signature Mazda driving dynamics. Any driver seeking a practical crossover who also values an engaging experience should definitely consider the 2023 Mazda CX-50.
Pros: Driving dynamics; great design; powerful turbo engine; competitive price.
Cons: Infotainment interface; touchscreen only with Apple Carplay, Android Auto.
Bottom Line: A new crossover with rugged looks and plenty of interior space, with an available turbocharged engine that complements the excellent driving dynamics expected of a Mazda.