2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive: Quite Sporty, But Needs More
We admire Mazda’s commitment to making great-handling cars, but the all-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 shows how a good thing can be taken too far. Car enthusiasts will find the CX-50 entertaining (if not always enjoyable) on a sharp twisty road, and its off-road traction and towing stability are impressive. However, Mazda seems to have neglected the fact most mid-size SUVs live a life outside of the curves, and the CX-50 disappoints some in terms of everyday livability.
A Mazda SUV for the Rest of Us
Before we get ourselves removed from the manufacturer’s holiday card list, a quick recap: The all-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 is a five-seat compact SUV designed expressly for U.S. and Canadian markets. It addresses what some might consider shortcomings in the Mazda’s compact CX-5, with more passenger and cargo space and better towing and off-road abilities. While the bulk of Mazdas are imported, the CX-50 is built in Alabama at a new plant jointly operated with Toyota.
Compared to the CX-5, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 stands about 6.5 inches longer and 3.0 inches wider, with about an inch more ground clearance (the exact figure varies based on wheel and tire size) but a 2.0-inch-lower roofline. The CX-50’s squared-off bodywork flares 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 its torsion-beam rear axle) with Mazda’s smaller CX-30.
The CX-50’s interior is classy and upscale as expected; we especially liked the contrast-color stitching and two-tone upholstery on our Premium Plus evaluation model. But the back seat has a shortage of 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 shy of 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 not. Mazda had us sample the turbo engine, which develops between 227 and 256 hp and 310 and 320 lb-ft of torque depending on whether you run 87 or 93 octane gasoline. It’s a gem of an engine, with strong passing power right 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 just about adequate in the CX-30, and the CX-50 is 320 pounds heavier than that vehicle—so how’s that going to work? Mazda’s aging six-speed automatic and all-wheel drive come standard, and fuel-economy estimates are decent (25 to 27 mpg in the EPA combined cycle) but short of class leaders. Mazda plans to add a Toyota-sourced hybrid powertrain as an option in the not-too-distant future.
Great for Curves
It should come as no surprise the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is at its best on a sharp, twisty road, where its admirably precise steering and well-damped suspension give the kind of precision we expect from a German sports car. Mazda’s G-Vectoring system makes smart use of the center and rear differentials to control weight transfer; among its tricks, it keeps weight on the front end to sharpen corner turn-in. Few cars (let alone SUVs) respond so intuitively to steering inputs as the CX-50—like the Miata, you can practically think it through the curves.
But as talented as the CX-50 is, we can’t say it’s always enjoyable. The steering, though exceptionally accurate, is also heavy. The ride is rather firm, and in the chassis’ heroic efforts to keep all four tire contact patches glued to the Earth, the CX-50 bobs and weaves on uneven pavement. It seems even Mazda’s suspension wizardry can’t overcome the behavioral issues of a torsion-beam rear axle. We also felt the vague tug of torque steer at certain engine RPMs, particularly on corner exit. And remember we mentioned the CX-50’s width? On some narrow roads, the CX-50 felt as big as a full-size pickup. We were able to make rapid progress on the most challenging sections, but our speed was hard-won—the CX-50 felt like it was working against us rather than with us.
Those challenging roads represented less than 30 minutes of the five-or-so hours we had behind the CX-50’s wheel, and we spent the other four-and-a-half dealing with the consequences. The super-sharp steering feels darty on the open road and requires constant correction. If we so much as glanced at the small center screen to change the radio station, we’d look up to find the CX-50 making a beeline for the next lane over. Normally a lane centering system would offer some relief (on the freeway, at least) but Mazda doesn’t believe in them; instead, it has a lane departure alert that doesn’t do any alerting until you’ve practically bumped mirrors with the car next to you. Mazda says the driver should always pay attention, and of course that’s correct—but it makes us question the system’s usefulness. A hard ride and lots of road noise rounded out the experience and had us wishing our drive could have been shortened by an hour or two.
The 2023 Mazda CX-50 features multiple drive modes, something Mazda has steadfastly avoided in the past. We looked for a marked difference between Normal and Sport modes, but Mazda intentionally avoided this; the company’s take is that drive modes should not change the car’s character, but rather preserve it—in other words, ensure a consistent driving experience even when conditions change.
That’s a notable goal, but it also misses the point somewhat. In our view, one of the purposes of multiple drive moves is to give a driver a break during less-demanding conditions. Good as the CX-50 was on that one curvy lane (and yes, we tried it in Normal and Sport modes; the differences were quite subtle), it would have been a lot less fatiguing on average roads if we could have dialed down the steering effort and off-center response. An adjustable suspension with a softer ride and a real lane centering system would have been nice, but probably too much to ask.
Mazda’s philosophy works better on dirt and gravel surfaces, where the Off Road mode makes the car respond much as it does on dry pavement. On terrain uneven enough to get a wheel in the air, the CX-50 did a great job getting power to the ground. Unfortunately, the CX-50 has no hill-descent mode, which Mazda basically dismisses as a gimmick. Perhaps it is, but after descending a steep, loose hill while trying to modulate the brakes with the CX-50 in a semi-slide, we were reminded that a gimmick that provides peace-of-mind is a useful one indeed.
CX-50s with the turbocharged engine can tow up to 3,500 pounds. We got a chance to tow at max capacity and were impressed by the SUV’s stability. The CX-50 has a Towing drive mode (which replaces Sport when a trailer is connected) that once again uses the center differential to shift weight forward and improve steering response. We found the difference too subtle to feel, but to be fair, a strong sense of self-preservation prevented us from jerking the wheel with the trailer attached.
Lots of Choices
Mazda plans to launch nine versions of the 2023 CX-50, beginning 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 trims, while the turbocharged 2.5 will come in Turbo, Premium, and Premium Plus models. We drove the latter, priced at $42,725 with dual-zone climate control, a power liftgate, panoramic sunroof, Bose stereo, and leather seats (heated and cooled in front and heated in back). A 10th model, the top-of-the-line Meridian Edition, will feature black wheels, off-road tires, and hood graphics; Mazda hasn’t yet announced its price.
All in all, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is an SUV that average drivers will likely find too single-minded. Mazda concentrated on making the CX-50 a good performer in the curves, and that’s an admirable trait, but it comes at the detriment of day-to-day comfort. And while rear space and cargo room are better than the CX-5, they’re hardly best-in-class features.
Perhaps using the CX-30 platform was Mazda’s mistake, as the CX-5 has a much better ride-handling compromise, and perhaps a simple stretch of that longtime favorite would have worked better. Adjustable steering feel and damping—and more sound insulation—would make the CX-50 a much more livable SUV.
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