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The 2023 Mazda CX-50.Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

It was less of a launch and more of a continuation of the tease at a recent press event for the new Mazda 2023 CX-50 compact SUV.

The auto maker revealed a vehicle built on the same “small product” platform as its CX-30, although it appears to be an extension of the CX-5 line. The CX-50 is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5, and Mazda says it is designed to fill a niche for drivers who want to spend time in the wilderness without losing comfortable day-to-day functionality.

The CX-50 looks the part, sharing key characteristics of other off-road-capable compact SUVs: rugged, dark plastic wheel arches, higher ground clearance and all-terrain tires. Its raked, sculpted hood, wide air intakes and distinctive Mazda snout lend it an equally sporty demeanour. It also offers a panoramic sunroof for the first time in a North American Mazda.

“This new Mazda vehicle has been developed for North America, particularly to support the active and outdoor lifestyles of customers in this region,” says Jeff Guyton, president and CEO of Mazda North American Operations. “The CX-50 encourages people to immerse themselves in nature without compromising …”

Guyton refers to the CX-50 as an “outdoor crossover” to distinguish it from the CX-5.

The CX-50′s off-road capabilities are the key feature Mazda will sell when the car arrives next year. It will have standard AWD, and it will be equipped with a new drive selection module, called Mazda Intelligent Drive Select or Mi-Drive. There will be four modes: normal, sport, off-road and tow.

When a trailer is plugged into the vehicle’s power connector, drivers will have the option of engaging tow mode.

According to Dave Coleman, vehicle dynamics engineer at Mazda North American Operations, the SUV’s drive modes have been designed to deliver consistent dynamics no matter what the terrain or surface. That consistency, he says, helps people become better drivers, and in turn makes their passengers more comfortable.

The CX-50 will be powered by Mazda’s Skyactiv 2.5-litre turbo or naturally aspirated engine.Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

Unlike some SUVs that offer numerous off-road modes, the CX-50 has just one, “because in the real world off-roading is always some ambiguous combination of surfaces,” Coleman says. In developing the new SUV, the engineering team spent time camping to verify the real-world requirements for a backcountry trip.

“The decision was made based on observing how people use their vehicles,” Coleman says. The team learned a lot from one particular SUV driver who was unable to get out of a tough situation because he couldn’t figure out which off-road mode to engage.

Coleman points out that for a normal driver hoping to enjoy an outdoor outing, at least 60 per cent of the journey from home would be on smooth pavement. Another 20 per cent would be on gravel roads, and only the last 20 per cent might be truly off-road. That observation underpins the decision to make the CX-50′s off-road capability simple to use and not intrusive.

“The CX-5 is already capable off-road,” he says. The CX-50 is just a bit more focused on offering off-roading abilities. Mazda was more concerned with ensuring the vehicle communicates well with the driver, he adds, than in creating a truly robust off-road offering.

The CX-50 will be powered by Mazda’s Skyactiv 2.5-litre turbo or naturally aspirated engine, the same power plant under the hood of the CX-5. In the CX-5 the turbo version produces 250 horsepower, and 187 in the NA. Horsepower and torque are expected to be comparable in the CX-50. The engine will be mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Mazda has not unveiled many details about the vehicle, keeping pricing, specifications, model grades and colour options under wraps until a time closer to the availability date. It was suggested that the price differential between the CX-5 and CX-50 will be comparable to the difference between the CX-3 ($21,600) and CX-30 ($24,850).

The CX-50 will have standard roof rails, available all-terrain tires, and it will use a non-touch display screen that is already in other models.Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

The CX-50 will have standard roof rails, available all-terrain tires, and it will use a non-touch display screen that is already in other models. A line of outdoor and camping accessories will be available once the vehicle arrives in showrooms next year.

The compact SUV will be the only Mazda built at the new joint-venture Toyota-Mazda plant in Huntsville, Ala., starting in January, 2022. It will arrive in Canadian dealerships in early 2023. An electrified version will follow.

The CX-50 is the first of a new fleet of Mazda products. It will be joined over the next couple of years by new SUVs. The CX-60, CX-70, CX-80, and CX-90 are all slated for introduction in various global markets between 2022 and 2023.

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