Mazda markets its largest compact SUV – the CX-50 – as tough and rugged for the outdoorsy set. In reality, it is more mild, not wild, but that’s not an insult of the vehicle’s capabilities. It’s a compliment for the CX-50, which manages to blend off-road competence with comfort and style.
Mazda is trying hard to differentiate the CX-50, which will be available as a 2023 model this spring starting at $37,900, from its stablemate the CX-5 in the compact SUV category. Mark Peyman, Mazda Canada’s national manager of product and electrification strategy, said the category accounts for half the company’s sales, and the CX-50 “will be differentiated as an opportunity to extend this.”
The CX-50 is being pitched to the niche of SUV consumers with an active outdoor lifestyle, and who need a vehicle to get to the wilderness. This, the company hopes, will allow the CX-5 to appeal to urbanites who do not feel the call of the wild, and prevent the CX-50 from stealing market share.
The CX-50 may filch that share from a competitor, however. Subaru has long been the go-to brand for people who want to pursue outdoor activities. From the Forester to the Outback and Crosstrek, its vehicles are known for their all-wheel drive and general practicality.
Mazda hopes to challenge this supremacy with the CX-50. The company has put a great deal of effort into researching and engineering drive systems that make the vehicle more intuitive, easier to drive and better able to handle varying terrain.
A lot of it comes down to the way Mazda has tuned the powertrain and vehicle dynamics, said Dave Coleman, Mazda’s vehicle dynamics manager.
He explained the feedback loop between driver and vehicle and how the car’s first reaction to a human input determines the entire relationship. “If the very first response is not direct and intuitive, the driver will chase their target through the rest of the manoeuvre,” he said.
Mazda’s tuning is designed to ensure the CX-50 will deliver a consistent driving experience no matter where you go, Coleman said. Three driving modes program the vectoring control system differently to respond to all types of terrain.
In our real-world tests, which included an icy, deeply rutted off-road trek, this proved to be mostly true. The off-road program prioritizes traction at low speeds, ensuring wheels with ground contact receive the required power. On our drive, in spite of being chassis-deep in snow and mud on a steep hill, the CX-50 didn’t perceptibly spin a wheel.
There is a difference between the feel of the vehicle on pavement and off road, but what doesn’t change is the sensation that it will get you where you are planning to go, without drama.
Mazda has taken pains to make the CX-50 able to take you and your toys from city to wilderness playground. The roof can handle an 80 kilogram load, which is enough for a couple of sea kayaks and a pair of bicycles. There will also be a rooftop tent available, along with the largest selection of accessories Mazda has ever offered.
The top of the line GT Turbo, which we drove, can tow up to 3,500 pounds. We test-towed a 3,470-pound trailer around a short loop, and while the back end of the SUV squatted noticeably, the tow mode ensured the front tires had enough grip to maintain steering, and prevented trailer yaw. The engine worked hard under the load, but managed steep hills without strain.
With three models available, the 2023 CX-50 starts at $37,900. For comparison, the 2022 CX-5 starts at $30,200. While the starting prices are far apart, by the time you get to the top trim, the CX-50 is only $2,000 more than the CX-5.
With so much more on offer, plus its better looks, and small price difference, Mazda may find that its urban customer segment will fall for the CX-50 after all.
Base price/as tested: $37,900; GT Turbo $45,350
Engine: 2.5L 4-cylinder Turbo
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: (litres per 100 kilometres; combined): 9.4
Alternatives: Subaru Forester, Acura RDX, Toyota RAV4
The CX-50 is more than a “ruggedized” CX-5. Imagine compressing the CX-5 in a giant vise to make it lower, wider and longer, and you have the basic idea of the CX-50′s shape. It is a handsome vehicle, with stout plastic wheel arches, flat hood and station-wagon-like proportions. It looks particularly sharp in Mazda’s new Zircon Sand Metallic colour, which is so far only available on this model.
Boasting the only panoramic sunroof in the Mazda lineup, the CX-50 offers a sunny and spacious interior. Clean lines and leather finishes lend it an air of luxury far outclassing its price point. The cockpit is mercifully simple, and controls are easy to find and use. Visibility is good all the way around. Rear passengers are treated to miles of legroom and comfortable seats.
The CX-50 is a versatile machine. In addition to its unexpectedly robust off-road capabilities, it delivers smooth highway performance and polite city manners. The turbo power plant we tested, with 256 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, lets you confidently pass on two-lane roads and in Sport mode it has the oomph to make twisty back roads fun.
Pairing a phone was refreshingly simple, although Android Auto was slow to respond at times. Mazda has uniquely opted to allow the use of the touch screen while driving this vehicle, although the control to allow it is buried deep in a menu. The single button controller on the console remains a simple and intuitive way to execute setup changes and control media while driving.
Mazda pointed out the CX-50′s wagon-like proportions. A rear gear compartment that is longer than it is wide makes it easier to stow items such as coolers and tents longitudinally and means you won’t have to rearrange everything to access a key item. Overall, cargo capacity is slightly less than the CX-5, but there is more room behind the rear seats in the CX-50 (889 litres versus 871).
With the CX-50, Mazda has built a compact SUV that is attractive, spacious and capable. Not only is it more interesting than its sibling the CX-5, it is also poised to give the de facto ruler of the city-to-trailhead segment – Subaru – a run for its money.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.