2023 Mazda CX-50 Review: Designed to Get Dirty

Mazda applies its design and engineering philosophies to a more rugged crossover SUV

Christian Wardlaw

Review QuickTakes:

Mazda has a new compact crossover SUV in its stable. Built in a new factory in Huntsville, Alabama, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 holds five people, carries 31.4 cubic feet of cargo behind its back seat, and supplies up to 8.6 inches of ground clearance. All-wheel drive (AWD) is standard on this new model, paired with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with or without turbocharging. Maximum towing capacity measures 3,500 pounds.

What’s New for the 2023 Mazda CX-50?

With the new 2023 CX-50, Mazda seeks a different kind of compact crossover SUV buyer. The CX-50 is longer, wider, and lower than the popular CX-5 that Mazda will continue to sell, and it has a more rugged and adventurous appearance than the CX-5.

The powertrain lineup is familiar to any Mazda fan, with standard and turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines matched with a six-speed automatic transmission and a standard AWD system. Power ranges from 187 horsepower for the CX-50 2.5 S models to 256 hp for the CX-50 2.5 Turbo variants. Note that the turbocharged engine requires 93-octane gas to achieve maximum output. Run it on regular, and it supplies 227 hp.

Generally speaking, Mazda employs the same design, quality, and engineering philosophies to the CX-50 that it uses for its other models. That means the new CX-50 is attractive to the eye, stylish and upscale inside, and enjoyable to drive.

How Much is a Mazda CX-50?

At the start of the model year, 2023 Mazda CX-50 prices range from the high $20,000s to the mid $40,000s, including the destination charge to ship the SUV from Huntsville, Alabama, to your local Mazda dealership.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Trim Levels and Configurations

Mazda sells the CX-50 in two model series and with multiple equipment packages that serve as trim levels. The CX-50 2.5 S has the standard 187-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, while the CX-50 Turbo gets the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine generating between 227 hp and 256 hp. Additionally, the automaker offers a wide variety of lifestyle accessories for the CX-50.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 S – Though this is the base version of the SUV, the most affordable CX-50 has all of the infotainment and safety technology you want in a modern vehicle, and then some. However, it is the only model with gray 17-inch aluminum wheels, cloth seats, and a smaller 8.8-inch infotainment display.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 S Select – Choose the Select trim, and you get black 17-inch aluminum wheels, cloth and simulated leather upholstery, and a 10.25-inch infotainment display. Select trim also supplies dark-tinted rear privacy glass, upgraded interior materials and lighting, dual-zone automatic climate control, and rear air vents and USB ports.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 S Preferred – The CX-50 Preferred is ready to battle winter weather with heated side mirrors, heated wipers, and heated front seats. In addition, an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat replaces the standard six-way manually adjustable chair, and the rear liftgate features power operation.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 S Preferred Plus – Let the outside in with the Preferred Plus trim’s standard panoramic glass sunroof. Yes, that’s the main upgrade here.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 S Premium – Premium trim installs a handful of luxuries in the CX-50. It includes leather seats, a six-way power-adjustable front passenger’s seat, satellite radio, and a 12-speaker Bose premium sound system.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 S Premium Plus – This version of the CX-50 has a set of 20-inch alloy wheels that gives the SUV significant visual presence. Additionally, Premium Plus trim adds power-folding side mirrors, a head-up display, and ventilated front seats.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo – Mazda equips the 2.5 Turbo similar to the 2.5 S Preferred Plus above, but with a more powerful engine, paddle shifters for the transmission, an added Towing mode, and larger exhaust outlets. This model also has adaptive headlights that swivel in the direction you’re turning and LED taillights. Leather seats are standard.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium – Builds on 2.5 S Premium and Premium Plus equipment listed above with a heated steering wheel.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus – This version of the CX-50 has all of the equipment listed above, plus heated rear seats, a navigation system, and a wireless smartphone charger. Exclusive driving assistance systems include traffic sign recognition, an active blind-spot monitoring system that attempts to override unsafe lane changes, and a rear automatic braking system. Front and rear parking sensors are also standard, along with a surround-view camera system with a forward-view camera for off-roading. This version of the CX-50 also has low-speed Traffic Jam Assist combining adaptive cruise control with lane-centering technology.

Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo Meridian Edition – Arriving later in the model year, the Meridian Edition has unique 18-inch alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, splash guards, a matte-black hood graphic, and roof rails with crossbars and a load platform. However, as this review is written, Mazda has not defined which trim package the Meridian Edition includes or its official Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).

2023 Mazda CX-50 Review and Test Drive

Test Drive QuickTakes:

Mazda says the compact SUV segment is the largest by sales in North America, after pickup trucks. That is nothing new, and Mazda has offered a compact crossover SUV for over 20 years. The first one was the boxy 2001 Mazda Tribute, a restyled Ford Escape that even came with an efficient hybrid powertrain option. The second one was the stylish 2013 Mazda CX-5, which is now in its second generation and is the automaker’s most popular model. The third one is the SUV you see here: the 2023 Mazda CX-50.

Mazda is adamant that the CX-50 is not a replacement for the CX-5, though the writing certainly seems to be on the wall. In just a few years, Mazda’s SUV lineup in America will include the Mazda CX-30, CX-50, CX-70, and CX-90. Obviously, the CX-5’s name doesn’t fit with this plan. Furthermore, the second-generation CX-5 is rapidly aging, having last received a complete redesign for 2017.

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Nevertheless, at a media introduction for the new CX-50, a Mazda spokesperson said: “We’re not about to kill off our best-selling model.” So, the current CX-5 and all-new CX-50 will share space in Mazda showrooms. To separate the two, Mazda will emphasize adventures in nature with the CX-50 and urban sophistication with the CX-5.

To learn all about the new CX-50, Mazda invited me to Santa Barbara, California, to attend a product briefing and drive the SUV. My test vehicle was a CX-50 2.5 Turbo with Premium Plus trim and new extra-cost Zircon Sand Metallic paint. It came to $43,170, including the $1,225 destination charge.

Christian Wardlaw

2023 Mazda CX-50 Review: The Design

Mazda characterizes the CX-50’s styling as an evolution of the automaker’s Kodo design language, which first appeared a decade ago on the original CX-5. Highlights include a blunt nose, long hood, wide stance, and low roofline. In addition, features such as flared fenders and plenty of purposeful-looking lower body cladding add to the SUV’s athletic and rugged appearance. Unfortunately, only the top-shelf version of the 2.5 S and the CX-50 2.5 Turbos get 20-inch wheels that look terrific.

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Inside, upscale design and quality materials are the rules rather than the exceptions. Vertical air vents frame the instrumentation and anchor the right edge of the dashboard, and Mazda’s mix of analog and digital gauges is a model of clarity. Minimalism dominates the cabin, bringing a solitary off-center dashboard air vent that looks like an afterthought into sharper focus. However, that minimalistic approach, combined with ineffective voice recognition technology, can add distraction to the driving experience.

The test vehicle had black leather seats with caramel contrast stitching that extended to the dashboard and door panels. In combination with polished metallic accents and soft-touch surfaces, these details give the CX-50 the necessary credibility to support Mazda’s ambition to become a premium brand.

Thanks to power-adjustable front seats equipped with heating and ventilation, the CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus proved comfortable over hundreds of miles of driving. The heated steering wheel is also nice to have when traveling in colder weather. Unfortunately, Mazda missed opportunities to add storage trays on the dashboard and front door armrests, but otherwise, the CX-50 is reasonably accommodating of your things.

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Compared to the existing CX-5, the new CX-50 offers more rear-seat comfort. Climbing aboard through a wide rear door that opens to nearly a 90-degree angle is easy, and four tall adults can fit without any trouble. Almost all CX-50s have rear air conditioning vents, USB charging ports, and a center armrest with cupholders. In addition, Mazda’s first-ever panoramic sunroof helps make the CX-50 feel even larger inside than it is.

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Open the rear liftgate, and you’ll notice a long load floor contributing to a cargo space measurement of 31.4 cubic feet. That is a reasonable amount of space, but the cargo area is somewhat narrow between the rear wheels. Fortunately, near the liftgate opening, recessed bins and panel carve-outs on either side of the trunk appear ready to accept a golf bag loaded with clubs. Mazda also provides sturdy hooks and tie-down loops to secure everything from groceries to gear.

Fold the 60/40-split rear seat down, and the maximum cargo volume amounts to 56.3 cu-ft. Among compact crossovers, that isn’t much. However, the CX-50’s low roofline contributes to the unimpressive figure. Of course, if you rarely pack your SUV to the roof, it is a non-issue.

Speaking of the roof, the CX-50 Meridian Edition comes with a roof-rack and load platform that Mazda says will be suitable for a rooftop tent. The automaker also claims that the CX-50’s lower roof and wide rear door openings will make loading and securing cargo easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Review: The Technology

Mazda does not believe in touchscreen infotainment systems because the company thinks they’re too distracting to drivers. However, with the 2023 CX-50, Mazda is making an exception to this philosophy. Owners can turn on touchscreen operation, but only to use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

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Here’s the deal. Mazda Connect is the company’s infotainment user interface. It is designed for use with the physical controls on the center console and the steering wheel or specific voice commands. In this way, it is much like BMW’s formerly aggravating iDrive infotainment system before the German automaker figured out that touchscreens are not evil after all.

Not only did BMW decide touchscreens are acceptable, but it also improved the controls on the console, added a conversational voice recognition system that works like Siri and Google Assistant, and even offered gesture control for some infotainment functions. The screen is also within easy reach of the driver. These changes make the latest version of BMW iDrive very easy to use most of the time.

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You cannot say the same for Mazda Connect, which, as you will recall, is supposed to reduce driver distraction. First, this system needs conversational voice recognition capability. For example, when asking for directions to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., you should not receive a list of addresses in Tennessee from which to select.

Second, this system desperately requires a physical tuning knob. If you’re listening to the CX-50’s available satellite radio while driving with the navigation map live, and you want to switch to a different station within a genre of music, doing so is a genuine hassle. Unless you know the station’s name or channel number and can recall the proper voice command to make the change, you face a series of center control knob pushes and twists to simply move a few stations up or down the list.

Supposedly, the volume knob offers a tuning function by moving it to the left or right like a toggle switch, but in every Mazda I’ve driven recently, this action results in song playback or forwarding and that’s true of the CX-50, too. Please, Mazda. Just give us radio listeners a separate knob. We beg of you.

Now, circling back to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Mazda says these popular smartphone integration platforms are incompatible with the Mazda Connect user interface. So, in the CX-50, the company now allows touchscreen operation for those two platforms. Expect this functionality to roll out to other Mazda models in 2023, but know that in most of the automaker’s vehicles, you’ll need super-long arms to reach the organically embedded screens located close to the base of the windshield.

Christian Wardlaw

Comparatively speaking, Mazda gets the CX-50’s advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) right. For starters, most of them are standard equipment on all trim levels. The only upgrades include adaptive headlights (standard on all Turbos) and several exclusive items to the 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus. These include Traffic Jam Assist, a surround-view camera, front-and-rear parking sensors, reverse automatic braking, and an upgraded blind-spot monitoring system that actively attempts to discourage unsafe lane changes.

Extensive highway driving offered plenty of opportunities to use the ADAS. The tech works well with one repeatable exception, operating in the background without drawing much attention, which encourages the driver to keep using it. In particular, I like how the blind-spot warnings show on the head-up display. That means the driver doesn’t need to look away from the road and at the mirror to see if there is a car in the next lane. The subtle lane-departure vibration through the steering wheel is also excellent.

There is an exception to my praise related to vehicles that cut into the gap ahead of the CX-50. Heading north out of Santa Barbara on the 101 freeway, traffic was heavy, creating the perfect conditions for testing the Traffic Jam Assist adaptive cruise control and lane-centering technology. Everything was great with the distance maintenance function set to the shortest interval until somebody cut into the gap ahead and then slowed down. Unfortunately, the CX-50 did not recognize the vehicle, and I had to manually brake the SUV to match the slower car’s pace.

Later in the day, a similar thing happened. I changed lanes to pass slower vehicles, and as the CX-50 accelerated, one of those slower vehicles ahead also changed lanes and got in front of the SUV. But, again, the adaptive cruise control failed to “see” this lane interloper, continuing to accelerate rather than brake as proved necessary.

What’s the moral of this story? Current driving assist technology is not a suitable replacement for a human driver. So pay attention.

Christian Wardlaw

2023 Mazda CX-50 Review: The Drive

Because it is the most affordable version of the CX-50, most people will likely choose the 2.5 S. It has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine supplying 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque and uses a six-speed automatic transmission to drive all four of the CX-50’s wheels. The 2.5-liter is a dependable and lively engine, and the automatic transmission means you won’t suffer any continuously variable transmission (CVT) drone or dual-clutch transmission (DCT) quirkiness. In addition, Mazda says it will get 27 mpg in combined driving and is rated to tow 2,000 pounds.

As good as the standard engine is, the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder in the 2.5 Turbo models is even better. Run it on regular 87-octane gas, and it makes 227 hp and a robust 310 lb-ft of torque starting at just 2,000 rpm. If you can get 93-octane fuel where you live, and you’re willing to pay for it, you’ll enjoy 256 hp and 320 lb-ft starting at 2,500 rpm. The 2.5 Turbo has the same transmission and AWD system as the 2.5 S, is expected to return 25 mpg in combined driving, and can tow 3,500 lbs.

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The test vehicle had the turbocharged engine fueled with California’s 91-octane gas. Over more than 200 miles of driving, it averaged 23.4 mpg, falling short of expectations by 1.6 mpg. During a brief towing test on level ground, the CX-50 2.5 Turbo handled a 3,500-lb trailer without much effort. However, a full-throttle acceleration run with the trailer in tow suggested that it might struggle on mountain passes. Fortunately, Mazda claims it has beefed up the CX-50 2.5 Turbo’s cooling systems to help support maximum towing situations.

Mazda also put us on a couple of trails to sample the CX-50’s Off-Road driving mode and demonstrate the SUV’s hill climbing and wheel articulation capabilities. On the higher-speed gravel road section, the change in character with Off-Road mode was subtle but perceptible, mainly in bends in the trail where it added a hint of stability. On the lower-speed course, the CX-50 covered ground you couldn’t in a Mazda3 sedan or hatchback, which is the point. However, experience driving the Subaru Forester Wilderness in more challenging conditions suggests that it is the compact crossover to buy if you’re planning to head well off the beaten path.

The rest of the driving took place on freeways, two-lane highways, city streets, and twisty mountain roads. It was a breezy day, so I cannot comment on wind noise. However, I can say that drivetrain noise is nicely quelled and that road noise is about what you would expect in the compact SUV segment.

What’s important to convey is that the Mazda CX-50 drives like a Mazda. In other words, it feels light and lithe, smooth yet speedy. You forget you’re driving an SUV, and then when you open the door to step out, the CX-50 reminds you that it sits higher off of the ground than a car does.

Mazda says it resisted adding driving modes to its vehicles for a long time. Dave Coleman, Vehicle Dynamics Engineer, explained that in competitive vehicles, the driving modes are calibrated to provide distinctly different driving characteristics, which results in compromise. Furthermore, in some models, there are too many of them, and when conditions change while you’re driving, the menu of choices is confusing and distracting.

That’s why Mazda simplifies its Mazda Intelligent Drive Select (MI-Drive) modes, sticking to Normal, Sport, Off-Road, and in the CX-50 2.5 Turbo, Towing. Mazda designs each to address the broad driving situations associated with the name and calibrates each to make the CX-50 feel entirely natural to the driver and passengers.

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Coleman said drivers shouldn’t notice much difference between them. While off-roading and towing, the associated driving modes added stability and sure-footedness, delivering on the expectation that the technology would compensate for how the situations might otherwise alter the CX-50’s behavior. Sport mode, which eliminates mid-corner transmission shifts and improves steering response, produced a more perceptible change in dynamics that made the CX-50 exceptionally pleasurable to drive on tight and winding roads.

Furthermore, Coleman says Mazda calibrates the CX-50’s traction control to do what the driver wants. He cited the example of hard acceleration from a dirt shoulder onto the pavement, where some traction control systems will stall engine power to prevent wheel slip. However, in this situation, a driver is requesting maximum acceleration and might even need it for safety reasons so bogging the vehicle down is the opposite of what the driver wants. I put this to the test with a full-throttle launch from the shoulder of a road onto a highway. The CX-50 performed as I wanted it to, seamlessly transitioning from the loose dirt to the pavement while accelerating hard to get up to prevailing speeds.

Is the 2023 Mazda CX-50 a Good SUV?

While there are a few wrinkles to iron out, the Mazda CX-50 deserves to prove enormously popular in a competitive segment. It offers the style, proportions, performance, technology, and utility the target buyers in the segment seek. Just run Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, activate the touchscreen function, and skip the native Mazda Connect UX to the greatest degree possible.

However, you’re going to need to buy into Mazda’s premium-brand positioning to make the CX-50 2.5 Turbo’s price, uncompetitive cargo space measurements, and fuel economy pencil in your head. Compare it to something like a Buick Envision, GMC Terrain, Jeep Compass, or any entry-level luxury SUV, and a Mazda CX-50 2.5 S seems like a no-brainer.

Mazda CX-50 Competitors for 2023

With the all-new CX-50, Mazda aims at the more rugged members of the compact crossover SUV segment. They include the Ford Bronco SportGMCTerrain AT4, Hyundai Tucson XRT, Kia Sportage X-Line, Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4 Adventure. It will most likely serve as an alternative to the expected 2023 Honda CR-V TrailSport, too.

Mazda CX-50 Features

Highlights

With the 2023 CX-50, Mazda splits its approach to the compact crossover SUV segment. Mazda deliberately designed the CX-50 for active lifestyle buyers who plan to travel off of the pavement. At the same time, the CX-5 continues to serve urban customers seeking a refined crossover meant mainly for driving on pavement.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Safety Features

  • Smart Brake Support – Standard feature that can automatically brake the CX-50 to avoid a collision
  • Lane Keep Assist – Standard lane-keeping and lane-centering assistance system
  • Mazda Radar Cruise Control – Standard adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability
  • Traffic Jam Assist – Available feature that combines the adaptive cruise control with low-speed lane-centering assistance*
  • Blind Spot Prevention – Available feature that can resist driver steering input when changing lanes is unsafe*

2023 Mazda CX-50 Technology

  • Infotainment system – Standard 8.8-inch and available 10.25-inch display
  • Smartphone integration – Standard wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
  • Mazda Connected Services – Standard connected services including access to Wi-Fi, remote engine starting, automatic collision notification, and more
  • Active Driving Display – Available head-up display that projects data onto the windshield in front of the driver*
  • 360-degree View Monitor – Available surround-view camera including a front-view camera for off-roading*

2023 Mazda CX-50 Specs

  • 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 187 horsepower and 186 lb.-ft. of torque
  • 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 227-256 hp, 310-320 lb.-ft. of torque (power output is dependent on fuel octane rating)*
  • Six-speed automatic transmission
  • Standard all-wheel drive
  • EPA fuel economy ratings: Mazda estimates 27 mpg (2.5 S models) and 25 mpg (2.5 Turbo models) in combined driving

2023 Mazda CX-50 Interior

  • Leather seats – Available feature*
  • Heated and ventilated front seats – Available feature*
  • Heated rear seats – Available feature*
  • Panoramic sunroof – Available feature*
  • Premium sound system – Available 12-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround-sound system*

*Availability is subject to specific trim level selections

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Christian Wardlaw
My first word was “car.” That’s what I’m told, anyway. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with them. The design. The engineering. The performance. And the purpose. I’m a car enthusiast who loves to drive, but I’m also most interested in the cars, trucks, and SUVs that people actually buy. Anybody can tell you that a sports car is fast. What you need to know is whether or not you should buy that new SUV, and why. My life purpose is to help you make that decision.