2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive – Treading New Ground

There’s an argument to be made Mazda is the little car company that could. Representing a sliver of the American market compared to its larger competitors, the Hiroshima-made vehicles are typically infused with the type of driving fun that’s seemingly been surgically removed from the vehicles with which it competes.

Actually, the term ‘Hiroshima-made’ is no longer totally correct. With the introduction of the 2023 CX-50 crossover you see on these digital pages, Mazda now has a manufacturing footprint in this country to the annual tune of 150,000 vehicles. It’s only fitting they’d deploy this new capability for the type of rig most Americans prefer: An all-wheel-drive crossover with an off-road attitude.0 seconds of 1 minute, 7 secondsVolume 0% 

(Full disclosure: Mazda flew me to California for this drive program and housed me in a pleasant Santa Barbara hotel. Their burgers were tasty.)

The 2023 CX-50 has been designed for the North American market, says Mazda, and will only be sold on this side of the pond for now. Note the ‘for now’. Oddball naming conventions notwithstanding, the CX-50 shares little with a CX-5, and all its body panels are new, according to our translator-assisted conversation with the lead designer from Japan. It retains the typically handsome Mazda style while infusing a bit of off-road sneer by swapping round headlights for ones that are more square, extra black cladding that has a bit of depth, and a palette of new paint choices.

Sitting on a different platform, it measures 6.7 inches longer in total length on a wheelbase spanning 4.6 inches more vast compared to the CX-5. Width is up by just over 3 inches, largely thanks to those flared hips, but the overall height is shorn by 2.2 inches. Cargo volume jumps by only half a cube but it’s worth noting the CX-50 cargo area is notably longer from seatback to tailgate in an apparent effort to cater to lifestyle types who’ll probably be packing Yeti coolers adorned with stickers from a local dispensary.

How does this translate in the real world? Your author, who measures 6’6” in his size 13 stocking feet, was astonished to have ample headroom in the front row of seats even with our tester’s panoramic moonroof (Mazda’s first, by the way). This was unexpected given the CX-50 packs an extra inch of ground clearance compared to the CX-5 but is lower overall to the top of its roof. Doctor Who fans can insert their own joke here about this car’s TARDIS-like ability to be unexpectedly bigger on the inside. Urchins relegated to the back seat will find similarly spacious accommodations, though those of us with NBA-like stature may find their pate connects with the roof more than they’d like.

The interior is typical Mazda, which is to say it looks a lot more expensive than the sticker price suggests. Soft-touch surfaces abound, including a supple spear of leather with impressive stitching underneath the climate vents. Pod-like registers on either side of the gauge cluster are a new Mazda design, and it works well.

Mazda has finally relented on their ‘no touchy the screen’ edict which barred users from making any infotainment inputs via the central tablet-style unit and instead directed them to a control dial and hard buttons mounted on the center console. While the stated goal of reducing driver distraction is laudable, using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto with the dial has always been a headache since those UX platforms were explicitly designed for touch inputs. For now, Mazda is only relenting on permitting touch inputs for those two smartphone integration tools and not their native software. We’ll see if that changes.

Under the hood is a choice of familiar engines – a 2.5-liter four-banger making 187 horsepower and a like amount of torque. A turbocharged mill good for 256 ponies and 320 lb-ft of twist is offered further up the food chain. Given the CX-50 assignment of pushing Mazda toward a slightly more off-road demographic, all-wheel drive is standard across the board. There’s a six-speed automatic handling gear changes and while it may be down a couple of cogs in gear count compared to the competition, its behavior beats the tar out of any miserable CVT found in other machines. There are driving modes for Sport and Off-Road, plus one for Towing.

Interestingly, one of the development leads told this author that the different driving modes are not meant to make the car feel different. Say what? Their goal, he explained, is to make the CX-50 feel broadly the same over a variety of different surfaces. In other words, the control system is designed to permit the same level of Mazda handling sharpness it has on pavement when it either hits the dirt or hooks up to a 3,500-pound trailer.

Mazda has always marched to its own drumbeat, one which generally has included driving fun as part of its mission statement, so the desire to use their G Vectoring Control in a unique way on this new model was key to program goals.

And it works. Flicking the CX-50 around a loose gravel surface at 35 mph in Off-Road mode produced a largely seamless experience, one in which the car didn’t pitch or scravel for traction when asked to wildly change direction. Driving the same route in Normal mode resulted in more wiggling of those flared rear wheel arches and an absence of that sharp Mazda handling we’ve come to expect. Ditto during towing, where turning off the Towing mode introduced a wander the type usually undertaken by dads in a new hardware store. Note that Towing mode only appears when a trailer’s wiring is connected and kicks Sport mode off the roster. Thanks to this, the system requires a Mazda-sourced harness and hitch, so don’t think you can run down to U-Haul and buy a hitch for this thing. A trailer brake is also absent but that’s less of a big deal on a machine with a 3,500lb max tow rating.

The trick is the proper deployment of that G Vectoring Control – which is not, it should be noted, torque vectoring in a true sense – and its ability to gently cut a minuscule amount of torque to certain wheels to imperceptibly shift the car’s weight distribution in response to driver inputs. In certain handling situations, this will ‘load up’ the front tires and smooth out handling.

Once CX-50 engineers were tasked with developing Off-Road and Towing modes, they could take advantage of GVC for more than just providing crisp on-pavement response. The system, with a cacophony of clicks and metallic grunts, shoved the CX-50 up a 25-degree dirt incline without much issue. We’ll note the Goodyear tires Mazda is fitting to these machines are tarmac-tuned, so customers who swap them for a more aggressive set of all-terrains should see even more off-road bite.

There will be two different production lines at the production facility in Alabama. Toyota will be making its vehicle on a line dubbed ‘Apollo’ while Mazda takes control of the Discovery line. The significance of using these names at a pair of companies that have historically aimed for the stars is not lost on TTAC authors.

Mazda engineers took great pains to tell us these two lines are truly separate since their development and engineering processes are quite different from those at Toyota, resulting in a situation a world apart from other joint ventures in which the same car is produced on both lines and then different badges slapped on during final assembly. The arrangement sounds more like two friends splitting the rent so they can afford to live in a tony part of town – after all, having production lines in America for American-bound vehicles has tremendous advantages from logistics to eliminating pricing fluctuations due to a yo-yoing Yen.

The base trim of the Mazda CX-50 will have an MSRP of $26,800 and rise to $36,400 when equipped with the standard engine. Turbo models pick up right where that pricing leaves off, topping out at $41,550. They’ll be in dealers this quarter.

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 won’t steal sales from rigs like the similarly-sized Cherokee Trailhawk – an absence of lockers and 4-Lo takes care of that – but it will be on the list of shoppers looking at machines like the new Trailsport line of rigs at Honda. It’s more than capable enough to tackle that two-mile dirt trail to an overlanding campsite yet retains the Mazda DNA which makes it sharp on pavement compared to its competitors. Toss in a head-of-class interior and you’ve got an attractive package from the little car company that could.

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