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Review: 2023 Mazda CX-50 Is Aimed Squarely At Subaru's Off-Road Friendly SUVs—Or  Is It?

The current vogue among the small SUV set is to build rugged editions of traditionally genteel, street-focused people movers. Having just come out from behind the wheel of the Subaru Forester Wilderness, a model that follows this exact playbook, I was more than a little curious about Mazda's first foray into the segment, the 2023 Mazda CX-50.

2023 Mazda CX-50 side profile

Advertised as a splash of extra adventure for owners willing to leave the beaten path behind and push past where its other crossovers would fear to tread, the Mazda CX-50 elevates the bones of its platform-mate, the asphalt-friendly CX-5, to create something longer, larger, and ostensibly tougher. After a week behind the wheel, however, I realized that Mazda's message about the CX-50's capabilities might be calling out to entirely the wrong group of buyers—and that the brand may have buried the best parts of its newest crossover behind a misplaced marketing campaign.

Bigger And Sleeker

It's important to stress that there's nothing wrong with the 2023 Mazda CX-50. In fact, if you approach the compact sport-utility vehicle without any off-road expectations, chances are you'll be impressed by much of its compelling package.

2023 Mazda CX-50 front 3/4

The CX-50 stretches out its CX-5 sibling's wheelbase by 4.6 inches, lengthening the roof to create an almost-wagon feel and providing second row passengers with generous amounts of interior real estate. That extra roofline is a little lower than what the CX-5 has to offer, too, which adds further visual heft to the CX-50's design, and with the expected plastic wheel arches and rocker panel guards (a virtual necessity for any off-road intender), there's about 3 inches more width to the SUV as well.

2023 Mazda CX-50 rear 3/4

Overall, the Mazda CX-50 looks great. Absent any of the wild colors or chunky black bumpers found on Subaru's Wilderness family (which also includes the Outback), it's a sleeker, mature-feeling crossover. Although it rides a little over an inch higher on its tweaked suspension compared to the CX-5, the CX-50's wheel wells are also better filled by its available 20-inch rims and tires (compared to Subaru's 17-inch rollers), giving it a Jeep-like 8.6 inches of total ground clearance on the high-end Premium trim.

Know Your Role

That tire spec should be your first red flag that perhaps Mazda isn't all that serious about the CX-50's off-road mission statement. There are few crossover-appropriate all-terrain tires available in a 20-inch size, and rather than equip the CX-50 with a set right out of the box Mazda has instead given the vehicle a rather pedestrian set of all-season tourers. Base models avail themselves of 17-inch rims, but tire selection remains decidedly street-oriented. This stands in stark contrast to the knobby rubber found on its smaller-wheel Subaru rivals, as well as the Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road. Even the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands comes with (modest) all-terrain tires fresh from the factory floor.

2023 Mazda CX-50 badge

Then there's the lack of any other trail-appropriate equipment to be found on the Mazda CX-50's features list. Yes, its standard all-wheel drive system features an off-road driving mode, but it's really just a shuffling of the standard electronic nannies intended to improve grip and reduce wheel spin on softer surfaces by shuttling engine torque to the correct axle. There's not much that differentiates the CX-50 from its CX-5 roots when it comes to tackling obstacles like mud, rocks, or sand, nor does it really rise above the rest of the small SUV pack, finding itself decidedly behind even the low-key efforts of its Subaru, Toyota, and Ford competitors.

A Different Skill-Set

Stick to the road, however, and you'll be impressed by the CX-50's comportment. This is especially true of models outfitted with its 2.5L, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, whose 256 hp (on 93 octane fuel) and 320 lb-ft of torque (same) easily most similarly-sized comers with the pedal to the floor. More than that, the Mazda's drivetrain is refreshingly smooth in a world where continuously-variable automatic transmissions consistently gum up power delivery, a testament to its old school six-speed automatic gearbox.

  2023 Mazda CX-50 front view

When not enjoying the surprisingly pleasant turbo engine note (a 187 hp, naturally-aspirated four-cylinder is also available), the CX-50 is remarkably quiet inside, even at highway speeds. Fit and finish throughout the cabin is also quite good, with my tester featuring elegant brown stitching on the leather-wrapped door panels and dash.

2023 Mazda CX-50 interior

Keeping the Mazda from truly touching the premium world hinted at by its trim name is an infotainment system that is clunky to use. There's little reason for the automaker to mix touch controls and a rotary controller knob on the center console, and then make owners guess at which functionality is locked out when the vehicle is in motion. The mostly analog gauge cluster, while functional and straightforward, also lacks the wow-factor found in modern digital displays.

Enjoy Its Strengths, Ignore The Hype

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 is an attractive, useful, and pleasingly quick compact SUV. It's comfortable to ride in, reasonably efficient at the fuel pump (with a 23/29 mpg city/highway rating for the turbo), and given the nine different trim levels available, fairly affordable (you can pick up an entry-level model for just under $27k, or pay as much as $41,550 for the top-tier edition).

2023 Mazda CX-50 rear view

What the CX-50 isn't is a much shorter list. There's really nothing about this crossover that suggests it's primed for off-road adventure, certainly not at the (still basic) level provided by the more focused compact SUVs it seems to name-check with its trail-heavy advertising imagery. Yes, the Mazda will transport your tent and canoe to the next batch of riverside greenery—just don't expect it tackle anything more hardcore than a rutted grass track or gravel fire road to get there. 

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