2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review: Suba-who?

Mazda tries to build a better Subaru Outback, aiming the CX-50 at drivers seeking off-road adventure, but in doing so might have just obsoleted its own CX-5.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
8 min read

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the new 2023 Mazda CX-50, which debuted late last year and is gearing up to hit dealerships this spring, is the replacement for CX-5, the company's most popular model. However, the automaker has made the perplexing decision to position the two similarly sized and priced crossovers as contemporaries. It's difficult to imagine that there won't be a cannibalization of sales with this slightly larger and tougher-looking CX-50 doing the chowing down.

Having spent a day behind the wheel over bendy Southern California roads and some unpaved trails that are probably more challenging than what the CX-50's target buyer will ever tackle, I'm convinced that beyond the numbers, this is a very different vehicle from the urbane CX-5. It might also be exactly what Mazda needs to challenge more outdoorsy competitors.

Leaner, meaner chassis

The CX-50 may look like a variant of the CX-5, but it's actually built on a newer platform which is shared with the CX-30 and the latest . Parked next to the CX-5, the CX-50 is 6.7 inches longer from bumper-to-bumper and 3.1 inches wider shoulder-to-shoulder.  The additional width is accentuated with a roofline that's 2.2 inches lower than its sibling and by a more menacing blacked-out version of Mazda's winged headlamp and grill combo. Interestingly, the way the CX-50's side mirrors sits inboard of its shoulders means that it's about 2.5 inches narrower when measured mirror-to-mirror, which could come in handy when squeezing into tight spaces.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo
Enlarge Image
2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo

The CX-50 boasts an inch of additional ground clearance over the CX-5 but is over two-inches shorter overall.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Accentuated with black plastic cladding around its lower body and wheel arches, the CX-50 also boasts around an inch of additional ground clearance versus the CX-5, sitting at 8.3 inches for the S models and 8.6 inches of clearance for the Turbo. That's competitive with other soft-roaders such as the (8.7 inches) and the pricier (7.0 inches). The CX-50's proportions are also more in line with those tall wagons than Mazda's other more upright SUV.

The CX-50's larger footprint translates into more space inside with a larger rear cargo floor than the CX-5 and more legroom for second-row passengers. The lower overall height makes loading and unloading the roof rack easier but also squeezes the headroom, leaving the CX-50 with just 38.6 inches up front (down 1.1 inches vs. CX-5) and 37.5 inches on the second row (down 1.5 inches) when equipped with Mazda's first panoramic moonroof.

Specifications Compared

2023 Mazda CX-502022 Mazda CX-52022 Subaru Outback
Wheelbase 110.8 inches106.2 inches108.1 inches
Length 185.8 inches179.1 inches191.3 inches
Width 75.6 inches72.5 inches73.0 inches
Height 63.9 inches66.1 inches66.1 inches
Ground clearance 8.6 inches7.5 inches8.7 inches

2.5-liter Skyactiv-G engines

The CX-50 can be had with two versions of Mazda's 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G inline-four-cylinder engine. Naturally aspirated S models make 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. Turbo models add a twin-scroll turbocharger to the mix, boosting output to 256 hp and 320 lb-ft on 93-octane premium fuel. Fill up on cheaper 87-octane fuel and output drops to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft, still a decent amount of power and maybe not a bad compromise considering current fuel prices.

The CX-50's wider stance and lower center of mass contribute to a more planted feel than the already excellent and engaging CX-5 when weaving up a twisty mountain road, which allows the turbocharged engine to shine better when it comes time to accelerate out of a corner. From the natural and responsive throttle tip-in to the linear delivery of torque throughout the tachometer's swing, this engine also boasts plenty of grunt for passing on straight stretches. 

Interestingly, both variants also feature unique fuel-saving technologies: The naturally aspirated CX-50 S uses cylinder deactivation tech to sip fuel at an EPA estimated average of 24 city mpg, 30 highway mpg and 27 combined mpg. Slightly thirstier Turbo models use a stop-start anti-idling system and are estimated to return 23 city mpg, 29 highway mpg and 25 combined mpg. Either way you go, a well-behaved six-speed automatic transmission is standard equipment, as is Mazda's i-Activ all-wheel drive.

Powertrain Specifications

Mazda CX-50 SMazda CX-50 TurboSubaru OutbackSubaru Outback XT
Engine 2.5-liter I42.5-liter turbo I42.5-liter H42.4-liter turbo H4
Horsepower 187 hp256 hp182 hp260 hp
Torque 186 lb-ft320 lb-ft176 lb-ft277 lb-ft

G-Vectoring Control and MI-Drive Select

The CX-50's performance can be customized to the task via the Mazda Intelligent Drive Select or MI-Drive drive modes, which can be toggled between Normal, Sport, Off-Road and Towing modes with the flick of the small switch on the center console. Without an adaptive suspension, the four modes don't really feel all that different from one another, but Mazda says that's by design -- its philosophy towards drive modes is that the CX-50 should feel like the same vehicle with the same driving dynamics with the modes quietly compensating for different conditions.

Normal is the default setting for balanced performance, while Sport mode wakes up the powertrain with improved throttle response and adjustments to the transmission programming to hold revs longer and higher into the powerband. (The setting also prevents mid-corner downshifts that could upset the CX-50's balance or reduce exit speeds.) Sport mode is also more liberal with the all-wheel-drive torque split, sending more power to the rear when accelerating and totally cutting rear axle torque when cornering to reduce understeer. This setting also makes more aggressive use of Mazda's G-Vectoring Control handling technology. 

GVC aims to improve steering response and cornering grip by making small adjustments to engine torque in order to shift weight onto the front wheels when you turn into a corner. Essentially, GVC dips engine torque a touch to load up the front wheels, which helps them bite into the pavement while creating a nice weighty steering feel. Sport mode makes that torque and weight transfer more pronounced, which further boosts grip, steering response and stability during initial turn-in. In operation, the system is fairly transparent -- you don't feel the torque dip, but the boost in steering weight and feedback is both noticeable and fantastic.

The 2023 CX-50 Is Mazda's Cooler, More Capable Crossover

See all photos

Off-road and Towing modes

Off-Road mode -- unique to the CX-50 -- aims to replicate the traction and feel of tarmac when driving on dirt and gravel trails. It does so by making even more aggressive use of GVC to help the front wheels dig into looser substrates and by sending more torque to the rear end to help cornering stability. The transmission and brake-based traction-control system are also adjusted to optimize low-speed grip and the CX-50 can even detect when it's aimed uphill and adjust the idle speed in preparation for a climb. 

I tested the CX-50's dirt prowess in both Normal and Off-Road modes. The small changes between the two settings add up to a noticeable difference on the trail. In particular, my steering inputs were much smoother in Off-Road mode, demanding fewer small twitches and corrections to keep the SUV going where I pointed it. The additional ride height won't transform the CX-50 into a rock crawler, but the extra clearance and approach angle add peace of mind when traversing uneven surfaces.

There are no specific programs for rocks, sand or ruts and no crawl assist. You won't even find hill descent control, there's just the one catch-all Off-Road mode. Mazda officials maintain that bespoke terrain modes take too much time to activate and can perform inconsistently. They say a firm, easy-to-modulate brake pedal is all you really need. To its credit, the CX-50 made easy work scrambling up some fairly steep climbs. On the other hand, descending a similarly loose, steep grade felt more like a barely controlled slide with the anti-lock brakes straining to control the speed. 

2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo
Enlarge Image
2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo

The CX-50's offroad capabilities aren't exactly enhanced by its 20-inch wheels and all-season touring tires.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Maybe Mazda's right that practice and a sensitive right foot are all the CX-50 needs off road. In fairness, my sketchy descent probably would've benefited more from tires better matched for dirt driving than another electronic gizmo. A top-shelf Meridian Edition trim level, which will join the lineup post-launch, should further boost its off-road grip by swapping the Turbo's 20-inch wheels and 245/45R20 Goodyear Eagle Touring all-season tires for an 18-inch all-terrain tire setup with chunkier treads. Still, I can't help but think that less-experienced adventurers would benefit from some sort of crawl control tech.

That said, I don't think most CX-50 shoppers will subject this SUV to anything more than light trail driving on the sort of well-beaten paths that lead to trailheads or boat launches. For that sort of duty, the CX-50 is more than capable.

When equipped with Mazda's towing package and plugged into a trailer using the automaker's wire harness, MI-Drive replaces the Sport mode with a Towing mode. Upon activation, the transmission, all-wheel-drive and GVC all optimize their performance to boost stability and offset the rear weight shift you get when pulling heavy loads. The CX-50 S can accommodate a 2,000-pound trailer while Turbo models can haul up to 3,500 pounds which is about what we expect for SUVs in this class.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo
Enlarge Image
2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo

Drivers who prefer to use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay will be frustrated by Mazda Connect's awkward controls.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Mazda Connect infotainment

The CX-50's cabin is handsome in its simplicity thanks to intuitive climate controls, a satisfying-feeling steering wheel and firm, supportive leather seats on my Turbo Premium Plus model. A standard 7-inch instrument cluster display doesn't overwhelm with too much information and looks great flanked by a pair of physical gauges.

The Mazda Connect infotainment, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. Most CX-50 trims come standard with a 10.3-inch center display that is controlled via a physical knob and buttons on the center console (base models drop down to an 8.8-inch screen). If you stick with Mazda's onboard navigation and audio sources, the system is easy enough to grasp and use, mostly because it's fairly bare bones with simple, sparse menus. 

However, if you want to use the standard wireless Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, things get more complicated. The center display is actually a touchscreen, but only while using one of these phone mirroring technologies. However, the screen is positioned so deep in the dashboard that it's difficult to reach without leaning forward. Making matters worse, the touchscreen functionality is disabled when the vehicle is in motion. Navigating these interfaces with the physical controller is very unnatural, as it can be difficult to predict where the cursor will go when the knob is twisted or nudged. It's a wholly unsatisfying experience.

Standard driver aid tech

Most of the 2023 CX-50's driver-aid tech is standard equipment. That includes lane departure warning and lane keeping assist, blind spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic. Stepping up to the top Turbo Premium Plus model adds rear automatic brake assist and front and rear parking sensors, as well as Mazda's Traffic Jam Assist -- an enhanced version of its hands-on steering assistance and adaptive cruise control technologies that provides more precise lane centering and smoother stop-and-go operation when traffic speeds dip below 40 mph. 

2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo
Enlarge Image
2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo

The Mazda CX-50 is perhaps too close to the CX-5 in both size and price, but it's still a compelling addition to the lineup.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Price and competition

The CX-50 2.5 S starts at $28,025 including the $1,225 destination charge, making this vehicle a bit more expensive than the CX-5 ($27,125) but still in the ballpark of the base $28,320 Subaru Outback. Stepping up to the CX-50 Turbo starts at $37,625, while my Turbo Premium Plus example rolls out at $42,775 as tested with $395 Zircon Sand Metallic paint. Comparably equipped, this Mazda is more expensive than a Subaru Outback Touring XT ($41,320), but not by much.

Yes, the CX-50 is perhaps a bit too close to the CX-5 in Mazda's lineup and I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years this model ends up ultimately replacing its smaller sibling, but for now, this is still a very different-feeling vehicle when you look beyond the numbers. More importantly, the CX-50's blending of Mazda's hallmark excellent on-road driving dynamics -- where you'll do 95% of driving -- with trail capability that is better matched with off-road-focused competition like the Outback and Audi's A4 Allroad makes this 2023 Mazda CX-50 a very compelling addition to Mazda's lineup.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.