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2023 Mazda CX-50 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

The verdict: The all-new Mazda CX-50 is a competent — if uninspiring — compact SUV that does most things well, but it doesn’t do much to push Mazda’s lineup in a new direction.

Versus the competition: Given how closely matched the compact SUVs in our latest comparison test were, it would be nice if the CX-50 did more to differentiate itself from its competition — or even its CX-5 stablemate.

When Mazda unveiled the 2023 CX-50 in November 2021, it was clearly jumping aboard the off-road-vehicle bandwagon that became increasingly prevalent in the market as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on and people sought any excuse to get out of the house. Off-road vehicles and trims are apparently the new blacked-out appearance packages.

The CX-50 has standard all-wheel drive, a six-speed automatic transmission and a choice of two 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines: a naturally aspirated version with 187 horsepower and 186 pounds-feet of torque or a turbocharged version making either 256 or 227 hp and 320 or 310 pounds-feet of torque depending on whether or not it’s running on premium gas.

We drove a range-topping Premium Plus CX-50 with the 2.5-liter turbo both off- and on-road to see if it could stand out in its extremely crowded and competitive segment. Unfortunately, the CX-50 doesn’t really stand out even in Mazda’s own lineup, where it’s in direct competition with the CX-5 (for now, anyway).

Driving the CX-50

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2023 Mazda CX-50 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

Despite using a different platform, the CX-50 drives a lot like its CX-5 sibling. One thing usually present in Mazda vehicles is communicative steering, and that’s still the case in the CX-50. Unfortunately, it lacks other on-road capabilities that could take full advantage of that: The ride is brittle, and impacts were harsh with the 20-inch wheels that come standard with the 2.5 turbo engine. Aggressive cornering produces body roll and some understeer, though not any more than you’ll find in pretty much any SUV in this segment. Most competitors, however, also have steering that feels much more numb.

For more detailed off-road impressions, you can read my extended thoughts here. Without driving a CX-50 equipped with the Meridian treatment, which includes more serious all-terrain tires, it’s hard to gauge just how capable the CX-50 could be. We can speak to its performance with street tires and 20-inch wheels, though, and with that setup, the CX-50 successfully navigated a light off-road course, but it never felt happy doing so. The CX-50 is meant to be the vehicle that gets you and your gear to the trailhead, not one that goes down the trail, but in most of those instances, you’d be just as successful getting there in a Camry. The CX-50 is not meant for serious or frequent off-roading, so if you’re looking for something like that, look elsewhere.

It’s possible the Meridian Edition, with its smaller wheels and beefier off-road tires, might feel both more capable off-road and cushier on pavement, but it’s probably not going to supplant some of the more capable soft-roaders in its segment, like the Ford Bronco Sport Badlands, the Subaru Forester Wilderness or any of the multiple Toyota RAV4 TRD models.

The CX-50’s fuel economy is decent, at least, and there’s not much of a penalty for getting the more powerful turbo engine. The naturally aspirated 2.5 is rated 24/30/27 mpg city/highway/combined, and switching to the turbocharged powerplant drops those ratings only slightly to 23/29/25 mpg. Of course, to get the most horsepower and torque out of the turbo 2.5-liter — 256 hp and 320 pounds-feet — Mazda recommends using premium gas. That’s of course more expensive than regular, and the 2.5 turbo doesn’t provide overwhelming power on it; it’s unlikely that owners will miss the extra 29 hp or 10 pounds-feet of torque if they opt for regular. The turbo engine provides adequate power when called upon, but it can sound strained and unrefined under heavier loads.

The CX-50 also adds two new drive modes: Off-Road and a turbo-exclusive Towing. Off-Road helps a bit when the going gets tough, but there’s no additional configurability beyond “Off-Road” to help with specific types of terrain. Towing mode is exclusive to turbo-powered CX-50s, which can tow 3,500 pounds versus the 2,000 pounds the non-turbo CX-50 can pull. The other driving mode worth mentioning is Sport, but that’s just to note that it doesn’t do much to change the character of the CX-50.

Comfortable, Frustrating Interior

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2023 Mazda CX-50 | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

The front and rear seats of the CX-50 don’t feel much roomier — or really much different at all — from a CX-5. The CX-50’s more aggressive roofline and Mazda’s first power-sliding panoramic moonroof cut into headroom a bit, but there’s not an uncomfortable seat in the car. The CX-50’s cargo area is also impressively roomy, if basic, with two small cubbies for smaller items. (They were, for instance, a great place to put some precious six-packs of Wisconsin-exclusive New Glarus beer when driving home to Illinois.) We measured the CX-50’s cargo volume at 18.13 cubic feet — nearly identical to the 2021 CX-5 we measured at 17.91.

What’s problematic is Mazda’s infotainment system. The larger 10.25-inch display in our test vehicle (an 8.8-inch screen is standard) is technically a touchscreen, but it doesn’t function as such in most situations. Touch control only works when the vehicle is not in motion; when the car is driving, a knob controller is the only way to navigate the display and make selections. At least, that was the case before Mazda gave touchscreen functionality back when using Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s a smart decision given how much easier it is to use a smartphone-mirroring interface like you use a smartphone. Both those interfaces work wirelessly, though I noticed some slight lagginess in wireless CarPlay when quickly cycling through songs.

While bringing back touchscreen capability is nice, the screen itself is positioned so high and deep on the dashboard that even longer-armed drivers and front passengers may have trouble reaching it. I alternated between using the touchscreen and the frustrating knob depending on the situation and how comfortable I felt leaning forward.

If you’re not using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, the rest of the user interface looks dated and can be confusing. It feels like Mazda is mimicking early iterations of BMW’s iDrive before the Bavarians worked out all the kinks.

Some of the CX-50’s competitors have their own quirks and foibles when it comes to this stuff, but for an all-new vehicle like the CX-50 to have the same old tech that’s frustrated us in other Mazdas is disappointing.

Mazda aims to be seen as a more premium automaker than, say, Toyota or Honda, and the CX-50 is trying to live up to that goal. Its interior materials are a step above competitors’, and build quality is top-notch. Physical controls have a solid feel, and an available head-up display is a premium touch. Compared with an Acura RDX, the CX-50 may not come out ahead, but compared with a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, it is likely to impress.

Safety

The CX-50 has a number of standard active safety features, including Mazda’s low-speed City Brake Support automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, as well as lane departure warning, lane keeping assist and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. I didn’t find these features overly intrusive or unhelpful during my time in the CX-50, which isn’t always the case. The optional head-up display was nice, if very basic in its functionality.

As of this writing, the CX-50 has not yet been evaluated by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In our own Car Seat Check, the CX-50 earned mostly Bs and one A grade.

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