2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive: Excellence On-Road with More Off-Roading and Towing Capability

Overlanding has seen a rise in popularity – or if nothing else, a rise in media coverage – as the world recovers from the stay-home mindset of a pandemic. This style of light to moderate off-roading encourages Americans to get out of the house, explore their beautiful country, and go a bit further into the wilderness to camp or hike or otherwise disconnect and get active. Every automaker naturally wants a piece of this pie, and Mazda is no exception. With their focus on “attainable yet premium” in recent years, I was surprised to see the press release for the 2023 Mazda CX-50. How would this more rugged crossover fit into their street-focused lineup? Mazda brought me and a gaggle of media out to Santa Barbara, California so we could find out.

This first drive of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 offered a taste of its capabilities, covering roughly 260 miles of highway, back roads, light off-roading, and towing.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Zircon Sand

What Is It?

This is a 2023 Mazda CX-50, an all-new model in the brand’s lineup. Despite looking a bit like the similar-sized CX-5, Mazda insists that the CX-5 isn’t going anywhere. CX-5 makes up half of the brand’s sales, and there is apparently enough distinction between the two models that it’s worth selling both. The implication was that CX-5 remains a great choice for on-road driving, and CX-50 is the better choice if your driving takes you off the asphalt.

The new CX-50 uses Mazda’s newest small car platform, stretching what underpins the Mazda3, CX-30, and MX-30 to create something ultimately larger than the CX-5. Given the platform, the CX-50 uses a torsion-beam rear suspension instead of CX-5’s multi-link setup.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Zircon Sand

The CX-50 is five inches longer than a CX-5 with nearly that much extra wheelbase. There’s more second-row legroom and a longer cargo area, which Mazda says helps accommodate coolers, tents, and other outdoorsy objects, and the roof and pillars are strong enough to hold a three-person static tent. Most crucially, Mazda squeezed another 1,500 pounds of tow capacity out of the CX-50, as properly-equipped models can pull 3,500 pounds instead of CX-5’s 2,000 pound limit.

Achieving that 3,500 pound tow rating requires choosing the turbocharged engine offering, the same as in other turbocharged Mazdas. It’s a 2.5 liter four, making 256 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque on premium fuel. Mazda confirmed it’ll run just fine on regular, lowering output to 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft. They continue to offer the naturally-aspirated 2.5 as well, and it produces 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft.

Both engine options funnel power through the same six-speed torque converter automatic with paddle shifters and standard all-wheel drive. Mazda added a few clutches to the center differential here – nine in total, versus CX-5’s seven – to help apportion torque between axles with more control.

MSRP of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 starts at $26,800 for the naturally-aspirated 2.5 S trim, and the cheapest Turbo model starts at $36,400. I spent the day driving a loaded CX-50 2.5T Premium Plus, which stickers for $41,500. 

2023 Mazda CX-50 Mi-Drive drive modes

Street Driving in the 2023 Mazda CX-50

Our drive included several hours of wheel time on the highway and some seriously fun back roads. The CX-50 is comfortable on the highway, with seats that seem better than those of a CX-5 for tall drivers, and a generally compliant suspension and quiet-enough interior. Tire noise was apparent but not annoying.

The upgraded Bose sound system was very good, if not mind-blowing, and I appreciate Mazda adding a touchscreen to their MazdaConnect infotainment system. Wireless CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the board, and Mazda understands how those are used more effectively with touch control. The click wheel remains for control of MazdaConnect, a hybrid approach that works well.

2023 Mazda CX-50 black interior

Exiting the highway and seeing some very twisty roads on the map ahead, I clicked the Mi-Drive toggle up one notch to Sport. Mazda emphasized their Sport drive mode’s focus on holding gears mid-corner and G-Vectoring Control – a sneaky, imperceptible reduction in engine torque to help set the nose on corner entry – and I’m happy to report it works well. The windy road we took featured fast and/or tight turns, both off- and on-camber, with dips and rises that kept the suspension working hard.

Through it all, the CX-50 was just easy. Is it the ultimate corner-carver? No. Will it understeer if you ham-fistedly enter a turn with way too much speed? Yes. If you keep even some wits about you, though, it’ll work with you and can be hustled far quicker than you may feel appropriate.

While Sport mode helps the transmission stay more well-behaved, I ultimately found it just a touch behind the upshifts and downshifts I wanted. Mazda’s manual mode was preferred, then, holding gears and letting me slap against the rev limiter unless I had the kick down switch under the throttle pressed.

2023 Mazda CX-50

Off-Road Mode in the 2023 Mazda CX-50

Nobody at Mazda is claiming the CX-50 is capable of going that much farther off-pavement than the CX-5. Where they claim improvement is on loose surfaces like gravel and dirt, on deeply rutted roads, and in steep climbs. It’s not a rock-crawler, but it’ll get most people pretty far. The CX-50 features 8.6 inches of ground clearance and all but the upcoming Meridian package come on highway-focused all-season tires. While the center differential has a few more clutches inside, front and rear diffs are open – as expected – and wheelspin is mitigated using the brake caliper on each corner. Mazda’s off-road trickery relies on software more than anything.

Our “off road” driving amounted to a rallycross course, followed by a steep (I was told “about 30 degrees”) hill climb and hill descent. The rutted roads connecting these drive loops provided additional space to feel out the CX-50. 

2023 Mazda CX-50 off-road

I was told to take the rallycross course at roughly 30 miles per hour and do one lap in Off-Road mode, followed by one lap in Normal mode. Off-Road mode produced predictable results with plenty of control, leading to easily-corrected understeer (just lift a bit to tuck the nose in) if pushed too hard. Normal mode was far more amusing, as the CX-50’s front-biased all-wheel drive actually let me kick the tail of the car out with the proper lift-turn-in-mat-it procedure. 

The hill climb and descent showed off Mazda’s software programming, which did a good job keeping me moving at slower speed. The CX-50 has no form of hill descent control, so I popped it in first and stayed on the brakes, which worked just fine as the ABS chattered away. Mazda has a front-facing camera as part of the CX-50’s safety features, and it worked well on the trail, though it turns off when wheel speed reaches just ten miles per hour.

2023 Mazda CX-50 off-road

Finally, those trails between drive loops offered plenty of moments to get one or two wheels in the air. Mazda claims they focused the Off-Road mode’s programming on diagonal loss of traction, for scenarios exactly as what I experienced. I purposely stopped with the car teetering off-balance to see if I could stump the system, and it continuously worked with little thought on my end. I did find ride quality to be somewhat harsh on these trails, as if the shocks could use just a touch more travel. 

Obviously, the CX-50’s limits are still relatively low – nobody is claiming it’s a 4Runner competitor, or even an Outback Wilderness competitor. The top-tier Meridian trim adds all-terrain tires but no other hardware changes. Given the company’s desire to retain the excellent on-road characteristics over all else, this makes sense to me. 

2023 Mazda CX-50 off-road

Towing with the 2023 Mazda CX-50

My final drive route involved towing a 6×12’ U-Haul trailer that Mazda had hooked to a CX-50 Turbo. The trailer itself, per U-Haul, weighs 1,920 pounds, and Mazda filled the trailer with enough concrete to bring total weight to the maximum 3,500 pound capacity of the CX-50. U-Haul trailers are notoriously tongue-heavy, which may have contributed to my impressions of how the car towed. 

There’s plenty of power and torque on tap. I’ve long said Mazda’s 2.5 Turbo drivetrain is very diesel-y in nature, and acceleration with the trailer attached was slower than normal (and it’s not especially “fast” unloaded) but drama-free. The engine feels strongest from about 2,000 to 5,000 rpm, and was unobtrusive as it churned away.

Transmission programming was similarly fine, though the shift logic doesn’t include as many automatic downshifts for engine braking as I’d prefer. A Mazda engineer claimed the transmission will downshift if the car’s pitch sensors determine the driver is pointed down a hill or harder on the brakes, but I would have loved some engine braking from 65 miles per hour on a flat road, too.

2023 Mazda CX-50 towing

Generally, the CX-50 towed well enough, but the rear suspension felt as if it were almost on the bump stops with the trailer’s tongue weight added. Mazda confirmed a typical 10% tongue weight is acceptable, but could not confirm if a weight distributing hitch was allowed. Sending some tongue weight back toward the front axle of the car would help significantly here – and again, U-Haul trailers are generally very tongue-heavy, even if you try to mitigate by distributing your load in the trailer. 

While our trailers all used surge brakes, the CX-50 is pre-wired for an electric trailer brake controller under the dashboard.

2023 Mazda CX-50 tow hitch

Final Thoughts

I’ve long admired Mazda’s crossovers for being pretty good drivers’ cars for what they are. The 2023 Mazda CX-50 adds useful capability while retaining the on-road talent that makes the Mazda crossover lineup attractive to enthusiasts who have needs beyond what a Miata or Mazda3 hatchback can handle. 

Toyota’s RAV4 TRD Off-Road will be slower in a straight line, and Subaru’s Forester Wilderness will potentially go farther off road but not be as fun on-road. Could Mazda have made the CX-50 a touch more compliant off-road and a bit stiffer with a trailer? Sure. Adaptive shocks would likely handle those duties well – but at a financial and experiential cost.

Though I personally find it fascinating that there are no official plans to eschew CX-5 for CX-50, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is an appealing crossover for anyone who really liked the CX-5 but wished for just a bit more in some (or many) ways.

2023 Mazda CX-50

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