Review: The 2023 Mazda CX-50 is an all-American SUV

The CX-50 is an all-new compact SUV that was designed specifically for the U.S. market with rugged looks and a touch of off-road capability to help it keep up with the Joneses of the outdoors world.

It’s roughly the same size as the CX-5, Mazda’s current best-seller, but a little longer, wider and lower. Bulging flared fenders give it a more athletic stance.

It also has eight and a half inches of ground clearance, which is about an inch more than the CX-5 and in league with similarly adventurous crossovers like the Subaru Forester and Toyota Rav4 TRD Off-Road.

The Mazda CX-50 is built in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Mazda CX-50 is built in Huntsville, Alabama. (Mazda)

The CX-50 starts at $ 28,025 and comes with a 187 hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and standard all-wheel-drive, but $ 37,625 gets you into a higher spec model with a 227 hp turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a stout 310 lb-ft of torque that’s good for a 3,500-pound tow rating. A tank of premium fuel boosts those figures to 256 hp and 320 lb-ft, if you can afford it these days. Combined fuel economy ratings of 27 mpg and 25 mpg, respectively, are both one mpg better than the CX-5s that use the same engines.

The CX-50 is similar in size to the CX-5.

The CX-50 is similar in size to the CX-5. (Mazda)

The interior features Mazda’s new upscale styling, with a neat and simple layout trimmed in quality materials that punch above its price point. The touchscreen infotainment system display is high on the dash and can be difficult to reach, but can also be controlled remotely by a knob and buttons on the center console. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration is included.

The CX-50's rear seat isn't the roomiest in its class.

The CX-50’s rear seat isn’t the roomiest in its class. (Mazda)

The front seat is comfortable and the driving position perfect, as you’d expect from a Mazda, but the rear legroom is much tighter than in some other compact SUVs like the Nissan Rogue and Hyundai Tucson.

The CX-50 is available with a 227 hp 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

The CX-50 is available with a 227 hp 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. (Mazda)

A full package of electronic driver aids with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control is standard on all CX-50s, and the top of the line Premium Plus trim adds a 360-degree camera system that’s equally helpful for parking or driving down narrow park trails.

The CX-50 comes standard with all-wheel-drive.

The CX-50 comes standard with all-wheel-drive. (mazda)

As with the vehicles it competes against, the CX-50 is more of an off-paved-roader than a true off-roader and primarily aimed at tackling relatively flat dirt roads, along with the occasional large rock or ditch. The street smart, low-profile tires mounted to the 20-inch wheels on the Premium Plus I tested aren’t cushy enough for the roughest stuff, but the suspension soaks it up well and I spent the better part of a day on gravel without being worse for wear.

The CX-50 Meridian edition launching later this year will have additional off-road gear.

The CX-50 Meridian edition launching later this year will have additional off-road gear. (Mazda)

The fatter tires that come on lower trims would only improve things and an even more capable Meridian model with 18-inch wheels, all-terrain tires and a cargo platform for the roof will be added to the lineup later this year.

I haven’t sampled a CX-50 with the base engine yet, but the turbo provides all the power you’ll ever need in a vehicle this size and sings with a rich and deep song as it does. The traction management system is equipped with an off-road mode that optimizes it for slippery surfaces, but with a rear bias that keeps things fun and makes it easy to slide around like you’re in an oversized rally car.

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What really surprised me was how refined the CX-50’s is on the street. It’s a serene cruiser with a smooth ride, but pushed to the limits — like no one ever actually would — it felt perfectly balanced and handled as well as any sports car I’ve driven recently. Calling it the Miata of compact SUVs would not be an exaggeration.

Mazda has carved out a nice little niche with the CX-50, which isn’t just an interesting alternative to the CX-5, but better. At least this American thinks so.

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2023 Mazda CX-50

Base price:

As tested:

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger all-wheel-drive SUV

Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder

Power: 227 hp, 310 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 23 city/29 hwy

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