FIRST DRIVE: 2023 Mazda CX-50

The Mazda CX-50 has arrived, and from what I can see, it faces a couple of challenges. One, Mazda is embarking on the path that many others have: the path towards electrification, which it says means a fully electrified line-up by 2030.

The CX-50 gets two powertrains, one of that is turbocharged and one that is not. A hybrid model developed in partnership with Toyota (the CX-50 is the first Mazda to roll off the line at the new Huntsville, AL manufacturing plant shared with the Japanese giant) is on the way, but we’re going to have to wait.

Two, it shares a spot in the C-segment crossover portion of Mazda’s line-up with the CX-5, an absolutely massive seller for the brand and one the newcomer will surely be cross-shopped with for likely the first few years of its existence.

For its part, Mazda insists that while the two are similar in size, they appeal to different audiences: the CX-5 to more urbanized families and the CX-50 to more outdoorsy or lifestyle-centric folks – so there’s plenty of room in the showroom for both.

Not to mention that when placed side by each, the stylistic differences are quite marked. The CX-50 is longer and lower, its curves – especially around the wheels – are chunkier and squarer.

With its blacked-out grille, wing mirrors and body cladding, fender flares, and its larger 20-inch unique wheels, the CX-50 looks the more purposeful (or more playful, depending on your perspective) vehicle and manages to convey a surprisingly divergent message from the CX-5. The customary Mazda styling cues are still present: five-point grille, squinting headlights (LED on all trims, matched by LED taillights on the top-spec GT Turbo trim seen here), taillights that appear to blister out from the CX-50’s body and roof spoiler. I remember at one point during my test seeing the CX-50’s nose section popping out from behind a parked car at it looked properly menacing, and if I didn’t already know what the rest of it looked like, I sure as heck would have walked over there and checked.

Inside, save for two major details, the stylistic differences are less marked. The door pulls are a little chunkier, the central storage bin sees its traditional lid swapped with a dual-lid that Mazda says, “recalls a toolbox” and there’s some cool contrast-colour stitching. The major details? The panoramic sunroof option (a Mazda first – yes, surprised us, too), and the Terracotta interior colour choice, which is top drawer. Brown hues don’t always work; this one does. Black is your only other interior colour choice at the GT trim level.

2023 Mazda CX50

Otherwise, you have the same partially digitized gauge cluster, heads-up display, shift lever, infotainment control, and steering wheel.

What you don’t have, however, is the same infotainment system as the CX-5. Since the CX-50 is part of Mazda’s “seventh generation” of vehicles along with the Mazda3 and CX-30, it also gets the latest in Mazda infotainment. It’s faster than previous, has a larger screen and native support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. That’s all great, but it isn’t a “tiled” set-up like so much of the competition, so there’s a lot of scrolling in order to navigate the menus. You still get a volume control knob beside the main control knob, though, which is great as it makes adjusting the volume easy when at speed on the road.

The front seating positions are right on, thought there is a little less headroom here and what feels like less room overall in the back seat. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the storage floor in the rear cargo area is one of the longest in the segment, so shaped to pack the types of items Mazda envisions CX-50 owners like to pack: coolers, tents and sleeping bags – long, thin items best packed lengthwise.

2023 Mazda CX50

The turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder is good for a CX-5-equalling 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque on 87-octane fuel, expanding to 250 hp and 320 lb-ft if you spec 93-octane.

2023 Mazda CX50

Speed off the line is properly robust, the CX-50 rewarding generous throttle inputs with properly brisk acceleration. The engine note sounds just a little strained when you really get on it, but you are making good forward progress.

More so if you’re in “Sport” mode which increases throttle response and hangs on to gears a little longer – it’s the same six-speed auto we’ve seen in Mazdas for a while and sometimes, it feels like it holds on a little too long. It might be time to start thinking about a new dual-clutch transmission option – but this is the first time we have an “off-road” mode in a Mazda. What it does is send as much torque as possible to the rear axle from start, optimizes traction control and changes shift mapping, among other things.

The big add when it comes to performance, though, is the addition of a tow mode that changes shift mapping once again to accommodate heavier loads. Thanks to a better cooling system and two-inch hitch, the CX-50 can tow up to 3,500 lbs. — more than any CX-5. We hooked up to an Airstream weighing in at about 3,300 lbs. and while you will feel some drag, you won’t feel uncomfortable while towing. The stability control system is used to regulate trailer sway and while there is no trailer brake control system, there are, of course, aftermarket options.

2023 Mazda CX50

While it’s nice you can tow, I think that most CX-50 buyers are going to be more concerned with how the CX-50 drives and handles. With Mazda’s patented G Vector control tech doing its part to keep as much traction down as possible (and reducing the effects of trailer bob) and well-tuned suspension, it comes as little surprise that the CX-50 will carve corners as well as – or better than – any crossover out there. The steering is a little numb but as direct as one expects, and body roll less present than it is in the CX-5, already a pretty tight affair in its own right.

Bottom line is that if you’re in the market for a Mazda CUV, the decision just got a little harder. Drive both of these; you won’t regret it.

The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.

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