2023 Mazda CX
We thought we'd seen everything in the compact SUV segment until the 2023 Mazda CX-50 rolled into our garage. Distinguishing yourself against sales giants like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V is difficult but clearly not impossible. In Mazda's case, the CX-50 goes low. Literally. Leading with design, the CX-50 has a lower overall height than any direct competitor. Like so much of what we experienced during a year in the CX-50, this is Mazda not being afraid to do things differently.
The CX-50 isn't the obvious go-to compact SUV, but that otherness is part of its appeal. What's crazy is that Mazda still manages to outdo Toyota in certain practical matters. That's why—after 19,436 miles—we believe a few key updates could elevate the CX-50's profile beyond just CX-5 buyers who want an off-road-ready aesthetic.
Having driven a Subaru Outback for a year, I understand that versatile lifted wagon's charm. But where the Subaru's design has become fussy, the Mazda's attractive sheetmetal hints at a trail-readiness more gracefully.
As for its actual ability to tackle trails? The Mazda can get there and back, but—surprise, surprise—it wouldn't be our first choice for tackling a tortured two-track. Despite the off-road mode and the work Mazda put into making the CX-50 capable, this one's more about the look than the capability.
Actually, not just the look, but also the drive. For a compact SUV, the CX-50 is as fun to drive as you'd expect. What you might not expect from a Mazda is practicality; don't judge this one based on the numbers. Yes, the CX-50 is merely mid-pack in legroom, but the rear doors open extra wide to make entry and exit much easier. The front seat backs are also soft, allowing a bit of extra room for long legs, which isn't true of every SUV.
Then there's the cargo area, which can swallow 31.4 cubic feet. That's way less than the CR-V (39.3 cubic feet) and RAV4 (37.5 cubic feet), but we don't find ourselves needing 30-plus cubic feet of space on a daily basis. Even though there were times we had to awkwardly load large items and wished the SUV were more spacious, the real story is more nuanced.
To start, we appreciated the levers that easily fold down the rear seats from the cargo area. It's a convenience you don't find on every compact SUV. The CX-50's best practical perk, however, is the open spaces on both sides of the cargo area. Depressed a few inches below the rest of the cargo floor, they're perfect for groceries you don't want spilling or a small backpack you don't want bumping around as you explore the road ahead. It's a feature I'll miss more than I'd like to admit.
Mazda's approach to infotainment is also different. MotorTrend hasn't always liked how Mazda does infotainment, but I loved the way Apple CarPlay is set up on a 10.3-inch screen. Calling up navigation or an audio screen is one physical button press away—no need to look down or worry about pressing the wrong on-screen button. Want to change the volume or forward the track? That's one smartly placed physical knob away, and you come to learn where these controls are through muscle memory.
Those aren't the only interior details CX-50 owners should be grateful for. Crucially, the infotainment screen is tilted a bit toward the driver. That's not a big deal, but it makes you wonder why some infotainment screens essentially face the center rear-seat passenger. The 360-degree camera system is also worthy of praise, especially the way it lets you pick a favorite default view; mine was the camera display that helps minimize the chance I'll curb a wheel on the way into my parking spot.
Only one aspect of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 would make us second-guess buying one, and that's the ride quality. Not just compared to the Outback but matched against so many other potential competitors, the CX-50's ride quality on 20-inch wheels is just bad.
We can probably look beyond the CX-50's heavy steering weight—also not our favorite—but the ride quality made us uncomfortably familiar with the road imperfections, dips, potholes, and speed bumps in our neighborhood. After the excitement of a test drive wears off, having that as a trade-off for sporty responses won't be worth it for everyone.
Lower on the list, we'd also like a good lane centering system for highway driving and a customizable digital instrument cluster for every trim level above $40,000. The mix of analog and digital gauges is fine as is, but if you want to play in the premium SUV space, this would help.
Whether seen as premium or mainstream, the CX-50 should come with a dedicated track for the available cargo cover to minimize scuffing the sides of the cargo area. That happened regularly. A more sporadic issue concerned the transmission. At low speeds, it delivered a hiccup or slight jolt, as though it needed to catch up to our intentions. The trait didn't happen every day and never happened at a dealer.
Finally, the CX-50's turbocharged engine upgrade wasn't as quick as we'd like, even if the engine delivered a beautiful snarl every time you punch the accelerator pedal.
Over the course of one year of driving, our 2023 Mazda CX-50 2.5 Turbo suffered only one minor issue not caused by fate. Right where the dash meets the A-pillar on the passenger side, a ribbon of thin gray material kept popping up. We mentioned it at one of our regular service visits, and the dealer trimmed the exposed portion.
Including that regular service and one additional one, our normal maintenance costs totaled $176.08. That's a little more than our 2021 Nissan Rogue (two visits for a total of $139.23) but far less than our 2021 Kia Sorento (two visits for a total of $354.18).
We did have a couple unexpected speed bumps. First, the unsolved mystery: At just under 6,000 miles on the odometer and in a parking lot, the CX-50 started to shake in a more pronounced way than what we're all used to with the average gas-powered car. We could never duplicate the effect, though, so it never needed repair or caused us worry.
Then, on the way back from testing the CX-50 for a cool story about whether premium fuel would make the Mazda quicker, road debris cracked the windshield. Thanks to supply shortages, that took a couple months to get fixed, but addressing a screw in a leaking tire was much easier. One visit to a tire shop and $5 later, we were on our way. So was it reliable? Our CX-50 wasn't perfect, but it did just fine covering just under 20,000 miles.
We had so many questions going into our year with the 2023 Mazda CX-50, but this one's easy. Yes, the CX-50 is a good SUV. Is it great? Well, no, but there's no such thing as a perfect SUV. If it were my money, I'd skip the 2.5 Turbo engine and save $5,000 by picking the top trim of the slower standard engine, called 2.5 S Premium Plus. I would miss the excellent 360-degree camera system, but you retain most of the other desirable features, including the attractive wheels and a better sound system.
With the CX-50, the boosted engine was never the central appeal. You can still have plenty of fun and look good doing it with the standard engine.
Like pretty much every Mazda, the CX-50 isn't shaped like the box it came in for max interior space. Pick the CX-50 for a fun and surprisingly practical SUV with a vaguely outdoorsy design.
A year behind the wheel makes us appreciate how Mazda meaningfully split this segment between the CX-5 and the CX-50. Clearly, the CX-50 deserves its place in the Mazda lineup. And were it not for the ride quality of the CX-50 with 20-inch wheels, we wouldn't hesitate to recommend it more enthusiastically.More On Our Long-Term 2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo: 2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo AWD (Premium Plus) Specifications 2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo AWD (Premium Plus) Specifications POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT ENGINE TYPE DISPLACEMENT COMPRESSION RATIO POWER (SAE NET) TORQUE (SAE NET) REDLINE WEIGHT TO POWER TRANSMISSION AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR STEERING RATIO TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK BRAKES, F; R WHEELS TIRES DIMENSIONS WHEELBASE TRACK, F/R LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT GROUND CLEARANCE APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE TURNING CIRCLE CURB WEIGHT (DIST F/R) SEATING CAPACITY HEADROOM, F/R LEGROOM, F/R SHOULDER ROOM, F/R CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/R TOWING CAPACITY TEST DATA ACCELERATION TO MPH 0-30 0-40 0-50 0-60 0-70 0-80 0-90 PASSING, 45-65 MPH QUARTER MILE BRAKING, 60-0 MPH LATERAL ACCELERATION MT FIGURE EIGHT TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH CONSUMER INFO BASE PRICE PRICE AS TESTED AIRBAGS BASIC WARRANTY POWERTRAIN WARRANTY ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE FUEL CAPACITY EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON EPA RANGE, COMB RECOMMENDED FUEL ON SALE Our Car SERVICE LIFE BASE PRICE OPTIONS PRICE AS TESTED AVERAGE FUEL ECON PROBLEM AREAS TOTAL FUEL COST MAINTENANCE COST NORMAL-WEAR COST 3-YEAR RESIDUAL VALUE** RECALLS