Mazda Takes Its Signature Handling Off Road in the New CX-50 AWD - IMBOLDN
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In January of this year, the first examples of the CX-50 started rolling off the newly built Mazda Toyota Manufacturing US Plant in Huntsville, Alabama. The new CX-50 compact SUV carries several firsts for Mazda. It’s the first Mazda vehicle to feature a panoramic roof, but more importantly, it’s the first to focus on off-road driving. The CX-50 is designed to be an escape vessel for those wanting to drive out of the claustrophobic city and reconnect with nature at the nearest national park, sandy beach, or ski lift. 

Photo by Jesus R. Garcia

The variety of compact SUVs that offer standard all-wheel-drive, off-road capabilities, and roofs strong enough to bear the weight of an active lifestyle is ever increasing. To stand out, Mazda decided to bring its signature brand of dynamic handling characteristics to a vehicle segment that desperately needs it. 

Thanks to a new Mi-Drive mode and G-Vectoring Control system (GVC), the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is a compact SUV that feels alive on the street, off the beaten trail, and even while towing up to 3,500 pounds. To test this claim, I traveled to Santa Barbara, California, where I explored the scenic twisting roads of the Santa Ynez Mountains. During the one-day grand tour, I was able to try out the CX-50’s Sport mode, Off-Road mode, and Towing mode while taking in the sights of Southern California. 

Mi-Drive and G-Vectoring System

Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control system is designed to keep the CX-50’s steering and throttle response in tune with the driver’s input. As a result, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is capable of quick steering and attentive throttle response associated with the brand. The primary significance is the CX-50 can do it while driving off-road and towing a trailer. We no longer have to invest in a lifted Miata with all-terrain tires to experience the thrill of off-roading a Mazda.

During development, Mazda studied how rally drivers use weight transferring logic to find grip in the turns. The GVC divides the torque from its 2.5-liter engine among the four wheels according to the terrain and changes the shift pattern on its six-speed automatic transmission depending on the drive mode setting. Mazda’s goal was to maintain an even level of performance throughout the varying drive modes. As a result, the Mazda CX-50 is equally responsive, quick, and agile in Sport mode on the street as it is in Off-Road Mode while traveling on gravel. The predetermined route set by Mazda meant I would have a chance to try out each drive mode over a full day of driving around Santa Barbara. 

Sport Mode

In Santa Barbara, CA, wine country provided the perfect spaghetti ribbon of tarmac to test out the 2023 Mazda CX-50 Sport Mode. Mazda designed the GVC to transition between drive modes seamlessly, so the driver does not feel the work that’s being done behind the scenes. Unlike other vehicles, you don’t feel the steering wheel go firm or the suspension tense when you select Sport Mode. 

Photo by Jesus R. Garcia

While undetectable, Sport Mode changes the shift pattern to hold gears for longer in the turns (like a racing driver would). As a result, the CX-50 avoids mid-turn shifting. The GVC also shifts power to the front wheels to prevent the rear wheels from plowing forward and keeps the grip where it needs most. Thus, allowing you to tackle a corner in the 2023 Mazda CX-50 with confidence. 

The CX-50 is an active listener when your right foot lands firmly on the throttle. It lights up with a satisfying rumble from its four-cylinder engine. Throw it into a turn, and the steering wheel is in tune with your commands as it hits the apex. You can hear the engine rev up as it stays in low gear until you’re out of the turn. Once you’re back on the throttle, the CX-50 delivers a smooth pull of all-wheel-powered acceleration as it sprints forward to the next bend in the road. The CX-50 likes to run and has the Mazda magic to put a smile on your face. 

Off-Road Mode

Out of the mountain roads, the Mazda’s GPS took me to a cattle ranch with desktop screen saver hills and narrow valleys to test out the CX-50’s Off-Road mode. In this setting, the GVC adapts for diagonal torque transfers. Driving over uneven terrain that may cause one wheel to lift off the ground or spin, the traction control copes by applying the brakes to the spinning wheel. Then, it redirects the would-be wasted power to the wheels with the most grip to keep moving forward. In addition, the Off-Road mode has a designated shift pattern and increased idle speed. This allows for easier and more precise throttle input when traversing slippery hills or navigating rocky terrain. 

Photo by Jesus R. Garcia

The Mazda CX-50 is not equipped for the 4×4 playgrounds of Moab, Utah, but it can undoubtedly blaze a trail to reach a ski resort or national park campsite. Like in Sport Mode, the CX-50’s feel at the wheel was engaging, as was throttle response while driving up, down, and through narrow valleys in a cloud of dust. I like that even though the CX-50 works tirelessly to make off-roading user-friendly, it still puts the responsibility on the driver. It won’t do the work for you; it just tries to make it easier. 

3,500-Pound Towing Capacity 

Mazda was gracious enough to let me tow one of their trailers that coincidently happened to weigh 3,500-lbs, the max towing capacity for the 2023 Mazda CX-50. Towing Mode is only available when you drop a trailer onto the CX-50’s trailer hitch. Once detected, its Mi-Drive menu replaces Sport for Towing Mode. The GVC adjusts the transmission’s shift patterns for heavy loads while towing. Moreover, it compensates for the additional weight on the vehicle’s rear, which tends to raise the front end. Having power sent to the front wheels offers improved steering while towing. I found it easy to make precise wheel adjustments and turns on narrow roads. As a result, it is hard to tell that you are towing a trailer without checking mirrors as the Mazda CX-50 works to maintain its driving characteristics throughout its range of drive modes. 

Styling and Interior Space 

The styling language for the 2023 Mazda CX-50 focused on two words: Tough and Powerful. Chief engineers and designers wanted to create a compact SUV that evoked a sense of capable ruggedness that could take you out of the stressful city to find tranquility in nature. The CX-50 is built in America for the American market. To be taken seriously by people with active lifestyles, the CX-50 design conveys a sense of style that is both functional and chic.

Upon looking at the new Mazda CX-50, I could not help but think of the RX-3 of the 1970s. Like the small and mighty Mazda RX-3, the CX-50 stands with its chest out. Bold intakes in the front and rear bumpers, wrap-around black clapping, and flared fenders create a muscular physique for the compact SUV, like a mini-Canyonero. Alloy wheels and black accents through the exterior further complement the CX-50’s confident personality. It looks the part, whether outside the hotel in Santa Barbara underneath expertly manicured palm trees or covered in dust on a Bonanza cattle ranch. 

For size comparison, the CX-50 is in the same weight class as the Porsche Macan and BMW X3, even though those are not its main competitors. The CX-50 is shorter than the Mazda CX-5 and broader. This gives the CX-50 a more planted stance, telling the world that it is ready for anything. Moreover, the lower roofline makes it easier for people to mount accessories and equipment onto the roof. In addition, the rear doors open 90 degrees to allow easier access to stored supplies and installing car seats. When developing the Mazda CX-50, designers crafted the rear tailgate and cargo space to mimic the same inner space as a station wagon. The tailgate opens wide, and the second-row seats fold down to offer 56.3-cubic inches of room. 

Pricing and Drivetrain 

Mazda announced it would be unveiling new plug-in hybrid and electric drivetrains soon. For now, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is offered in two variants of its Skyactiv 2.5-liter engine, both using a six-speed automatic transmission. Lower tier like the CX-50 S uses the naturally aspirated 

2.5-liter producing 187-hp and 186 lb.-ft of torque. Higher trim levels receive a turbocharged 2.5-liter engine with 256-hp and 326 lb.-ft of torque (93 octane fuel). The turbocharged engine can burn regular 87 octane gasoline, but that does decrease its performance to 227-hp and 310 lb.-ft of torque. 

Pricing for the 2023 Mazda CX-50 starts at $26k with the entry S trim which comes well equipped with Apple CarPlay and Radar Cruise Control as standard. The other end of the spectrum is the CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus with a starting price of $41K, featuring heated rear seats, a 360-view camera, and wireless charging. In addition, all CX-50 variants come standard with all-wheel-drive and more standard safety features than any other current Mazda vehicle. 

A Lasting First Impression 

As society gravitates to a future of highways overrun with electric vehicles and eventual autonomy, Mazda serves as peace of mind. It still cares about those who like to pay attention behind the wheel. Mazda still cares about the connection between driver and machine. 

Photo by Jesus R. Garcia

Many compact SUVs offer similar capabilities as the 2023 Mazda CX-50. However, many of these vehicles have numb feeling steering wheels and electronic throttles with half-second delays. The CX-50 proves that it does not need to be this way. Instead, it holds up Mazda’s reputation for fun driving compact vehicles while adding a rugged capacity that encourages our natural curiosity to explore. The Mazda CX-50 makes driving to the weekend getaway part of the fun.