Mountain Wheels: Mazda’s more rugged CX-50 is a speedy, smooth machine

Assembled in a new plant in Alabama, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 offers a slightly chunkier, wider-looking take on the CX-5, with a 256-horsepower engine.
Courtesy photo

You may have noticed a lack of out-of-state details and color in these columns since, say, COVID-19 happened. And, while I don’t think I’ll be jetting off to Corsica for the weekend pretty much ever again for a fancy drive route and dinner in a cave, timing — and a personal scrape with COVID — also shut me out of two recent California Mazda events, sadly.

Hopefully we’ll learn more about the company’s plans with the new CX-90 with a drive later this year, but my time last week in Colorado with the new CX-50 sorta duplicated one of those missing experiences.

In the case of the Alabama-assembled 2023 CX-50, which is just a little larger than the existing and popular CX-5 (the 12th-bestselling SUV of 2022, inched out by the Subaru Crosstrek), you get a slightly different direction for Mazda’s crossovers.

It’s got a bulkier, more rigid and offroad-oriented look, with thickly lined wheel wells and a deep layer of body cladding at the road level, which actually curls under and protects the cabin from material coming into the doors.

Physically, it’s built on the CX-30 and Mazda 3 platform, so it doesn’t achieve any three-row largesse as the 90 may do, but it’s still comfortably sized and drives in a more car-like fashion than many of its crossover contemporaries. Oddly, you get a little less headroom than the traditional CX-5.

It’ll also go like absolute hell, as I found during a dry-road trip earlier in the week up to Fort Collins. I had a more upscale Premium Plus package (one of 10 trims, all with all-wheel drive), priced at $43,970, and it included the CX-50’s twin-turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine.

That means 227 horsepower on regular gas and a more sparky 256 horsepower on premium fuel, allowing the 3,900-pound vehicle to cruise comfortably at those terrifying 2023 highway speeds. I did not quite get the 29 highway mpg the CX-50 is rated for (my figures were closer to 22 mpg), but velocity and, in Breckenridge on the weekend, colder temperatures, kinda contributed to that shortcoming. The bigger engine also means 3,500 pounds of towing capacity.

I would immediately recommend swapping out the Mazda’s summerish 20-inch allseasons if you pick one up and do not live in Tucson, as I lost all grip the minute I hit frozen sections heading up Loveland Pass. Around town, things weren’t so terrible, but you’ll absolutely need some proper winter-rated rubber to keep things safe in Colorado.

At this trim level, you get comfortable leather seating with colored highlights, an array of weatherproof floor mats and a full mat system in the rear, including the back of the second-row seats (dropped, they produce 56.3 cubic feet of storage), a leather console and a power moonroof. You also get heated rear seats, a 360-degree parking monitor, a wireless phone charger hidden partially under the elbow console lids and a thin-profile rear-view mirror.

Mazda-specific niceties include the only head-up display that can be seen with sunglasses in the entire automotive industry, and a long, thin, 10.25-inch color display that’s set way back on the dash and isn’t the center of the cabin’s existence, as it is in many new vehicles.

You’ll still have to dig deeply in menus to tune in radio stations but the mapping is even better than before and it’s also connected to a great, 12-speaker Bose sound system.

Even the partially digital instrument panel is a low-drama affair, with only a couple of ways to reconfigure the information, not 6,000, and some cool touches such as equally low-key visual blind spot warnings and displayed reminders of traffic signs.

I was slightly overwhelmed by the CX-50’s grabby lane-keeping system heading up Interstate 70, but it’s part of a robust system including rear and blind-spot automatic intervention, cross-traffic alerts and full safety stops, if necessary. CX-50 does indeed have a wider and broader look, with a grille seemingly made out of cartoon dog bones, ultra-low-profile LED headlamps and an aggressively contoured hood. There’s not much gloss here, which is good, including matte-shine roof rails, and the only piece of chrome trim is at the very back of the windows.

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