The 2023 Mazda CX-50 crossover is promised to be the template for how the Japanese brand adopts a more adventurous stance with its SUVs. The North-American-market-exclusive model also will be the first Mazda built at the new Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant in Huntsville, Alabama. Designed to be comfortable on-road and off, the CX-50 will feature a unique Mi-Drive with an Off-Road mode that changes dynamically instead of offering multiple specific sub-modes. This is also featured in its Kodo design with the theme of “The Searcher’s Partner”, meant to allow the owner to explore more and utilize the capabilities built into the CX-50.
Shared Chassis with the CX-5
The CX-50 utilizes Mazda’s small platform chassis, meaning its shares bits with the CX-30 and CX-5 SUVs. “While CX-50 and CX-5 are both compact crossover vehicles,” says Mazda, “the CX-50 has been optimized for the outdoors.”
To translate, the CX-50 is intended to be butcher and less street-oriented than Mazda’s other small crossover. It has a higher ground clearance and wider stance than the CX-5. Additionally, the 50’s roof is strengthened and the suspension is stronger, being made to “handle outdoor terrain” better.
Long and Sleek Exterior
The CX-50’s design is immediately recognizable and clearly channels Mazda’s “Kodo” visual language. From the front winged grille to the sleek profile, you won’t mistake this for anything else in the compact crossover category—except maybe the CX-5. Even so, “The first-ever CX-50 is about inspiring drivers to find new places, experiences, and challenges that can only be discovered in the outdoors,” said Yasutake Tsuchida, Senior Director of Mazda Design America.
In other words, it’s more outdoorsy looking than the CX-5, with sharper lines, plastic cladding, and broader shoulders that show off its wider stance. Again, signature Mazda details abound, including the rounded headlights and taillights you’d expect to find on other CX models, but everything’s a little more steroidal here. The CX-50 also gets a moody new Zircon Sand paint option, further playing up the rugged appearance without going all “Desert Tan;” later, this paint color will spread to other Mazda models.
Despite the CX-50’s more off-road mission, the roof remains low enough to stay within easy reach, making the task of stacking items on the roof rails less of a struggle. For longer items that can’t be stored on the roof, the rear seats fold flat and the lowered seatbacks run flush with the primary cargo floor, creating a continuous surface one can slide things across.
Roomier, Yet Still Driver Focused Interior
Just because the CX-50’s mission is less road-focused than other Mazdas doesn’t mean it abandons the brand’s driver-focused interior design. The cockpit still reaches for “Jinba Ittai,” a Mazda philosophy that chases oneness between the car and its driver. “All the key elements,” says Tsuchida, “even the vertical vents, are placed symmetrically around the driver’s axis, creating a sense of engagement and connection that encourages you to drive this vehicle.”
The models on display during the reveal wore a new terracotta color for the interior. It’s a rich, almost tanned-leather color that offers up a great contrast to the rest of the interior, which is primarily black in color. The same pop of brown is found on the stitching on the dash, the seating, front center armrest, and the stitching and arm rests on the door panels. A panoramic moonroof is available.
While rugged in appearance, the CX-50 hides traditional Mazda handling attributes within. Dave Coleman, Manager of Vehicle Dynamics for Mazda North America, explains that, in Mazda’s research, even customers who go camping spend the majority of their time on pavement. “You’ll spend a couple hundred miles driving on the freeway, a couple dozen miles on twisty mountain roads, and then 10 or 20 miles maybe on dirt at the very end [of a trip to a campsite]. So compromising all of that on-road driving just for a little bit of improvement off-road doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially if you’re Mazda with our expertise on-road.”
That balanced idea of performance extends to the drive mode selector, dubbed Mazda Intelligent Drive Select or MI-Drive (pronounced as “My Drive”), which only has four modes: Normal, Sport, Towing, and Off-Road. Each mode tailors the standard i-Activ all-wheel-drive system, throttle response, G-Vectoring Control, transmission logic, and braking system.
“Now, when most companies do a drive mode system like this,” says Coleman, “they’re trying to make each drive mode distinct and different. So the car behaves differently in each mode. We kind of have the opposite approach. Mazda has a very consistent driving Dynamic that we’re pursuing and we want to make sure the car behaves.” In other words, the idea is to keep the CX-50’s feel consistent regardless of which mode you’re in.
So, About Those Drive Modes
Sport mode is like any of Mazda’s Sport modes, quickening the throttle response and directing the transmission to hold gears longer, rather than shifting up the second you let off of the throttle.
Towing mode is self-explanatory, albeit with a Mazda twist behind it. “As a unique part of our Towing mode is that it also takes into account the way the dynamics of the car change when you have a bunch of tongue weight,” says Coleman, “So if you push down on the trailer hitch, really hard, that will lift the nose of the car and un-weighs the front tires.” This makes steering response dull and the driver might make larger inputs at the steering wheel. You’ll end up with a sort of wagging and snaking condition that just gets made worse as the trailer moves to keep up.
“So,” Colemans says, Mazda “turns up the G-Vectoring Control gain so that when you turn in, it helps load up those front tires enough to get it back to the weight you would normally have on those tires and normal driving.” (G-Vectoring fiddles with engine torque in subtle ways to initiate some weight transfer to the front end of the car, intended for better turn-in response on regular Mazdas.) The Towing mode also preloads the AWD system just a bit but not for some rear drive, “but because we need the yaw damping that creates to damp out a little bit of the motion that the trailer creates at the back of the car.”
One quick note: While the Towing mode was detailed, the CX-50’s towing capacity was not. Mazda stated that this would be announced at a later time closer to its official launch.
Only One Off-Road Mode
G-Vectoring Control is also used in Off-Road mode. Unlike the off-road modes in some competitors, there is only one catch-all selection—no sand, mud, snow or any other sub-options are to be found in the CX-50. “We found it confusing off-road,” said Coleman, “where real world conditions always seem to be some ambiguous combination of surfaces that land somewhere between the settings for choosing from and we firmly believe the most intelligent system in the vehicles is the driver.”
“If you’re off the pavement, off-road mode is the one you want. It’s as simple as that,” said Coleman. Again, the system is uniquely Mazda and made for driver comfort and control, leveraging G-Vectoring control to enhance handling response on loose surfaces and engaging the all-wheel-drive system earlier to maintain traction and preempt as much slippage as possible. For tackling hills, the CX-50 senses the angle and raises the idle speed for “a smoother transition from idle to torque application,” per Coleman, and the torque converter lockup is delayed for smoother power delivery when pointed skyward or traversing larger obstacles; the anti-lock brake system is used to prevent the CX-50 from rolling backward at a standstill. Should the CX-50 lift a tire in the air while billy goating around, the ABS system will grab the brakes on the tire that is in the air and “slipping” so torque is sent to the opposite wheel along with the one diagonal to it.
Power and Drive
For now, only the turbocharged and non-turbocharged 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G engines have been announced as the powertrains for the CX-50. A future hybrid model was mentioned along with other “electrified powertrains,” however. When asked if this will result in an electric version of the CX-50, Mazda only says that “Currently, [it] can confirm this crossover will utilize a traditional hybrid system.” For now, any other powertrains and their specifications will be released sometime before the official launch of the off-roading Mazda.
Mazda also confirms that the CX-50 will only be sold with the i-Activ AWD setup, with no front-wheel-drive model available. For the sort of buyers Mazda is chasing here, standard AWD is no bad thing.
Every CX-50 will utilize a six-speed automatic gearbox, though there was no word on a low-range gearbox for the i-Activ system in the CX-50. Unlike in other Mazdas, the AWD system does send a small amount of torque to the rear wheels even when biasing output to the front axle in lighter-duty travels, such as on the freeway.
Built for North America, In North America
Mazda did confirm that the CX-50 will be the first Mazda vehicle built in the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing (MTM) plant in Huntsville, Alabama. According to Mazda, the facility utilizes the ideas and engineers of both companies to be able to produce around 300,000 vehicles per year, split evenly between the two Japanese brands.
“This $2.3 billion facility will bring approximately 4,000 new jobs directly to Alabama along with several thousand more through our suppliers,” said Jeff Guyton president and CEO of Mazdas North American operations. “This is an incredibly important project from Mazda and I’d like to take a moment to recognize the staff at Huntsville and across the region for all the hard work they have put into the Readiness for this launch.”
At the moment, an MSRP has not been announced. Mazda, once again, promises that and other details will be revealed at a date closer to the CX-50’s arrival in dealerships.
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