If our recent drive of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 taught us anything, it’s that the brand’s intention to creep up the luxury ladder is palpable. Just under a year ago we got a whiff of Mazda’s low-key luxe agenda while testing the CX-30, and the newly launched CX-50 clearly builds on that vision — with a twist. See those black plastic rockers? One of several ways the brand differentiates the CX-50 from the existing (and not being retired) CX-5 is a focus on the great outdoors, and we’re not just talking aesthetics.
Aside from an edgy exterior and a driver-centric interior (with design and finishing that’s arguably outpacing Lexus), Mazda has put a lot of work into making the CX-50 a practical hauler for every aspect of Canadian living, including our love of nature. Without growing taller, they’ve given it a hair more ground clearance than its more urban counterpart. They’ve also lowered the roofline a hair, and the end result is something that should be called a tall wagon — even though most brands these days are terrified of that nomenclature.
We spent a full day out on the road (and even off-road) with the top spec Mazda CX-50 GT Turbo, which comes with a sticker price of $45,350. Not only does this trim level provide the right amount of grunt to put a bit of a grin on your face, it also bumps up the SUV’s towing capacity to 3,500 pounds (1,588 kg). The former is likely a more common selling feature than the latter, granted. If towing isn’t your thing, not to worry — there’s a decent amount more to get excited about here.
1. Mazda Intelligent Drive Select works, and works well
For the first time, Mazda has developed a selectable terrain control system known as Mazda Intelligent Drive Select, or MI-Drive. An extension of the brand’s Normal and Sport Driving modes, drivers can now select OFFROAD when conditions are looking a bit dicey, and TOWING when equipped and hitched. As someone who grew up on backwoods gravel and dirt roads in rural Quebec, I was stoked to see some loose gravel terrain on the drive. Using a clever combination of torque vectoring alongside the usual AWD and traction control goodies, the CX-50’s turn-in on the loose stuff is vastly improved. Rather than get fussy with separate gravel, snow, and sand modes — which all seems a bit convoluted — Mazda focused on getting a system right that could adapt to any of the above. It’s no Jeep Rubicon, but with the right rubber it’ll chase any Outback or Crosstrek with ease.
2. Its interior has old BMW vibes (in a good way)
Those who remember the heyday of BMW’s most driver-centric cars — the ones whose interiors don’t have an excess of trim types or for the sake of a more interesting design — will feel oddly at home in the CX-50. Its cabin has a very no nonsense driver-centric design. To clarify I’m talking function and “design mantra” here, and not the actual style and execution. The point is, everything looks and feels like it’s where it belongs, and from the first moment in the driver’s seat there was never a moment of “wait, where’s this?” or “why can’t I find that?” in its controls. Not all brands have figured it out after all these years, but Mazda certainly has.
3. It doesn’t use a CVT gearbox
Much as many automakers are moving in the direction of those dreaded disconnected CVT gearboxes, the Mazda CX-50 moves power through a 6-speed automatic, and we aren’t complaining one bit. It doesn’t need more cogs, it gets the job done rather effectively just the way it is. In Sport mode, it’ll move shift points up where they belong on a spirited drive, and in Normal mode the gearbox will have eyes on efficiency. Towing mode (when in use) will also keep the revs up to manage the load, as we learned during out little mid-day towing session. To be clear, we were hauling a trailer that was just shy of its aforementioned weight capacity, and we could feel it, but the fact that we’re able to do this at all with a 2.5 litre inline four-cylinder engine under the hood (yes, turbocharged and putting out 256 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque) is still mighty impressive.
4. The off-road accessory kits look fantastic
We got a bit of a tease of what’s to come with the brand’s more off-road friendly accessories for the CX-50 — bush buggy, anyone? Kidding aside, that monster roof system is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a great start. If memory serves, there’s a chance that a tent is in the works, but time will tell. Until then, it’s well equipped to handle bikes, kayaks, canoes, and any other outdoor kit you have in mind.
5. Mazda can say what they want, but it’s a tall wagon and not an SUV
The more time spent around it, the more it made sense. On paper, the CX-50 is only 7.6 centimetres taller than an Audi A6 Allroad Quattro, and about 9 centimetres shorter. Last I checked, no one is calling an Allroad an SUV, and we’re talking dimensions within a palm’s width. Its cargo space is even more cavernous than its CX-5 sibling, with a flat-floor design that allows for easy loading and unloading. At the end of the day, I don’t care what Mazda chooses to call it. It’s a tall wagon in my books, and the Subaru crowd should consider giving it a second look.