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2023 Mazda CX-50: Is it just a CX-5 with cladding? [First Drive]

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As luck would have it, I was able to drive the 2022 Mazda CX-5 two days before heading out for the first drive of the 2023 CX-50. And while I originally thought the vehicles were quite similar, the back-to-back tests show these two midsize SUVs couldn’t be more different.

So, while this is ostensibly a first-drive review of the CX-50, there is going to be a good deal of CX-5 here, too, because initially, I don’t think you can discuss one without a direct comparison to the other.

So, let’s start with the biggest question people are asking.

Is the 2023 CX-50 just a CX-5 with cladding?

That’s a big nope. In fact, the two vehicles aren’t even built on the same platform. The 2023 CX-50 is built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform, which is shared with the CX-30. The CX-5, however, is still being built on the sixth-generation platform.

Other than the fact the CX-50 is lower and wider than the CX-5, the biggest difference is going to be in length. The CX-50 is about 6 inches longer than the CX-5, which translates into more cargo volume that is deeper as well as extra passenger volume in the second row.

Same powertrains, same driving dynamics?

Again, this is a no. The base powertrain for both vehicles is the 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation. It delivers 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. However, I happened to be driving the up-level powertrain for both vehicles, the 2.5-liter turbo that delivers 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque (with premium fuel).

While both the CX-50 and CX-5 have a lot of pep in spirited driving, the CX-5 comes off feeling a bit lighter and nimbler. That makes sense, since the CX-50 weighs 200 more pounds than the CX-5.

During the press preview, we had a fair amount of mountainous twisty-bit driving, and I was impressed with how well the CX-50 hugs the curves. It definitely falls on the “car” side of the spectrum in terms of driving dynamics – especially when you toggle it into Sport mode. The vehicle retains higher RPMs a bit longer as you lift off the gas pedal, so you feel an increased throttle response when you’re coming out of a corner.

2023 CX-50

The drive mode difference

With the 2023 CX-50, Mazda introduces drive modes on the vehicles with the 2.5-liter turbo. The intention with this introduction isn’t to make the vehicle feel different in the various modes – it’s to make it feel the same. If that makes sense.

Mazda has a very distinct driving dynamic, and the intention is to transfer that dynamic to off-road, sporty and even towing situations by using the appropriate mode. So, the four drive modes available are Sport, Normal, Off-Road and Towing. Here’s the interesting thing, though, Towing and Sport aren’t available at the same time. You can’t select Tow without connecting a trailer, and Sport mode disappears as soon as you do.

As previously mentioned, I did notice a difference with Sport mode, but it had more to do with acceleration than body roll and suspension. When toggling between Normal and Sport on the switchbacks, the steering felt slightly tighter in Sport, but otherwise the handling was remarkably similar.

Similarly, in Off-Road mode, the CX-50 drove the way you think it should in “normal” conditions. We did a dirt loop at 30 MPH in both modes, and the vehicle hit the curves with minimal slip – almost like you were driving on pavement. Toggling to Normal, things got a bit drifty. One thing to note about the Off-Road mode in the CX-50 is that it doesn’t have any special mud, sand or rock specifications. It’s just “Off-Road.” Thus, there’s no automatic hill-descent control, and the CX-50 isn’t meant to traverse the Rubicon Trail – it’s just meant to get you to an off-the-beaten-path camping spot or trailhead.

I have to say I felt the least difference in modes between Towing and Normal. With the 2.5-liter turbo engine, the CX-50 gets a 3,500-pound tow rating. So, Mazda loaded us with a trailer filled with 3,500 pounds of cement blocks. While the steering was slightly more precise with Tow mode engaged, I found you could just as easily tow and manage the trailer in Normal mode.

Off-road utility vs. urban chic

I think the best way to describe the difference between the 2023 CX-50 and the CX-5 is rugged versus chic. With the extra cladding, functional front air vents and available anti-glare hood graphics, the CX-50 looks more rough-and-tumble. Plus, the interior has cleanable surfaces with bright orange reverse stitching. The CX-5, on the other hand, uses bright chrome exterior accents and has wood accents on the interior.

Two design features the CX-50 has the CX-5 does not: an available 10.25-inch touch screen and a panoramic moonroof.

However, when I did a picture collage of both vehicles side by side, I will say the CX-50 came off looking more elegant and finished – even with its excessive utilitarian cladding.

2023 Mazda CX-50

Wireless things

First, I’d like to point out that the 2023 CX-50 has an available wireless charging pad. What I like about it is the location. It’s tucked under an armrest overhang, which means it stays shaded. This is a big deal because it keeps your phone, which is already hot from the wireless charging, from overheating due to sun exposure.

Another big advantage the CX-50 has over the CX-5 will be the fact Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are wireless. Standard. The even bigger win here: You can enable touch screen access to CarPlay and Auto.

Previous generations of Mazda vehicles allowed touch screen capability when the vehicle was in park, but as soon as you started driving, you had to use the control knob to access any infotainment functions. Recently, Mazda took all touch-screen capability away – even while parked. So, when you added CarPlay and Auto into the mix, the controller usage got complicated because both of those phone mirroring systems were intended to be touch systems.

So, Mazda relented, and while you still use the controller for the native Mazda infotainment features, both CarPlay and Auto can be touch screen – though you do have to change the setting because the default is nottouch.

I played around with this a bit, and I found it was easy to swipe through screens then use the controller to toggle/select app icons. This was mostly because the screen is not within easy reach.

The one thing I hate on the 2023 CX-50

Mazda added the one feature I hate the most on vehicles: auto stop/start. The 2023 CX-50 is the first vehicle in the United States to get this feature, which means it’s likely on the way for the rest of the lineup.

I haven’t found a stop/start system that works well yet, and that includes this one on the CX-50. The vehicle stutters to a stop, and the re-start is a bit laggy. It’s also loud.

Thankfully, there is a deactivation button, but rather than using the universal “A” with a circle around it button, Mazda is calling this feature i-stop, and the button to turn it off is to the left of the steering wheel on the dash.

While I love pretty much everything about the CX-50, this single feature would have me opting for the CX-5 instead.

The bottom line on the 2023 CX-50

For the most part, I think Mazda has done an excellent job with the 2023 CX-50. It’s the right blend of rugged and sporty. And it doesn’t sacrifice on-road dynamics for off-road capability — unless you count a little extra tire noise in the cabin as a sacrifice.

I’ve been skeptical about whether Mazda would continue to keep CX-5 in the same lineup as the CX-50, and with driving them back-to-back, I can see how Mazda is targeting two different customers with these similarly sized vehicles. But in several respects the CX-50 is so much better than the CX-5, why wouldn’t you eventually replace it?

TrimPrice, including destination
CX-50 2.5 S$26,800
CX-50 2.5 S Select$28,200
CX-50 2.5 S Preferred$29,500
CX-50 2.5 S Preferred Plus$32,550
CX-50 2.5 S Premium$34,400
CX-50 2.5 S Premium Plus$36,400
CX-50 2.5 Turbo$36,400
CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium$39,550
CX-50 2.5 Turbo Premium Plus$41,500

Editor’s note: Driving impressions in this “First Drive” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Mazda USA covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.

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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is the Managing Editor for Pickup Truck + SUV Talk as well as a Chicago-based automotive writer, YouTube personality and podcast host, with her articles and videos appearing in outlets throughout the U.S. Additionally, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on car stuff for a local Chicago station. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for both newspaper and broadcast media conglomerates. She is also a past president for the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. Jill is also currently a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

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