And here’s the part I wasn’t expecting to write: this car handled great. It’s fun for what it is. Right, I know, every car Mazda makes has a reputation of being the “Miata of its segment,” but if you go into driving any Mazda thinking that’s going to be literally true, it can distort your perception of the car. Other automakers are also capable of making cars handle well. To keep the comparison going, I thought the Santa Cruz drove exceptionally for what it was. But the CX-50 takes things to a new level.
The steering is both very accurate and it has plenty of good feel, too. Its weight in corners, as well as at low speeds, is confidence-inspiring and feels very natural. Just the same, the brakes trade the touchy, sharp response of other new cars for an extremely well-weighted pedal that enables supreme precision. Both of these things work well with the car’s 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four. It’s a solid engine that feels sophisticated enough for the vehicle around it. It sounds fine, it’s free of unpleasant vibrations, and its 256 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque are more than it needs—in a good way. It also works well with the car’s seemingly outdated but still effective six-speed automatic transmission. Manual gear changes via the paddle shifters happened quickly and confidently, and there was rarely a hesitation when it came to giving me the gear I needed.
But where a base CX-50 and the more expensive, turbocharged version will likely perform similarly is how they ride and their off-road capabilities.
The suspension tuning in the car I drove provided a great compromise between comfort over imperfections and handling prowess. All CX-50s are equipped with a system that cuts the throttle an imperceptible amount on corner entry, which shifts weight to the front tires to provide a better steering response. Combined with a slight amount of body roll and a level of grip that was surprising, to say the least, this thing was legitimately good to drive on a tight back road. Seriously. I’ve driven other similar cars in similar situations and this Mazda is head and shoulders above anything else in the segment.
All versions of the compact SUV get drive modes for off-road and normal day-to-day cruising, with turbocharged cars getting an additional mode to complement their 3,500-pound towing capacity—standard CX-50s can tow just 2,000-pounds. What’s important is that these settings make an effort not to make the car feel different in certain scenarios, but to make it feel the same. On the dirt, for instance, Mazda engineers said that the car was tuned to react in the same way it would to inputs on a paved surface. This, surprisingly, was true. In its normal driving mode, the vehicle’s traction control is doing something along the lines of damage control once the surface gets loose, but in off-road mode, the entire car was much more predictable and neutral. A sudden corner entry that got the rear end of the CX-50 wagging around on the dirt in normal mode was, in contrast, a controllable, and predictable maneuver in off-road mode.
The one mode for all off-road situations really hints at the balance this car strikes between on-road performance and off-road capability. On paper, the CX-50 has no special hardware that puts it ahead of any other comparable crossover. Its standard all-wheel drive on all trims is activated with a clutch pack when it’s relevant, it has right around eight and a half inches of ground clearance, and it rides on regular street tires. The reality of off-roading, as Mazda engineers were very keen to point out, is that you spend most of your time driving on the freeway to get to a trailhead. As such, the focus for this car is being uncompromised in regular on-road situations, but still capable off-road thanks to carefully a tuned AWD system and other features like the car’s 360-degree camera system. If this is starting to sound like Mazda’s taking a page out of the Subaru playbook, then you’d be right.
This might seem like not enough to really cut the mustard. But it was, and I say that while very aware of what a good 4×4 is like. What really struck me about driving this car on unpaved surfaces was that its capabilities seemed very appropriate. A Jeep Grand Cherokee with the right packages, for instance, will do things that exceed your expectations. It’s doing them, it’s great it can do them, but it doesn’t feel like such a civilized SUV should be doing those things. That is, of course, very pleasantly surprising, and part of the Jeep appeal.
Mazda, on the flip side, has found a way to make meeting expectations work. The CX-50 looks more rugged and therefore you can expect more rugged things out of it. It can climb steep grades on a loose surface, absorb big impacts without a fuss, and manage its traction in a way that feels natural, not like it’s trying to impress you. I drove it harder and harder—perhaps a little harder than Mazda would’ve wanted but still within reason—and it just kept on feeling like it did in any other situation.
All of this comes at a reasonable price, too. The base model CX-50—which I did not drive—starts at $28,025. The lack of power in the base model might not sound that appealing, but if you don’t care about the extra time it would take to merge or rip up a backroad, it’s likely fine. Plus, you get a lot of standard equipment no matter which engine you choose. Lane-keep assist, radar cruise control, and automatic high beams are included at no additional cost on every CX-50, for instance, as are wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
If you want the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine, which in my opinion you probably do, the price jumps to at least $37,625. The test car was fully loaded, coming in at right around $43,000. That might sound like a lot, but it feels worth it. More than worth it, actually. The top trim Premium Plus gets you heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, and heated rear seats. The rear passengers also get HVAC vents, a charging port each, and plenty of legroom. I’m around 5’11” and I had plenty of space in the back with the front seat adjusted to my normal driving position. The front passengers also get a USB charging port in the center console, a wireless charging pad, and a conventional 12-volt outlet.