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A grey 2023 Mazda CX-50 is shown from the front on a trail after leaving a Mazda dealer near you.

The 2023 CX-50: Where Mazda Meets the Trail

The challenge of a technical trail and the teamwork required are worth the reward of sitting around a campfire with friends, listening to the wind rustling through the trees, taking in the star-lit sky, and knowing that you’re fully immersed in the wild. Even better is the fact that, when morning arrives, you’re back behind the wheel and get to do it all again. This is the life of passionate off-roaders, and it’s a life that you’ll soon find on your search for a Mazda dealer near me.

Wait a minute. Mazda? Off-roading? Hasn’t Japan’s automotive industry already cornered the market with the Toyota Tacoma and 4Runner? Isn’t Mazda a luxury brand known for on-road performance?

Mazda proves it’s constantly evolving and that there’s always room for more with the debut of the all-new 2023 CX-50. The rugged crossover is explicitly designed for North American drivers and, according to Mazda, is destined for the trail. However, the real question is if it can walk the walk as well as it talks the talk, or if it’s nothing more than a mall crawler forever imprisoned by the concrete jungle of the modern world.

What Makes It Off-Road Ready?

Sitting wider and taller than the rest of the Mazda fleet, the CX-50’s rugged stance is complemented by its long silhouette and sleek design. This balance of ruggedness and sophistication is impressive, but what makes the CX-50 a capable trail runner? After all, its opulence won’t get it far on the trail. Can Mazda move beyond its reputation for stellar on-road handling to dirt roads and muddy terrain?

The CX-50 shares the same small platform chassis as the CX-30 and Mazda3; however, the CX-50’s taller height adds capability by increasing its ground clearance. This boost in height guarantees you’ll get the CX-50 off the pavement and down the trail, but how far you can go is still in question. Beyond sitting higher, the CX-50 features reinforced B-pillars and door frames, a more robust roof, high-strength roof rails, and an updated suspension that prepares it for adventures beyond the city limits.

Mazda also gives you a choice between two capable and proven powertrains: the Skyactiv-G 2.5 or the Skyactiv-G 2.5 Turbo, both of which are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Unlike most trail runners, the CX-50 doesn’t come equipped with four-wheel drive and, instead, comes standard with Mazda’s i-Activ All-Wheel-Drive system that the automaker promises can handle every terrain and driving condition. In addition, Mazda takes the CX-50’s capability even further and equips it with the all-new Mazda Intelligent Drive Select or Mi-Drive. Mi-drive outfits the SUV with various drive modes––Off-Road, Sport, and Towing––allowing you to tailor how the CX-50 performs based on the terrain or condition.

A dark grey 2023 Mazda CX-50 is shown from the rear driving on a rocky path.

Where It Ranks: From Newbs to Passionate Adventurers

Off-roading is an incredibly diverse hobby that spans novices behind the wheel of their daily drivers to passionate veterans with fully modded rigs only driven on the trail. So why is this distinction important when measuring the CX-50 against the competition? Because it’s all about perspective.

If you’re a veteran off-roader, the CX-50 looks like nothing more than a mall crawler. For this demographic of drivers, the CX-50 lacks vital components that ready it for the trail. For example, it doesn’t come equipped with four-wheel drive, nor does it come with locking differentials that maximize its capability. The absence of underbody skid plates is another concern and makes the CX-50’s higher stance seem pointless since there’s nothing to protect vital engine components from damage.

Of course, these veteran off-roaders are likely in the driver’s seats of custom Jeep Wrangler Rubicons and Toyota Tacoma TRD Pros. So naturally, those Jeep drivers will argue that the CX-50 isn’t Trail Rated, and it doesn’t offer an immersive experience in the woods with its fixed roof and doors. Likewise, Taco lovers are still wondering how it will ever earn a cool nickname with a title like “CX-50.” Subaru fans, however, are undeniably impressed and are looking at their Outbacks with less enthusiasm than ever before.

2023 CX-50 vs 2022 Subaru Outback

Comparisons between the CX-50 and Outback are entirely fair, unlike slating the Mazda against off-road-ready rigs like the Wrangler, Grand Cherokee, or Tacoma. The CX-50 knows better than to challenge Jeep’s “Go Anywhere. Do Anything” slogan and, instead, promises to go almost anywhere; emphasis on almost. So, how does it compare to the Outback as a light off-road rig?

The 2022 Outback comes standard with a 2.5L four-cylinder boxer engine that delivers 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque. However, upgrading to the Outback Wilderness means even more power with a 2.4L four-turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque under the hood. Both engines are mated to Subaru’s Lineartronic continuously variable transmission. Comparing standard powertrains, the CX-50 delivers more horsepower and torque at 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft. With the Outback Wilderness fetching a higher price, this makes the CX-50 a better value right out of the gate.

Another advantage is the CX-50’s six-speed automatic transmission. Continuously variable transmissions are praised for optimizing performance and power; however, this balance always comes at a cost. In this case, the CX-50’s six-speed transmission gives you more control and responsive handling in any situation. It’s also far more reliable and less expensive to repair. Any mechanic will tell you that CVTs are more complex and finicky, leading to costly repairs at your local Subaru dealer.

If you’re looking for better ground clearance in the Outback lineup, you’ll have to spend more of your hard-earned money on the Outback Wilderness. Sitting higher than every other trim, the Wilderness also boasts an updated suspension that improves its handling on the trail. If you remember, these are standard features on the CX-50 whether you opt for the entry-level GS-L or the top-tier GT; spending extra isn’t required.

A green 2023 Mazda CX-50 is shown from the side at a camp site.

It’s All About Perspective

Off-roading can be intimidating to first-timers who are curious why so many people are adopting this new pastime that takes them beyond the pavement and deep into the woods. What’s so exciting about driving down a dirt road? What could they possibly do with a snorkel on their vehicle? How much mud did they drive through for it to splatter all over the roof? Are a shovel, chainsaw, and extra fuel essential for a day trip in the woods?

Whether you’re new to off-roading or a seasoned veteran, questions like these are always welcome. The off-roading community is one of the friendliest and welcomes everyone onto the trail whether you’re behind the wheel of a CX-50, a modded Tacoma, or a stock Wrangler. It’s a “come one, come all” environment where everyone helps each other get the most out of their time on the trail.

With that said, however, knowing where the CX-50 stands in the segment comes down to perspective and your expectations. Can you expect it to match the Rubicon on technical trails defined by deep water crossings, rock crawling, and mud pits? Not at all because it isn’t designed to do so. It doesn’t promise to go anywhere or do anything, remember? It promises to go almost anywhere.

Where does that leave the Mazda CX-50? It slates it as an urban adventurer that shares the ranks with models like the Subaru Outback. It delivers the same on-road handling that Mazda is known for, while its interior is replete with luxuries and conveniences that make every adventure more enjoyable. Its rugged design distinguishes it, and its off-road components make it capable in dicey weather conditions and easy trails where chainsaws, shovels, and snorkels aren’t required.

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