With so many scenic routes and Extraordinary Places to visit, the open road is as appealing as ever. Adventure often calls us off the beaten path, and it helps to have a car that won’t leave you questioning your decisions a mile after the pavement ends. That’s one of the reasons beefed-up all-wheel-drive crossover SUVs have gotten so popular in the U.S.: They’re just as good for everyday chores as they are for rumbling down a remote fire road. Best of all, they’re smaller, more fuel-efficient, and much smoother than a full-size truck or SUV. One of the newest additions to this segment is the 2023 Mazda CX-50, and it’s going toe to toe with an automotive icon: the 2023 Subaru Outback.
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To put the new Mazda through its paces, I spent a week driving in subzero temperatures. I ran errands, romped through a foot of snow, and logged a 400-mile day trip as part of my quest to see all of Wisconsin’s lighthouses. By the end of my time with the CX-50, I got a clear picture of what it does well, where it could be better, and who this car is for.
The Subaru Outback leaves big shoes to fill
For the last few decades, shopping for a wagon or small SUV that was sure-footed in the snow and could haul a bunch of gear without driving like a bus was easy; you’d just go to the nearest Subaru dealership and pick your favorite color Outback. Subaru’s all-wheel drive earned a cult-like following in places like New England and Colorado, where it effortlessly transitioned from dry pavement to hard-packed snow and ice. Best of all, early Outbacks were tough, dependable, and—most importantly—affordable.
As expected, other automakers took notice of Subaru’s success and set out to join this lucrative market. Meanwhile, critics accuse Subaru of resting on its laurels. While the Outback has grown significantly in terms of size, its engine, drivetrain, and interior amenities haven’t kept up with the times as well as most other brands.
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Mazda CX-50 features we love
In the car community, Mazda has a reputation for prioritizing handling above all else. The CX-50 is no sports car, but it’s miles ahead of the competition when it comes to driving dynamics. The weighty steering feel, combined with an exhaust note that has just the right amount of rasp, helps keep drivers focused on the fun of driving.
That isn’t to say that the interior of the CX-50 is spartan—it’s the opposite, actually. The range-topping CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus comes with leather on the seats and dash, heated front and rear seats (it’s the only trim level with heated rear seats), ventilated front seats, and a panoramic sunroof. The infotainment screen is smaller and further from the driver than most, which may be a function of Mazda’s focus on driving. It gets the job done, though, and will pair with your phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Naturally, the CX-50 comes standard with driver aids like automatic braking, blind-spot monitoring, driver attention alerts, lane departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, and radar adaptive cruise control. These features take a lot of stress out of spending days at a time on the road. Some of the CX-50’s tech makes it more fun, too. Mi-Drive allows drivers to pick from normal, sport, and off-road drive modes to tailor throttle response and wheelspin to road (or off-road) surfaces. At the same time, Mazda’s Skyactiv technology extracts 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque from the CX-50’s 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, while minimizing emissions.
All of this adds up to a vehicle that drives more like a sporty wagon than a lumbering SUV. It’s rugged enough to get you off the beaten path but refined enough to make everyday commuting and long days on the highway downright enjoyable. I’d even say that it’s fun to hustle down a twisty back road, which is more than I can say for most vehicles in this segment. Is the CX-50 going to conquer the Rubicon Trail or tow a camper across the country? No. But it can absolutely support your dream of visiting every national park.
The CX-50 is a roadtripping machine, but it isn’t perfect
The CX-50 outclasses comparable vehicles in many ways, but there are a few small touches that could make it better for people who lead an active outdoor lifestyle. The first is a lack of a ski pass-through in the rear seat. You can fold down the left two-thirds or right one-third to fit long items, but a pass-through makes life a little more comfortable if you have two passengers in the back.
Up front, the center console and door pocket cup holders are too small for insulated water bottles. To-go cups and disposable bottles fit, but I love my insulated stainless steel bottle and it had to ride along in the passenger seat. That’s a little bit of a nuisance, especially as you add passengers with bottles of their own.
This is no surprise, but the CX-50 starts to show its road-going bias as the path ahead gets rougher. The suspension travel and ground clearance are adequate, but those low-profile tires don’t shine on anything more challenging than a dirt road. The same goes for the stock tread pattern, which is fine for the street but too mild for extended use in snow, sand, or dirt.
My final critique stems from the tiny buttons on the key fob, which are way too small to use with gloves. Yes, the door handles are touch-sensitive, but there are times when it would be nice to manipulate the locks or open the rear hatch from a distance without taking your gloves off.
Luckily, most of these problems have easy (although not necessarily cheap) fixes. A rooftop carrier will solve the pass-through issue and keep wet skis and snowboards out of the cargo area. If you travel with the whole family, this will also give you much-needed cargo room without folding the rear seats down. Pairing smaller wheels with larger tires will soften up the CX-50’s ride and allow you to mount more aggressive all-terrain rubber to keep up with the likes of the Subaru Outback Wilderness. Judging by the spare, you should be able to downsize to a 17-inch wheel.
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Should you buy a Mazda CX-50?
Is the 2023 Mazda CX-50 better than the Subaru Outback? I wouldn’t go that far. The Outback still offers more ground clearance (8.7 to 9.5 inches, depending on the trim level) and is still a better choice for rougher terrain and two-track trails. The Outback’s plastic cladding isn’t nearly as attractive as the Mazda’s sleek lines and vastly superior paint, but those panels wear scuffs and scratches better than painted metal.
Even if the 2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus isn’t categorically better than the Outback, it’s a fantastic vehicle in its own right and it is far better than the Subaru in some ways. Of the two, it’s definitely the vehicle I’d choose for a cross-country road trip. The CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus comes loaded with creature comforts and electronic driver aids that make it a fantastic companion for long roadtripping adventures through rain, snow, and sun.
It’s also a solid value. At $44,170 as tested, it costs less than the average new car price of more than $48,000. It may not overtake the Outback in the hearts of the most outdoorsy people anytime soon, but the CX-50 is a fantastic alternative for everyone else. If you’re in the market for a crossover SUV, do yourself a favor and schedule a test drive—you’ll be glad you did.
|Towing capacity||3,500 pounds|
|Ground clearance||8.6 inches|
|Full-size spare||No (155/90R17)|
|Fuel range||25 miles per gallon (EPA-estimated combined fuel economy)|
|MSRP||$42,300 ($44,170 as tested)|