The Mazda CX-50 Is a Crossover That’s Actually Fun to Drive
Modern crossovers are, for the most part, soul-sucking, unassuming boxes that take all the joy out of driving. “Fun” is not an important factor for most buyers, meaning things like steering feel and chassis control aren’t priorities for engineers. The result is a market of boring vehicles incapable of attracting people that relish seat time. The Mazda CX-50 is a pleasant exception to that trend, appealing to the enthusiast while executing daily driver duties well, albeit with a few small caveats.
The good news starts the moment you step into the cabin. Everything in the CX-50 is designed to accommodate the driver and their experience, all without ruining it for the rest of the passengers. The infotainment screen, for example, is pointed slightly towards the driver’s side of the cabin to make it easier to read. The seats, while far from full-on buckets, are well-bolstered for cornering and comfortable for long commutes. The steering wheel, the thing the driver touches most, isn’t some fat, over-buttoned mess but thin-rimmed and a pleasure to hold. Peak behind it and you won’t find a fully digital mess of a gauge cluster, but rather a set of mostly analog gauges that are easy to read. The entire console design is pleasant to look at and useful at the same time.
Unlike some brands, which have turned to capacitive touch buttons (or worse, touchscreens), Mazda has kept the CX-50 sane with real, actual buttons for the climate control and most of the car’s other functions. Better yet, buttons for things like distance sensors, lane keeping assist, surround-view cameras, and traction control are one-touch affairs, meaning you don’t have to perform some nonsensical pattern or sit there holding down the same button for five straight seconds to turn things on and off. Additionally, Mazda has stuck with a more traditional front-to-back gear selector stick for the six-speed automatic, a refreshing sight as most manufacturers turn to more complex, less convenient buttons and rotary knobs.
One thing Mazda should’ve added, though, is a touchscreen. That big infotainment screen can only be navigated through a rotary knob and a handful of buttons aft of the shifter. The design seems to be a product of the company’s last-gen infotainment system that’s been carried over into the CX-50 with little more than a cosmetic revamp in the software. It wouldn’t be too much of an issue except this time, there’s Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, software that’s designed to be used with a touchscreen. Navigating through Apple CarPlay throughout my time with the car was a pain, as I had to use the rotary knob to shuffle through every possible button to press what you wanted to. I’m sure I’d get used to it over time, but it’s stuff like this that might scare off potential buyers at the dealership.
The drivetrain might win a few buyers back. Under the hood sits a lovely 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four that pushes out an impressive 226 hp at 5000 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm. While it can sound crass during cold starts, the turbo mill is mostly smooth, unobtrusive, and satisfying in its delivery. It’s not some high-revving enthusiast-focused sports car engine, obviously; it’s just a well-developed power plant that someone clearly spent time tuning to make sure the driver has a good experience.
The six-speed gearbox bolted to the engine isn’t as impressive as it is satisfactory. It’s missing one to two forward gears compared to competitors, but shifts are smooth enough to blend in during normal driving situations. It listens to commands from the wheel-mounted paddles, but don’t expect dual-clutch speeds here. If you’re really on it, you may be denied a downshift or two, though it’s tough to be surprised or disappointed. The CX-50 is a crossover designed to haul people and stuff, not a performance car.
You wouldn’t know that from the inputs, though. The most impressive part of the CX-50 is how the steering rack's been tuned and weighted to deliver feedback. There’s actually some heft to the wheel and real information coming back to your fingertips as you go down the road. It’s clear that this was designed by the same people who make the greatest sports car on sale today. The brakes, too, are shockingly well-weighted and tuned to deliver smooth, easy stops without a ton of precision or effort from the driver. It all sits atop a lovely chassis that doesn’t fall apart as soon as you start to lean on it. We’d recommend staying away from the optional 20-inch wheels, however, as they can make the ride a bit more jarring than it needs to be on rough surfaces.
Like the engine, it feels as if real thought was put into the rest of this car to make it drive better than any of its competitors. The result is a seemingly unassuming, stylish SUV that’s actually fun to drive. The CX-50 comes alive in the way it communicates and moves beneath you, something that nothing else in the segment can come close to doing. It’s the kind of design that we’ve come to expect from the creators of the Miata, which is why whenever someone asks one of our staff about normal cars, we usually recommend some sort of Mazda. Because in addition to being nice to drive, the CX-50 can still do the day-to-day well, with plenty of space, good fuel economy, and robust Japanese reliability.
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