Compact SUVs are among the most popular vehicles in America for good reasons. They balance comfort, practical family-hauling capability, and reasonable prices. However, not all compact SUVs are the same. Some are built with everyday commute comfort in mind, while others are built tough enough for the trail.
Mazda has long been known as the go-to choice among affordable carmakers for people who love to drive on asphalt. But the company has started to unveil more off-road-ready SUVs, like the new CX-50.
The CX-50 doesn’t take the place of the CX-5. The two even share some parts. But the CX-50 is a more rugged, off-road-ready alternative.
Let’s look at what sets it apart from typical compact SUVs.
Standard i-ACTIV AWD
The tough look of SUVs connotates off-road prowess, but they don’t all really have it. The CX-50 comes standard with Mazda’s excellent i-Activ all-wheel-drive (AWD) system. It’s a particularly sophisticated AWD system for a non-luxury car, measuring things like weather and steering angle to vary the torque delivered to the front and rear wheels, chasing maximum traction at all times. The i-Active system makes the vehicle feel more responsive on dry roads, helping get you out of slippery situations when traveling on muddy and sandy surfaces.
Mi-Drive Driving Modes
Speaking of surfaces, the CX-50 is designed to tackle many. It has a new version of the Mazda Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) system. Most Mazdas have a version of the system, which allows drivers to select Normal or Sport modes. The CX-50 adds Off-Road mode as standard equipment.
It raises the engine’s idle speed for better climbing capability, reprograms the automatic transmission to allow for smooth, continuous torque at the lower speeds of trail driving, and preps the traction control and i-Activ systems for slippery surfaces.
A towing mode is also available – a first in a Mazda compact SUV. The CX-50 can pull up to 3,500 pounds.
Mazda is pretty good at engines, but great at suspensions. The secret sauce in most Mazda products is a carefully tuned suspension that makes driving at neighborhood speeds more fun.
The CX-50’s suspension, unsurprisingly, is key to its off-road skills. The CX-5 and CX-50 share a similar suspension setup in front. But in the rear, the CX-50 loses the independent multi-link rear suspension common to other Mazdas. Instead, a tougher torsion beam setup keeps the rear under control.
Designing a rugged off-road suspension to deliver the Mazda driving feel on the road is another level of magic. But Mazda has pulled it off.
Added Ground Clearance
Not every bit of off-road kit is a piece of high-tech engineering. The CX-50 sits 8.3 or 8.6 inches off the ground (depending on trim). That’s an inch higher than the CX-5, and more than half an inch higher than the Honda CR-V. If you’re leaving the pavement, the taller stance helps you clear obstacles.
Scratch-Proof, Glare-Proof Styling
Speaking of low-tech off-road gear, the CX-50 wears black plastic cladding around the wheel wells, side skirts, and low on both bumpers. This is common to off-road vehicles, and not just a cosmetic tweak meant to make them look at home in the REI parking lot.
It prevents scrub and brush from scratching the paint, preserving the look of your investment even when you take it down the trail.
The CX-50 is available with our favorite low-tech piece of off-road gear – a big matte patch in the hood. This prevents glare in the driver’s eyes when the sun is reflecting off the paint at the odd angles normal in bouncing down a dirt track. Sometimes the lowest-tech solutions are the best innovations.