Payne: Multi-state trek shows off Mazda CX-50’s multi-talents

Posted by Talbot Payne on November 3, 2022

Watkins Glen, New York — The original Watkins Glen race track was 6.6 miles of raw, open country road. After racers took the green flag downtown, they would climb steeply into the hills overlooking the stunning Seneca Lake valley — then madly plunge downhill to begin another lap through town. Man, those drivers had guts. While today’s Watkins Glen races are held on a smooth, enclosed 3.7-mile track nearby, the original course is marked as a historic public road.

It’s available for any visitor to drive. Which I did (repeatedly) in my 2023 Mazda CX-50.

The 256-horsepower, all-wheel-drive CX-50 is that rare SUV that can get you to your destination in comfort, then offer performance to enjoy the local landscape when you arrive. Heck, the CX-50 is a sci-fi cyborg compared to the ‘50s Allard J2 Cadillacs that used to conquer the Glen’s hills.

It’s this kind of versatility that has the Mazda and Kia Sportage at the top of my list for North American SUV of the Year.

As a juror for North American Car, Truck, and Utility of the Year, I’m weighing a semifinal list of 13 vehicles for best ute (along with 13 sedans for best car and three pickups for best truck). It’s a competitive group that includes a record eight electric vehicles: Audi Q4 e-tron, BMW iX xDrive M50i, Cadillac Lyriq, Genesis GV60, Kia EV6, Nissan Ariya, Rivian R1S and Volvo C40 Recharge.

But as much as I enjoy EVs (I’ve purchased two Tesla Model 3s in the last four years, and they’re the coolest toys I’ve owned), they aren’t ready for prime time as family wagons. Utes are about, well, utility. Utility infielder utility. Allow me to quote from Webster’s: “capable of serving as a substitute in various roles or positions.”

That is, vehicles that can do anything. And EVs just don’t do road trips well.

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 offers utlity to go with its fun-to-drive nature on long trips to, say, Watkins Glen Raceway in New York state.

My mid-September trek to meet my race team at Watkins Glen’s SCCA Regionals is a good example. Leaving Thursday afternoon, I would need to arrive in time for dinner with my sons (arriving from Seattle and Newark) to discuss the weekend ahead. I mapped the 389-mile trip and Google suggested I take the northern, Canadian route around Lake Erie, arriving at the Glen after seven hours versus the 7.45-hour southern route via the Ohio Turnpike.

The 458-mile range CX-50 tester in my driveway would need to stop once for a five-minute fill-up. On the other hand, my Tesla’s nav system mapped an eight hour, 10 minute drive with two stops across Canada. When I reached Watkins Glen I would have 9% of battery charge left.

Did my hotel have a 240-volt charger? No. Was there a Tesla Supercharger in town? No. Would I dare take laps of Watkins Glen’s historic track without charging my battery? No.

Aw, the heck with it.

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 combines style with all-wheel-drive versatility and 460 miles of highway range.

I just didn’t want to deal with EV inconveniences. Electrics are inferior road-trippers. A friend says we should all make the sacrifice of longer EV road trips in order to save the planet. But what about lost time with my kids? Or losing prep time for a race? Or losing sleep?

I took the gas-powered, 25 mpg, 2.5-liter turbo-4 Mazda. We had a ball together and I never had to worry about where — and for how long — my next fill-up would be.

The CX-50 is the more butch-looking twin of the CX-5 — long my benchmark as best compact SUV. Not only because of its BMW X3-like handling, but for its value. Starting at $28.8K, the base ute comes with all-wheel drive, emergency braking, blind-spot assist, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, auto high beams, auto wipers and a college counselor for your child (kidding about the last one).

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 options a panoramic roof, leather seats, and strong engine for 10 grand less than a comparable BMW.

Add the rockin’ 256-horse, 2.5-liter turbo-4 and standard features grow to leather heated seats, panoramic sunroof, head-up display and 20-inch wheels. Price? $43K. The comparable BMW x30i will set you back $52K while delivering 245 horses and 2 mpg less. Pinch me.

Charging up I-94 to the Bluewater Bridge, the CX-50 exhibits the same obsession with detail as the (much smaller inside) Mazda3 hot hatch. The six-speed tranny is buttery smooth, the turbo-4 torquey, the steering flawless.

That obsession with detail extends to the electronics.

Crossing into Canada, the speed limit sign in my head-up display didn’t change from mph to km/h like the Volvo XC90 I recently drove to the Great White North. No, it did something better.

It told me my speed in mph. So when the Canadian speed limit went from 100 km/h to 110 km/h, the sign changed from 62 mph to 68 mph. Brilliant, especially for metric-illiterate Yanks who just want to know how to keep their speed not more than, say, 5 mph over the legal limit.

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 features a clever head-up display that translates km/h (when in Canada) to mph - as well as showing directions from Google Maps.

The head-up display also showed the wireless Android Auto directions and indicated whether a car was in my blind spot. After the experience, I was pining for a head-up display in my Tesla.

I mentioned the Kia Sportage earlier as one of my Top 2 SUVs due to its own impressive interior appointments and standard features. Sportage can’t hold a candle to the Mazda’s handling, but it makes its case with a self-drive system nearly on par with Tesla and Cadillac.

On recent trips to northern Michigan, Sportage drove itself for long distances, allowing me to relax and even monitor messages on my phone. The CX-50 isn’t that good, maybe because Mazda thinks that you bought a Mazda because you enjoy driving (not being driven around).

That driver focus also informs Mazda’s rejection of a touchscreen infotainment system. Even Audi and BMW — which pioneered the remote, rotary dial controller — have succumbed to the touchscreen in this smartphone-obsessed world.

The 2023 Mazda CX-50's driver-oriented interior with hgh infotainment screen, remote controller, and sporty gauges.

Mazda has stubbornly stuck with its remote controller, and it works beautifully for those willing to learn its methods. Its ergonomics are logical, and — once mastered — allow for less-distracted driving.

Over the country roads leading into Watkins Glen from the Niagara border crossing, the Mazda’s 320 pound-feet of torque came in handy — Whoosh! — in passing traffic on two-lane country roads. Once at Watkins Glen, however, the Mazda’s duties turned more utilitarian.

While some Mazdas are tight in the rear seat, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 offers plenty of legroom for six-footers.

CX-50 comfortably fit me and my two boys — all six-plus footers — as well as bags of ice, groceries and other necessities. Another NACTOY SUV finalist, the Lexus RX, has two inches less rear legroom than the CX-50 while sporting a $52K sticker similar to the BMW X3.

After Sunday’s race, I contemplated the seven-hour drive back home by way of Canada. Scheduled arrival time: 1 a.m. thanks to a single gas stop. The compact SUV space is awash in flashy EVs this year. But they have some work to do to catch up with the fleet CX-50.

Next week: BMW iX

2023 Mazda CX-50

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $28,825 base, including $1,225 destination fee ($43,170 Premium Plus as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter inline-4 cylinder; turbocharged, 2.5-liter inline-4

Power: 187 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque (2.5L); 256 horsepower (227 on regular gas), 310 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.6 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing capacity: 2,000 pounds (2.5L), 3,500 pounds (turbo-4)

Weight: 3,907 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (2.5L); 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined (turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Obsessive attention to detail; utility with performance capability

Lows: If you like sleek Mazda styling, opt for the CX-5; remote controller requires patience to learn

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne

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