In recent years, one of my most repetitive jokes has been comparing the SUV market to Russian nesting dolls. It starts with third-row full-size SUVs, then opens to mid-size, crossover, crossover coupe, compact, sub-compact. Then you find plug-in hybrids, high-performance, luxury-focused variants, and miles of panoramic sunroofs. Mazda’s collection of nesting SUVs recently received a new edition, the 2023 CX-50. This new compact SUV sits next to the Mazda CX-5 but takes the brand’s reputation for “fun handling” in a new direction, off-road.

To find out if the 2023 Mazda CX-50 has the torque to handle the active lifestyle market, I flew to Santa Barbara, California. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, Mazda handed me the keys to a new CX-50 and pre-programmed the GPS for a southern-Californian grand tour. The nine-hour road trip provided ample opportunities to test out the CX-50 Mi-Drive modes and the new G-Vectoring Control system. According to Mazda, the CX-50 intelligent all-wheel-drive system is capable enough to take the brand’s unique responsive throttle and sharp steering off-road.

The Hotel Californian

When I wasn’t driving the new Mazda CX-50, I partook in California’s hospitality at The Hotel Californian. This 121-room hotel overlooks a surf n turf view of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The Hotel Californian’s interior design inspires nostalgia with a gold, white and black color palette. Surrounded by restaurants and a block away from what is referred to as “the American Riviera.”

The room I stayed in was comfortable and spacious, which provided restful sleep after days filled with air travel and off-roading.

In one instance, while walking through the hallways back to my room, I saw a housekeeper walking out of a room. As I got closer, a guest walked up to the housekeeper to ask an all-too-common question, “where’s the ice machine?” The housekeeper replied by reaching into his supply kart, pulling out a freshly chilled pre-packaged bag of ice, and handing it to the guest – that’s service.

Mi-Drive Modes and G-Vectoring Control

Mazda aims to bring its reputation for canyon craving throttle-response and track-day steering to an SUV with off-road and towing capabilities. To do this, Mazda developed the G-Vectoring Control system (GVC). This, matched with Mi-Drive modes, create a consistent performance profile no matter what drive mode or terrain the CX-50 is on. As a result, the compact SUV is exciting to drive whether on a highway, off-road, or pulling a trailer. Moreover, the Mi-Drive provides the driver with four modes: Normal, Sport, Off-Road, and Towing.

2023 Mazda CX-50

Mazda developed the VGC by studying rally drivers and weight transferring logic. Depending on the drive mode, the GVC works by adjusting the transmission’s shift patterns and managing how power is sent to the wheels. More importantly, it does this while not letting the driver notice the change in how the CX-50 feels as it goes from Sport to Off-Road to Towing and back to Normal Mode. All the driver has to do is focus on navigating terrain and corner entry speed.

Off-Road in the Mazda CX-50

My California adventure took me to a working cattle ranch littered with photogenic hills and narrow valleys to cross. When Off-Road Mode is selected, the GVC changes the shift matter in the Mazda CX-50’s six-speed transmission. In addition, the engine’s idle speed is increased. Moreover, the GVC is capable of diagonal torque transfer. Lastly, the Traction Control system works by applying the brakes to wheels in the event of spinning or lifting off the ground. It stops the wasted power and redirects it to the wheels that need it to keep the CX-50 moving up and over the hill. As a result, the Mazda CX-50 is user-friendly while driving up slippery hills and alongside the valley.

Hitting the Apex in Sport Mode

In Santa Barbara’s wine country, I tested Sport Mode in the 2023 Mazda CX-50. Here, in the twisty one-an-half lane roads, the CX-50 proved it has a Mazda’s performance and soundtrack. Selecting Sport Mode directs the GVC to send more power to the front wheels. Doing this helps prevent the rear-powered wheels from plowing forward while turning. The transmission’s shift pattern is also changed to hold gears for longer to avoid shifting mid-turn. All this translates to is a compact SUV that likes to follow a racing line.

The Mazda’s CX-50 turbocharged 2.5-liter (naturally aspirated available) rumbles as it revs over 3,000-rpm. The torquey engine races like an excited Jack Russell terrier. The CX-50 downshifts and holds the gear, like a racing driver, until it is out of the corner. Push down on the throttle, and the CX-50 propels forward with all-wheel drive. The steering feels alive and lightweight going into the turns, and throttle input is satisfyingly responsive.

2023 Mazda CX-50

Towing Mode with 3,500 Pounds

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 has a max towing capacity of 3,500 pounds. I confirmed this stat in California when Mazda attached a 3,500-pound trailer to the back of my test CX-50. Towing Mode becomes available when weight is dropped onto the CX-50 trailer hitch. Upon doing so, the Mi-Drive menu replaces Sport Mode with Towing. The GVC adjusts the transmission’s shift patterns for heavy loads while towing. Moreover, it compensates for the additional weight on the vehicle’s rear, which tends to raise the front end.

Having power sent to the front wheels offers improved steering while towing. I found it easy to make precise wheel adjustments and turns on narrow roads. As a result, it is hard to tell that you are towing a trailer without checking mirrors as the Mazda CX-50 works to maintain its driving characteristics throughout its range of drive modes.

Pricing and Engine Options

Mazda announced it would be unveiling new plug-in hybrid and electric drivetrains soon. For now, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 is offered in two variants of its Skyactiv 2.5-liter engine, both using a six-speed automatic transmission. Lower tier like the CX-50 S uses the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter producing 187-hp and 186 lb.-ft of torque. Higher trim levels receive a turbocharged 2.5-liter engine with 256-hp and 326 lb.-ft of torque (93 octane fuel). The turbocharged engine can burn regular 87 octane gasoline, but that does decrease its performance to 227-hp and 310 lb.-ft of torque.

Pricing for the 2023 Mazda CX-50 starts at $26k with the entry S trim which comes well equipped with Apple CarPlay and Radar Cruise Control as standard. The other end of the spectrum is the CX-50 T Premium, with a starting price of $41K, featuring heated rear seats, a 360-view camera, and wireless charging. In addition, all CX-50 variants come standard with all-wheel-drive and more standard safety features than any other current Mazda vehicle.

An SUV with a Key Personality Trade

Engaging steering feel and responsive throttle aside, the 2023 Mazda CX-50 exterior and interior design is purpose-built for active lifestyles. Mazda intends to build a compact SUV that conveys toughness and power. Moreover, its rugged nature has proven that it is not just for looks. The Mazda CX-50 is meant to be a vessel to escape the anxiety-inducing hustle and bustle of concrete poured society. Using all-wheel-drive, the CX-50 can take its occupants out of the urban and into nature, whether it’s a ski resort, national park, or a place where the stars are visible at night.

To help better pack for a weekend adventure or escape the CX-50 is shorter than the Mazda CX-5 but broader. The logic behind this was to create interior space that mimics a station wagon with up to 56.3-cubic inches of cargo space when the second-row seats folded down. Moreover, the rear doors open 90-degrees to make loading up camping gear or car seats easier. The lower roofline makes accessing roof accessories easier as well. The CX-50 exterior design features flared fenders with wrap-around black clapping and large intakes in the front and rear bumpers from the outside. As a result, the exterior design exudes the rugged confidence of a North Face jacket.

What separates the 2023 Mazda CX-50 from the herd of compact SUVs is its focus on providing a fun journey on its way to the destination with excellent handling. Alloy wheels and black accents through the exterior further complement the CX-50’s go-anywhere personality. However, its styling belongs wherever it’s parked, whether outside the fancy hotel underneath an expertly manicured palm tree or covered in dust on a ranch home to California happy cows.