Offering a pair of small, affordable crossovers in the same segment on the same showroom floor at the same time isn’t a great idea. Particularly when one is newer, more attractive, and better sorted.
When I sync up with my local press fleet manager about every month or so, we go over a wave of cars we schedule at a time, and typically I have zero confusion about what’s selected and planned. Recently I had a real head scratcher on my hands when I saw my schedule included both the new Mazda CX-50 and the CX-5 I’m already familiar with. I knew Mazda had a new practical-sized crossover in the CX-50, but didn’t realize the CX-5 wasn’t send out to pasture upon its arrival.
Mazda’s CX-5 has been around for over a decade, and has had a couple updates, but it was due for a rebuild… or outright replacement. Competing with other crossovers including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, and Hyundai Tucson, the CX-5 has a good option for plenty of families. What’s strange is that it is still on sale as a new car, when its spiritual successor has arrived in the form of the CX-50. Rather than my usual review of one car at a time, I decided to talk about both, and point out the reasons you’d want one of these Mazda crossovers over the other.
The Specs, Similar Yet Different
Both Mazda crossovers are powered by four-cylinder engines (turbocharged in these higher trim levels), with all-wheel-drive now standard across the model range. With a 2.5-liter turbo, Mazda gives both the CX-5 and CX-50 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque with regular unleaded, and bumps up to 256 horsepower and 320 lb-ft if you fill the tank with premium. These are great figures for a practical little crossover.
Where the CX-5 is 180 inches long, 72 wide, 66 tall, and sports 62-inch wide tracks and a 106-inch wheelbase, the CX-50 is 185 inches long, 75 wide, and 64 tall, with a 110-inch wheelbase (and no track listed). The CX-5 has a minimum ground clearance of 7.9 inches, and the CX-50 clears 8.6. Towing capacity for the CX-5 is 2,000 pounds, and the CX-50’s higher two trim levels bump that up to 3,500 pounds.
Base pricing for the entry-level trims of both the CX-5 and CX-50 begin at $27,000, and I tested the top-level Turbo Signature trim of the CX-5 and the Turbo Premium Plus CX-50, which add all the tech and comfort goodies you’d want. The CX-5 tested hit a total MSRP of $41,655, and the CX-50 is $43,170.
The Outgoing Sensible Daily Driver
Rather than a plain experience behind the wheel, the Mazda CX-5 is actually an enjoyable little crossover to drive. The 2.5-liter turbo makes it considerably quicker than other compact crossovers I’ve tested, making any errand run more fun. Shifts from the 6-speed automatic are reasonably seamless, with somewhat tight gear ratios to provide quick acceleration in any situation.
Steering feel is slightly heavy yet precise, although when parking at a grocery store or making a quick U-turn, there’s a considerable amount of driver input needed. Ride quality is definitely on the firm side, which isn’t a thing I’ve noticed in other Mazda models, and it was uncomfortable when driving in downtown Austin. It felt like Mazda used spring rates intended for a full-size pickup in the CX-5.
Mazda’s interior design is clean and modern, with comfortable and supportive seats for all five passengers (if you’re sticking kids in the back seat). The front two occupants are treated to heated and ventilated seats, which are nice for a practical crossover, and the outer two rear passengers get heated seats, but the control for those is made into the center armrest. The leather used in the CX-5 certainly feels more premium than you’d expect in an affordable crossover. Cargo space in the hatch is good for the weekend’s errand runs, but if you need to fold the back seat down flat you’ll either need to remove the headrests or move your front seats up a lot.
The CX-5’s switchgear setup is slightly dated, using bits that have been in the Mazda parts bin for a decade. At least there are buttons and switches rather than touchscreens for the systems. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are installed in Mazda’s infotainment system, but you still have to plug in your phone, so if you want to take advantage of the wireless mobile charging tray you won’t be doing so with CarPlay running.
Fuel economy achieved during my test was 19 MPGs, which is less than the EPA estimated 22/27/24. Thank the tighter final drive ratio that kept RPMs up higher than expected from a small crossover during daily cruising, even while I behaved myself with the accelerator and didn’t make much use of the sport drive mode (which will quicken the CX-5’s throttle response and personality ever so slightly).
Mazda equips the CX-5 with loads of safety and driver assistance systems, but the adaptive cruise control system nor lane keeping assistance are really smooth, and could take a page from Honda’s book. Overall, the CX-5 is good, but it’s clear it has been on the road for a while in its current form, and was ready for upgrades.
The Successor Steps Up
The CX-50 certainly grew in size compared to the CX-5, but the big improvements come from the exterior design department. The CX-5 was a decent looking little crossover, in a world of cute utes that have all sorts of angles and fake vents for no good reason, but the CX-50 is downright attractive. Punchier fender flares, a more pronounced fascia, and more angular bumpers make the CX-50 way more appealing than most crossovers queueing to pick up the kids from school.
While the CX-50 carries over the more than competent powertrain from the CX-5, Mazda did some serious updates to the suspension, because despite the fact it ditched the independent multilink setup on the CX-5, the torsion bar rear suspension copes with corners and bumps impressively. Attribute some of the ride quality to the wheelbase that’s four inches longer than the CX-5. The slightly larger diameter steering wheel (and it’s nicer controls) that’s borrowed from Mazda’s big brother CX-9 helps make tighter turns easier too.
Seating surfaces are treated to even better leather than the CX-5, with the CX-50 I tested sporting nice contrasting stitching. Even the CX-50’s dash gets more leather and cool stitching, completing a much more upmarket cabin. The CX-50 offers better interior volume for both occupants and cargo than the CX-5. With the back seat up, there’s still more space than inside the CX-5, and I found that the rear seats went flat without the headrests hitting the front seats in our intended positions. If you need to tote more kids and gear than the CX-50 can handle, the CX-9 I tested–and it’s CX-90 upgrade–will get the job done.
While it gets a bigger infotainment screen than the CX-5, and just like the setup in the bigger CX-9 I evaluated, the CX-50 continues to utilize Mazda’s somewhat spartan and average software. Thankfully Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are installed, but I’d like to see Mazda incorporate USB-C ports in its models, so I don’t have to keep around outdated cables for my iPhone. Wireless charging pads and newer iPhones also don’t play along nicely, with the metallic back heating up quite a lot when on the wireless charger for more than a quick errand run.
The Mazda CX-50 gets my same complaint on the fuel economy front as the CX-5. During my week with the CX-50, I made a road trip to Houston for a weekend, and did considerably more highway miles. Because the final drive gear ratio is still tight in the CX-50 (4.41 in the CX-5 vs. 3.84 in the CX-50), I was hitting about 2,500 RPMs at highway speeds, and on the three-hour drives between Austin and Houston, the MPGs took a hit, yielding just 18 on average. Not great for a reasonable family crossover powered by a four-banger, but the CX-50 does get an extra half gallon of fuel capacity over the CX-50.
As an upgrade over the CX-5, Mazda added an off-road drive mode to the CX-50, which is a nice feature for families who go on adventures over less than smooth terrain. Although the Goodyear all-season rubber is okay, if you want to really tackle the trails, opt for the CX-50’s Meridian Edition. While it’s a slightly lower trim level than the Premium Plus I tested, it gets more rugged looks and gear, but also adds a set of all-terrain tires wrapped around more sensible 18-inch wheels. Honda’s Passport TrailSport I reviewed last year is another option for a slightly more rugged approach to a two-row crossover.
Mazda Cannibalized Its Own Car
Mazda claims the CX-50 isn’t a replacement for the CX-5, with them both being on sale at the same time, but let’s not kid ourselves. The CX-50 is the new middle child in the Mazda crossover lineup, and it’s a great one. Mazda did a similar thing when the CX-30 launched, keeping the CX-3 around for a little longer before giving it the axe, and that didn’t make sense either.
It’s as if Mazda had a pair of fraternal twins, but one got all the great genes, and the other got some good ones. Both were physically attractive, played sports in high school, and got good grades, but one made the varsity tennis team yet kicked ass at chess, and got a scholarship to Rice while the other played occasional intramural sports and had to do a couple years in community college before transferring to U of H. They’re both good kids, and live good lives, but we all know one is the parents’ favorite.
Not only is the Mazda CX-50 better looking inside and out, but it’s considerably more enjoyable to drive than the CX-5. The price point is similar too, which makes the CX-50 even easier to choose. Especially if you’re doing conventional financing. Sure, Mazda has some big lease incentives to move the CX-5, but that should give an even better indication that the CX-50 should be the crossover you take on all your family’s adventures and I think it’s the new class leader.