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2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus - Playing In Mud

We take the 2023 Mazda CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus to the muddiest area we can find to see how this grand touring crossover fares where the pavement ends.

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Mazda’s 2023 CX-50 crossover is many things to many buyers. Some view it as an upscale Subaru Outback. Others see an Audi wagon competitor. Many CX-5 owners scratch their heads and wonder why two vehicles with nearly identical interior volumes are being sold side by side. One thing that is not in doubt is that Mazda has marketed the CX-50 as a vehicle that can go past the end of the pavement. We decided to do exactly that and see how the CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus handled muddy trails.

Image of Mazda CX-50 in mud by John GorehamWhy This CX-50 and Not Another Trim?
Mazda, Subaru, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Jeep, and many other brands now market their crossovers and SUVs with a special trim a bit more capable off pavement than the rest of the line. In the Mazda CX-50 model line that trim is called the Meridian Edition. The one we tested is not that one. Why? Because all CX-50s have an “Off-Road” mode. And because it was the one Mazda sent us to test. You can enjoy a general review of the CX-50 here. As you will see, we are fond of the vehicle.

Image of Mazda CX-50 in mud by John GorehamWhere Did We Go In the CX-50?
If you live in New England, one place to find dirt roads, private unmaintained trails, and as much mud as you desire is central New Hampshire. There are some dirt roads that the local municipality cares for, others that a local homeowners’ association takes care of, some that individuals keep open, an miles of dirt roads, logging roads, and trails that nobody cares for. These are often marked with warnings saying “Road Not Maintained In Winter.” The implication is that you are looking for trouble by passing that sign. Honestly, we love passing that sign in the right vehicle.

We chose a middle type of road on which to try out the CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus. One we knew was open end to end and not too far from a recovery tow if need be. The road is what is called “dirt” in New Hampshire and it is maintained by an individual with a pickup truck. It gets plowed, but that’s pretty much it from October to May

Very sandy brown soil with little in the way of gravel to help maintain grip is the surface when the surface isn’t muddy water. In the late winter, these roads are frozen under about three to six inches of mud. The mud is the consistency of half-melted chocolate ice cream. It acts as a lubricant under your tires, and it can be very slippery. Ruts from pickups and plows can be as deep as a foot in some places. In others, there are granite rocks sticking up that can take out an oil pan if you are in a low-riding vehicle.

Image of Mazda CX-50 in mud by John GorehamGreat Tires But Wrong Tires
The tires on the CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus are great for highways and paved country roads. Large diameter, low profile, and almost no sidewall. The tread is smooth for quiet touring. Tires like this offer quick steering and sharp handling, along with a smooth ride on the highway. These are absolutely the wrong tires for New Hampshire Mud season, which makes things interesting.

CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus - Mud Driving
On greasy mud over a frozen substrate, the CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus benefits from having all-wheel drive. The ability to push itself forward is the main advantage of a vehicle with AWD. At low speeds in sloppy conditions, AWD does nothing to help you steer or stop. Here, the low-profile and smooth-treaded touring tires are entirely a negative. The tires seemed to follow any groove in the mud, slide sideways against physics, and offer little confidence when steering or stopping. Though admittedly, we traveled at a slow pace. The tires also offer little cushion when you hit a washboard area or a minefield of potholes of unknown depth. The only option was to slow to a walking pace.

Image of Mazda CX-50 in mud by John Goreham

We engaged “Off-Road” mode to see the difference. The immediate sensation is that the RPMs climb. Throttle seems enhanced. Sort of like a sport mode. Aside from this, we didn’t detect or uncover any added benefits to off-road mode in sloppy muddy conditions, though we did opt to keep it engaged.

The stiff suspension setting the CX-50 Turbo comes with is a plus on lonely paved back-country roads where precise steering and handling are a plus. On bumpy unpaved roads, the stiff suspension seems out of sorts. Not incapable, just not ideal.

Our planned routes included some more serious trail driving. Places we have been in Ford Bronco Sports and Subaru Forester and Outback Wilderness trims. We opted not to go there. The tires on the Premium Plus are just not the right equipment for such driving, and getting stuck, dinging an oil pan or catalytic converter, or damaging a rim or sidewall of the touring tires seemed like a bad idea. We lacked the confidence to take the Premium Plus on any unmaintained logging roads, never mind actually “off-road.” We hope you see this is not intended as an insult to this great crossover, but just good sense. We had no desire to prove any limitations of this vehicle at the risk of damaging it.

Cue the Meridian
Our conclusion is that the Meridian edition of the CX-50 is clearly intended to make the CX-50 a better off-pavement model. Without having tested it, we can still say with some confidence it makes more sense to choose the Meridian if these are conditions you plan to traverse. How do we know? We have tested the Falken WildPeak A/T Trail tires the Meridian is fitted with on multiple vehicles, including a long-term test on a Subaru Forester. They change the game. And come with no meaningful sacrifices.

Our Recommendation
This may surprise you, but even after being frank about the CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus’s limited abilities off pavement on mud, we would still enthusiastically approve the vehicle. The CX-50 is a great crossover with excellent manners on pavement in all weather conditions. If you plan to go off-pavement frequently, let’s say a couple of times each month, you want the Meridian, not a Premium Plus. If you will go camping once or twice a year, the Premium Plus may be better. You can always just be careful not to get into an off-road adventure with it on those trips, and for the other 360 days per year, the CX-50 Premium Plus will shine on pavement.

Images of Mazda CX-50 in mud by John Goreham

John Goreham is an experienced New England Motor Press Association member and expert vehicle tester. John completed an engineering program with a focus on electric vehicles, followed by two decades of work in high-tech, biopharma, and the automotive supply chain before becoming a news contributor. In addition to his ten years of work at Torque News, John has published thousands of articles and reviews at American news outlets. He is known for offering unfiltered opinions on vehicle topics. You can follow John on Twitter, and TikTok @ToknCars, and view his credentials at Linkedin

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