The 2023 Mazda CX-50 Meridian Edition makes the case for smooth roads
If the CX-50 is Mazda’s attempt to beat Subaru at its own game, this Meridian Edition takes aim at the successful Wilderness models. This is the off-road version of the Japanese automaker’s mid-size crossover. It features unique 18-inch wheels, Falken Wildpeak AT tires and a matte black hood sticker, among other decorative pieces.
I’ve typically treated these off-road versions of modern crossovers with skepticism. It can feel like more style than substance, without any meaningful hardware upgrades beyond bezels and perhaps a slight lift. A play for wild audiences…or at least those who want to imitate the wild aesthetic. Plus, in Mazda’s case, this is a sports brand. why is he doing this?
There was no need to worry. The Meridian edition seems to be a real sweet spot in the CX-50 lineup, and even if you never take it off-road, it might be the one you get.
Where the CX-50 Turbo rides on 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires that my colleague Brian Silvestro says contribute to a sometimes harsh ride, the Meridian Edition’s 18-inch wheels and 60-profile tires give it exceptional comfort. I didn’t take advantage of the Meridian’s off-road ability, but on ramshackle city streets, the extra cushion is much appreciated. Of course, this comes at the cost of higher noise at highway speeds, but it’s not very loud, so the trade-off seems worth it. Plus, the Meridian Edition doesn’t completely spoil the Mazda’s sporty character.
The folks at Mazda care a lot about vehicle dynamics, and that’s very clear with the CX-50. It feels sharp and taut, although the Meridan’s off-road tires don’t naturally lend themselves to spirited driving. Mazda products usually look like a piece. The response rate from the steering, throttle and brakes is evenly matched, helping to provide a smooth and composed driving experience. Achieving this requires putting a lot of effort into the small details, things that other automakers often overlook. It makes simple driving tasks, going to the grocery store, commuting, and highway driving a pleasure.
The same goes for the engine itself. While the base CX-50 gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the Meridian version gets a turbo with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. It is the ideal engine for this type of car, with a strong emphasis on low and mid-range torque. The engine is smooth and quiet, too, and in typical Mazda fashion delivers good fuel economy of 23 mpg city, 29 highway, and 25 combined. While many automakers have gone for automatic transmissions with seven or more gears, Mazda is still using a six-speed here, and frankly, it’s a refreshing change of pace. There’s no hunting or shuffling through a series of ultra-short gears to achieve a quick burst of acceleration. Sure, you won’t get super-fast responses from the paddle shifters, but no one who buys this type of car expects that.
The interior feels very upscale for the price, as we’re used to from Mazda, and the dark brown leather trim is a particular highlight. It’s very simple and has a simple digital display that replaces the traditional speedometer, an analogue tachometer, which is a rarity in our modern world, as well as fuel and temperature gauges. There are no crazy levels of configurability, touchpads, screens for the sake of screen, or any of the other silly things that bother us in modern cars. Even the climate controls use knobs and buttons. What an idea!
However, Mazda’s infotainment system is controversial. It’s very simple, and can only be controlled via a rotary knob on the center console. The touchscreen only works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Mazda says this is better for keeping drivers focused on the road, although it’s unconventional in today’s touchscreen world. Try it before you commit to the car, though I will say I got used to it pretty quickly, because the menu structure is very intuitive.
Equipment-wise, the Meridian Edition won’t leave many people short. Perhaps the most notable exceptions are the heated steering wheel and cooled seats, both of which come on the CX-50 Turbo Premium and Premium Plus. But across the CX-50 range, you get adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, so what more do you need? Of course, the only difference between the CX-50 Turbo and the Meridian are the wheels/tires and some exterior trim, so you could just save a few thousand and get that, but then you’d still be stuck in the 20s. Honestly, the Meridian version looks great. Obviously I like some road trip style myself.
With an MSRP of $42,175, the Subaru CX-50 Meridian’s equivalent is the $41,225 Outback Wilderness. The Subaru is a little bigger, but the Mazda is the nicer car in every way. The extra $1,000 gets you something that looks more premium and is more fun to drive. With its more conventional all-wheel drive system, the Outback is probably best for off-roading, but no one buys these things for anything more challenging than a dirt road.
Maybe, then, Mazda isn’t beating Subaru at its own game. It’s just making a better car.
A childhood car lover, Chris Perkins is Road & Track’s engineering nerd and Porsche advocate. He joined the staff in 2016 and no one has figured out a way to fire him since. He parks a Porsche Boxster on the street in Brooklyn, New York, much to the horror of everyone who sees the car, not least the author himself. He also insists he is not a convertible person, despite owning three cars.