By NITISH S. RELE – motoringtampabay@gmail.com

Nestled against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains sits the American Riviera, i.e., the gorgeous Mediterranean-style coastal city of Santa Barbara. It is no wonder than that Mazda picked this California seaside wonder, known for spotless beaches, sprawling ocean views, world-class wineries, enchanting gardens, breath-taking landscapes and sights, and demanding but varied terrain, to test the all-new CX-50.

Built at the new Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant in Alabama, the compact SUV with standard and enhanced all-wheel drive is purpose-built for the active and outdoor lifestyle. It may convey a square and rugged silhouette but also boasts a sporty image. Lower, wider and longer than the CX-5, the 2023 CX-50 with sport, off-road and tow modes delivers a confident, fun-to-drive feel, especially if you are going off the beaten track.

The CX-50 also shares power trains and transmission with its smaller sibling. A 2.5-liter 6-cylinder naturally aspirated engine puts out 187 horsepower @ 6500 rpm and 186 pounds-feet of torque @ 4000 rpm; the 2.5-liter turbo blasts off 256 hp @ 5000 rpm and 320 pounds-feet of torque @ 2500 rpm. Both are mated to a 6-speed auto gearbox. The ride is equipped with the direct-injection Skyactiv, which uses a torque boost via a high compression ratio to raise fuel economy. And the G-Vectoring Control uses engine timing for more accurate turn inputs.

We cruised on the California highways in the CX-50 before tackling the rigors of a planned off-road track made up of steep slopes and sharp downhills. The off-road mode provided plenty of punch and control to hold the CX-50 in check and on course! Mazda also provided us a U-Haul truck for a couple miles. Thanks to the tow mode, which can pull up to 3,000 pounds, it proved to be an effortless task.

A Mazda first is a panoramic moon roof and it has the most standard safety features of its siblings. Ten packages are offered along with such choices as a rooftop tent, bike/luggage/kayak carriers, cargo box, outdoor backpack, crossbars, surfboard attachment, and many more accessories for the outdoor enthusiasts. Also borrowed from the CX-5 are the neat 7-inch instrument cluster and an 8.8- or 10.25-inch color infotainment display.

Base-priced at $26,800 and topping at over $41,000 (with hybrid and electrified trims to follow), the CX-50 shows promise amid the crowded compact crossover field of three million annual sales. With peppy performance, athletic stance, top-notch interior and superior off-road prowess, it will surely make a major dent into the crammed market.

CX-50 (S)

Tires: 225/65/R17

Wheelbase: 110.8 inches

Length: 185.8 inches

Weight: 3,706 pounds

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear

Steering: power rack and pinion

Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons

City: 24 mpg

Highway: 30 mpg

Web site: www.mazdausa.com