- Auto123 compares the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport and 2023 Mazda CX-50.
The Mazda CX-50 and Ford Bronco Sport may seem completely divergent in scope and the type of buyer they draw, but they’re closer in spirit than you might think. Yes, the Bronco Sport has that name and all the historical connotation that comes with it, while the CX-50 is an all-new entrant in Mazda’s ever-expanding crossover lineup, with little history behind it; all you can say is it looks unique and is likely a fun drive.
However, both of these are aimed at young, adventurous families, both have certain geometries and bits and bobs to add a little adventure to the package, and each is here to appeal to those wanting something more rugged.
Design of the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport – 8/10
The Escape-based Bronco Sport was revealed in the shadow of the full-size Ranger-based Bronco, but it managed to carve out its own space in the crowded compact CUV segment.
Some styling inspiration was drawn from the 1980s Bronco II, but the Bronco has its own style, especially with the Heritage package seen here. The model has unique oval-headlamps, six-port grille and lovely 17-inch “steelie” wheels wrapped in off-road rubber, and the Heritage spec paints those wheels and grille white to match the contrast-colour roof.
Exterior of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 – 8.5/10
Where the Bronco Sport is all squared-off retro lines, the CX-50 reflects what “rugged” means in 2023. The squared-off fenders, plastic cladding, front and rear skid plates, flared fenders and Falken Wildpeak off-road rubber add a level of toughness that the CX-5 can’t really match. The CX-50 gets a widened version of that vehicle’s five-point grille and narrow headlamps with black outlines as well as some cool and blocky taillamps. It’s longer, lower and wider than a CX-5 and the stance is right on.
It’s taken to another level still in my tester thank to the Meridian package, which adds some neat hood graphics, special 18-inch wheels and Falken Wildpeak A/T tires. Overall, a very cool-looking car – even a mean-looking car that makes the Bronco and its lipstick look somewhat goofy in comparison.
Interior of the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport – 7.5/10
The interior of the Bronco Sport is a smorgasbord of current and retro interior elements. On the one hand, you have a modern fully digitized gauge cluster, 8.0-inch infotainment display with Ford SYNC3 infotainment and an electronic dial-style shifter. On the other, you have cloth seats with an 80s-style pattern, hard plastic surfaces and lots of right angles. Does it work? Sure, but there’s a lot going on and it gets a little busy.
It's well equipped for storage, however. The bin below the central armrest is deep, the cupholders are placed to ensure even tall drink containers don’t get in the way and there’s that shelf just below the infotainment display, perfect for mobile devices.
Add molle straps on the front seatbacks, a rear window that opens independently from the tailgate and a neat cargo dividing system that doubles as a picnic table – and don’t forget the bottle opener – and you can see how Ford has done well with what is a pretty compact package.
Space for humans is also good, with rear headroom helped along by the subtly stepped roofline and those square surfaces leaving ample space for stray knees and elbows. It feels much larger in here than it is.
Interior of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 – 8.5/10
The same can’t quite be said for the Mazda. It does also make use of a fairly right-angled interior with upright dash, but it doesn’t feel as roomy inside as the Bronco Sport. Some motorists like to be ensconced in their cockpits and that’s fine, but that’s also more of a sport car thing. Now, the CX-50 has plenty of sporting vibes surrounding it, but it’s still a crossover at the end of the day.
The seats are actually more supportive than in the Sport, and they look fantastic in the Terracotta finish included in our tester. There are also more soft-touch materials than in the Ford, as well as contrast-colour stitching on the dash and low-profile centre console (that’s more of a single oval-shaped panel). You have a cabin that can compete with luxury crossovers in the segment. Even the gauge cluster – less flashy than in the Bronco Sport – gets some cool aluminum bezels around the instruments and easily-legible font that fits with the high(er)-class theme.
Then there’s the cargo area, which offers about the same space as in the CX-5, except the floor is longer to better fit long items such as coolers, mattresses, tents and so on. It may sound trivial, but I loaded my camping gear into both the CXes and this is an improvement for Mazda.
Tech and safety in the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport – 8.5/10
The Heritage model we drove sits one up from base in the Bronco Sport lineup, which means it has stuff like a blind spot warning system, cross-traffic alert, lane keeping system with pre-collision assist and terrain system with five G.O.A.T. (“Goes Over Any Type Of Terrain”) modes: Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand. These are accessible via a scroll wheel just below the gear select dial.
SYNC3 is a fluid infotainment system accessed via a responsive touchscreen with crisp graphics. Plus there are the shortcuts along the bottom of the display to jump to common commands such as the audio menu, settings, navigation and so on. Jumping between Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and the native system is also a single button press away.
Tech and safety in the 2023 Mazda CX-50 – 8/10
The CX-50 is one of the first Mazdas to get the company’s latest infotainment system. It’s wider and faster than previous, but it still looks rather dreary. You also have to do a lot of scrolling through menus as there is only a quasi touch set-up (it will work as a touchscreen when using CarPlay or Android Auto, but otherwise you have to make use of the central scroll wheel).
Safety-wise, the CX-50 gains some points back because it’s a pretty simple line-up that makes it easy to shop for. The Meridian starts life as a top-spec GT trim so it gets all the same features the Bronco Sport gets, but adds traffic sign recognition, 360-degree parking camera, self-levelling headlights with adaptive headlights, smart-city brake support that can detect objects up to 200 metres down the road and prepares for full braking no matter how much pressure the driver puts on the pedal.
Driving the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport – 8/10
Power for the Bronco Sport is available from two sources: either a 1.5L 3-cylinder good for 181 hp and 190 lb-ft of torque, and a 2.0L twin-scroll turbo four good for 250 hp and 277 lb-ft. 4x4 comes as standard, no surprise for a Bronco, and power is fed to the wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission, with the 2.0 getting paddle shifters.
Put simply, I’m a big fan of the powertrain in each of its form. The 1.5L gives a nice off-beat warble as you set off but power comes on smoothly and with the exception of steep hills at speed, I can’t say that I ever felt wanting for more power. Even when traversing slippery and inclined gravel roads, the Bronco’s powertrain was up to the task. It also has hill climb assist and hill descent assist.
On smoother roads, I was pleased to find the off-road chops didn’t lead to an unsettled and wallowy ride on the road. In fact it was quite the opposite, the Bronco Sport tracking true through the everyday grind. It’s not perfect - there’s too much of an off-centre dead zone and it’s not the quietest vehicle - but it’s very good.
Driving the 2023 Mazda CX-50 – 8.5/10
Just as I love the way the Mazda3 and the CX-5 drive, so too with the CX-50. Specifically, I really like how it handles and steers. The perfectly sized wheel feels fantastic in your hands and the responsiveness from the front end is right on. Even the added chunkiness of those Wildpeak tires didn’t have an adverse effect; the “thrum” may be a little louder but it’s quieter than the Bronco Sport. And the way the CX-50 carves through corners leaves the Ford in the dust.
Helping in this regard is Mazda’s G-Vectoring tech, which will subtly apply the brakes once you start to turn the wheel, to get a little more weight over the front wheels and more traction as a result.
Like the Ford, the CX-50 gets two engines. But unlike the Ford, only one is turbocharged. Both get four cylinders. Base models get a naturally aspirated 2.5L good for 187 hp and 186 lb-ft, while the turbocharged models run that up to 256 hp and 320 lb-ft (when running on 93-octane). There’s a bit of a dip if you lower that octane count, but the CX-50 still feels fast, if not all that fuel-efficient. (I managed about 11.5L/100 km on my drive, which is on the high side for a compact CUV like this.)
Drive modes are limited compared to the Bronco. You get Normal, Sport and Tow, and that’s it. As much as they’ve given it blocky tires and plastic cladding, you get the sense that Mazda didn’t intend the CX-50 to be quite the gravel hopper the Bronco Sport is clearly designed to be.
Everything else, though, from the seating position to the way it performs in the bends does suggest that Mazda knows how to make a fun car, no matter the segment.
The final word
Both of these are very fun vehicles, just for different reasons. The CX-50 is great if you love the MX-5 but want more – well, a lot more – practicality, while the Bronco Sport turned out to be quite the alternative to the full-size Bronco as well as the Escape with which it shares a platform.
We do like Mazda’s trim alignment, as it makes the decision as to which CX-50 is best for you that much easier. Then again, some folks may like the variety afforded by the Bronco Sport and the Heritage spec does play well with the Bronco’s ethos.
In the long run, you have the think the Mazda with its higher-quality interior and less pigeonholed looks is likely the better choice, not to mention its value on the pre-owned market. In that light, the CX-50 probably wins this thing, but just by a hair.
Which is the best looking? Mazda CX-50
Which offers the more comfortable cockpit? Ford Bronco Sport
Which is better off-road? Ford Bronco Sport
Which has better infotainment? Bronco Sport
Which offers the most luxurious interior? Mazda CX-50
Competitors of the 2023 Mazda CX-50 and 2023 Ford Bronco Sport
- - Chevrolet Equinox
- - Ford Escape
- - GMC Terrain
- - Honda Passport
- - Jeep Cherokee
- - Mazda CX-5
- - Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross
- - Nissan Qashqai
- - Toyota Venza
- - Volkswagen Taos