2023 Mazda CX-50 Vs. 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness: Who Off-Roads Better?

mazda-cx50-subaru-forester-wilderness-2022-01-group-shot 2023 Mazda CX-50 and 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness | photo by Christian Lantry

At the recent Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally, we got a chance to compare two of the newer entries in the off-road-adjacent compact SUV segment: the all-new 2023 Mazda CX-50 and the new Wilderness version of the 2022 Subaru Forester. With access to both SUVs and an off-road course, it was an opportunity to see if the CX-50 and Forester Wilderness only talked the talk or if they could walk the walk, too.

Related: 2023 Mazda CX-50: Another One Invites the Dust

More Ready for Mud?

It’s worth noting that the CX-50 we tested was not the upcoming Meridian Edition, which has 18-inch wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires. Instead, it was a Turbo Premium Plus with 20-inch wheels and Goodyear Eagle Touring rubber and an as-tested price of $43,170 (all prices include destination). At $36,015, the Forester Wilderness was significantly less expensive. It had 17-inch wheels and Yokohama Geolandar tires; they’re not super hardcore off-road tires, but they do provide some advantages off the pavement compared with the CX-50’s street tires.

The CX-50 also has a ground clearance disadvantage — 8.6 inches compared with the Subaru’s 9.2 inches — and its approach, departure and breakover angles are all less than the Forester Wilderness, too. The Subaru is also shorter in length and narrower than the CX-50, which didn’t make a significant difference on this particular off-road course but is usually an advantage.

In low-speed off-roading, the Mazda’s significant power advantage — 256 horsepower and 320 pounds-feet of torque when using premium gas versus the Subaru’s 182 hp and 176 pounds-feet — also doesn’t make a significant difference. While the Forester Wilderness shares its powertrain with other Forester models, it does have unique gearing that makes it quicker and more responsive. In situations where speeds don’t exceed 15 mph or so, power isn’t the end-all, be-all, and neither one of these SUVs had a noticeable advantage in terms of throttle response or pedal modulation.

Tackling the Course

Both SUVs completed the off-road course, but the CX-50 produced a lot of harsh impacts and generally felt unhappy going over the bumps, rocks and roots on the trail. Mazda has marketed the CX-50 as confident off the pavement, but it only really meant to get you to the start of serious trails, and that was quite evident here. It did what we set out to do but complained the whole way. The only notable advantage it had over the Forester Wilderness was a larger camera display for viewing what’s ahead of you on descents.

The Forester Wilderness, on the other hand, completed the course with ease. Where the CX-50 has only one Off-Road mode, the Forester Wilderness’ X-Mode all-wheel-drive system has multiple modes and feels much more confident in rough terrain; going uphill was effortless, while the CX-50 strained. The Forester Wilderness’ off-road-tuned suspension also ate up bumps without upsetting occupants.

Shop the 2022 Subaru Forester near you

2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness
17,853 mi.
$31,750 $250 price drop
Good Deal | $726 under
2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness
11,152 mi.
$32,750 $250 price drop
Good Deal | $789 under

Looking the Part

The two SUVs take different approaches with their aesthetics. The CX-50 is subtle and, like the rest of Mazda’s lineup, looks more premium inside and out — perhaps a little too premium inside, at least in this iteration, as the interior doesn’t seem built to handle the inevitable messes that come with off-roading.

On the other hand, the Forester Wilderness is more in-your-face: It has water-resistant upholstery and rubber floormats, as well as orange accents that may not provide any utility but do highlight its off-road focus. On the outside, its knobbier tires and slight suspension lift along with additional decals do the same.

In the end, the Forester Wilderness does better off-road, and it has the looks to match. While the CX-50 also completed the course, it struggled with some obstacles, and its interior might not be able to take as much abuse. Buyers looking to regularly venture off the beaten path will likely be happier with the Forester Wilderness, but those who only will on rare occasions might find the CX-50 more appealing with its more premium interior, improved technology and sportier on-road driving experience (so long as they’re willing to pay a higher price).

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Road Test Editor Brian Normile joined the automotive industry and in 2013 and became part of the Editorial staff in 2014. Brian spent his childhood devouring every car magazine he got his hands on — not literally, eventually — and now reviews and tests vehicles to help consumers make informed choices. Someday, Brian hopes to learn what to do with his hands when he’s reviewing a car on camera, and to turn his 2021 Hyundai Veloster N into a tribute to the great Renault mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive hatchbacks. He would daily-drive an Alfa Romeo 4C if he could. Email Brian Normile

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