Off-Road-ified Crossovers: This trend will age poorly

I really enjoy driving off-road. And I also enjoy seeing vehicles modified for adventure. Additionally, there’s a crop of vehicles popping up aimed at those wanting to hit that dusty trail for a weekend of fun. A handful of them are good vehicles and the style and design on them works well… right at this moment. The gussied-up crossovers designed to snag weekend warrior dollars will age poorly.

I’m not saying I don’t like these vehicles, or at least, the idea of them. The one in the image above? It’s the new Mazda CX-50. The automaker is taking its CX-5, which is a great machine (we own one, in fact), and adding touches that should make it more appealing for those who head off the beaten path from time to time. What does that mean exactly? Per Mazda, it “blends the brand’s striking Kodo design with an outdoor capable presence that respectfully interacts with the surroundings.”

So… fender cladding and knobby tires offer up a hearty handshake and a gentle touch to grass and trees out there in “nature”.

I’m not here to pile on the CX-50 specifically, mind you. I do actually think it looks kind of cool. Still, this isn’t something that needs its own new model. Why is it not simply a trim? It’s a CX-5 with different wheels and tires. Honda is doing this with its new TrailSport line. Subaru is doing it with its Wilderness line, though it seems to offer slightly more with respect to actual improvement of off-road prowess, if only just so. But Subaru was already better off-road than the CX-5 or 50 anyway.

The cladding will not age well. Buyers will get bored with knobby tires reducing their fuel economy and potentially serving up more road noise. This is a case of automakers seeing a trend and diving in hard with both feet. When in a few years’ time, people will move on.

There’s a set of enthusiasts who used to pine for sports cars and have now moved on to camping/overlanding rigs. The builds are impressive, and the ability to have an adventure on a small scale is a good one. Automakers are paying attention to this, and these Off-Road-Ified Crossovers are the result of that. But enthusiast goals and passions will change. A new focus will catch their eye. And cladding-covered crossovers will be sitting on dealer lots the moment the world resumes something close to what was once considered normal (e.g. no more shipping delays, chip shortages, COVID restrictions, etc).

I can’t stress enough that I do like the way these look, right now. They are often fun to drive as well, especially the Forester Wilderness specifically. But I see this trend dying quickly. And since I’m an automotive journalist and that means we’re wrong about a lot with respect to consumer trends, perhaps this one will go on forever. I don’t think that’s the case, and I think we will look back on this vehicles with a bit of a side-eye.

6 Comments

  1. The CX-50 has just left me cold because it’s just too out of line from Mazda’s current fantastic styling, the aggression just doesn’t quite gel properly. On the other hand, if it helps fill the coffers and it’s a passing fad, so be it. Totally organic for Subaru though, where I do dig it (just, not enough to take the fuel economy hit for my hypothetical Outback as I don’t offroad like at all).

    It does feel a bit like some of the tape stripe performance cars from the Malaise era though, overcompensating for a lack of actual ability.

    1. “It does feel a bit like some of the tape stripe performance cars from the Malaise era though, overcompensating for a lack of actual ability.”

      Perfectly said.

    2. Funny, I was thinking that CX-5 wears faux trail bits much better than Subaru does. I think their Wilderness trim looks tacky as hell. The Mazda’s hood stripes are a bit much, though.

      But hey, I’m a guy driving a Kia Sedona shod with K02s. My opinions about car styling are suspect at best.

      1. The Mazda ostensibly looks better, but it’s worse than a normal CX-5, while the Subarus don’t look particularly good either way, but at least super outdoorsy Subarus make sense.

  2. It’s fair what you’ve said, but I also think the production CX-50 will be super toned-down and basically look like a Tribute. They always showcase the car in its top-top-of-the-line, never to be seen IRL form. The knobby tires and graphics are probably limited to one special trim, and I’m personally in favor of the door-ding prevention-method that is plastic cladding (in reservation, not as on the Solterra/B4Z2). On the whole I feel like this is where the CX-5 has to go since it’s kind of capped off in sales with whatever it’s doing now and has to pick up some offroad cred to compete (aforementioned Wilderness & Trailsport). Again, the volume sellers will likely do away with everything but the cladding, so in essence this could be considered a “special edition” trim level.

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