DETROIT — The American consumer has gone wild for SUVs, especially rugged SUVs. In addition to dedicated dirt-kickers like Ford Broncos, Jeep Wranglers and Toyota 4Runners, brands are now equipping mainstream SUVs with off-road packages like Ford Explorer Timberline, Subaru Outback Wilderness and Toyota RAV4 TRD.
How bonkers is off-road demand? Even ZOOM ZOOM performance carmaker Mazda is going all-in with an outdoors trim.
The Japanese manufacturer introduced the Meridian Edition this week, offering a rugged package of Falken all-terrain tires, roof platform and fashionable black hood to its compact CX-50 SUV.
The package builds on the successful, U.S.-made CX-50 that had already signaled Mazda's new, off-road focus. Just as Ford recognized the off-road phenomenon and split its compact segment offerings in two — the suburban-focused Escape and outdoorsy Bronco Sport — so has Mazda expanded its compact SUV lineup beyond its best-selling, suburban CX-5 with the rugged CX-50.
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Mazda is still defined by its wee Mazda MX-5 Miata sports car (Zoom! Zoom!) but the CX-50 Meridian Edition will be a new halo for the brand aimed at the 70% of the non-truck U.S. market that buys SUVs.
Produced in Huntsville, Alabama, with a starting price of $41,225, the CX-50 Meridian Edition is aimed at the market's most adventurous customers. It's an increasingly crowded market with the Ford Bronco Badlands, Subaru Forester Wilderness, Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness, Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and others.
The Meridian model builds on the CX-50's already macho upgrades over the stylish CX-5 with more fender cladding, more cargo room and 8.6-inch ground clearance.
Available standard with the CX-50's upmarket, 256-horsepower, 2.5-liter turbo-4 engine, the CX-50 Meridian wraps its all-terrain tires around black 18-inch alloy wheels. You'll know Meridian by its new headlight garnish, matte-black hood graphic (the better to deflect sun glare) and side rocker panels (to ward off stones and other off-road projectiles). Meridian Edition will be dressed in fashionable Polymetal Gray or Zircon Sand exterior paint, with a Terracotta leather interior.
With 310 pound-feet of torque driving all four wheels, the 2.5-liter turbo will get customers to the outback in a hurry towing up to 3,500 pounds. Once off-road drivers can choose from four modes including Off-Road.
If the Meridian package isn't enough, Mazda has more accessories on offer.
An Apex package adds roof-mounted black crossbars, a roof platform (for a tent) and front/rear splash guards. Or buyers who don't want to pay full boat for the turbo-4 engine can opt for the Meridian Choice Package — available on the standard, 187-horse, 2.5-liter engine as well — which includes roof crossbars, roof platform, splash guards, side rocker garnish, headlight garnish and matte-black hood graphic.
The Meridian Edition is the latest offering in a blizzard of 10 CX-50 trims starting with the CX-50 S at $28,825. The Turbo Premium and Turbo Premium Plus are the SUV's top trims, the latter starting at $43,575.
The CX-50's slogan is "tough but powerful" as the SUV strives for a balance between Miata sportiness and SUV utility. With Meridian, the needle moves a little further toward tough.
5 fuel-efficient SUVs to help you save at the pump
2022 Ford Escape Hybrid
Offered in both conventional and plug-in hybrid variations, the 2022 Ford Escape is one the most fuel-efficient small SUVs you can buy. The standard hybrid earns an EPA-estimated 41 mpg combined (44 city/37 highway), giving it a total potential maximum range of 582 miles.
The plug-in hybrid returns 40 combined mpg and supplements its efficiency with 37 miles of electric-only operation. That means those with shorter commutes and convenient charging options may rarely need to use fuel.
Regardless of configuration, the Ford Escape Hybrid boasts a comfortable cabin, a compliant ride and sufficient power. A couple of drawbacks are its smaller than average cargo capacity and air conditioner that doesn't quite get super cold on hot days.
Starting price: $30,415
2022 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Like the Escape, Toyota's RAV4 is offered in both hybrid and plug-in flavors. The conventional hybrid nets 40 combined mpg (41 city/38 highway) for a total max range of 580 miles. The RAV4 Prime PHEV scores 38 combined mpg and a class-leading 42-mile all-electric range. Better still, the Prime is downright quick with 302 horsepower and a 0 to 60 mph sprint of just 5.6 seconds.
Other highlights of the 2022 RAV4 Hybrid include a roomy cabin, plenty of cargo space and standard all-wheel drive. Drivers will be less enthused with a somewhat awkward brake feel and the infotainment system's dated-looking graphics.
Starting price: $30,290
Hyundai Tucson hybrid
The Hyundai Tucson small SUV is fully redesigned for 2022. In addition to distinctive new styling and features, Hyundai has added hybrid powertrains to the Tucson's portfolio. Rated at 38 combined mpg (38 city/38 highway), and slightly less on higher trims, the standard hybrid can travel up to an estimated 521 miles on a single tank. Alternatively, the plug-in model returns 35 combined mpg and offers 33 miles of all-electric range.
Spacious, pleasant-riding and quick, the Hyundai Tucson is currently Edmunds' highest-rated hybrid SUV. Fuel economy and electric range lag slightly behind close competitors, but Hyundai's class-leading warranty provides extra ownership assurance.
Starting price: $30,595.
Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Thankfully, those requiring a third row of seating aren't doomed to bad gas mileage. The 2022 Toyota Highlander Hybrid touts class-leading fuel economy of 36 mpg combined (36 city/35 highway), for a total range of 616 miles. Toyota's modest upcharge over the base Highlander and lower starting price than rivals keep the Hybrid attainable.
The Highlander Hybrid is easy to maneuver and smooth-riding, and it includes a full suite of driver aids as standard. Taller riders will have a tight squeeze in the third row and cargo space behind that row is constrained, though the total cabin volume is competitive.
Starting price: $40,270
2022 Tesla Model Y
The only thing better than fuel sipping is fuel abstinence. Tesla's Model Y Long Range serves up to 330 miles of electric range on a full charge. In our own range testing, we've found the Model Y underperforms its EPA estimate a little, but it's still one of the best SUVs available for going the distance. With overnight top-ups via a Level 2 charger, or stops at a Tesla Supercharger station, most drivers will never experience range anxiety and can happily ignore lofty fuel prices.
The Model Y is quick and cavernous, and it offers cutting-edge technology. Its inconsistent build quality and uninspiring design have opened the door for new challengers, however.
Starting price: $64,440
A burgeoning electric vehicle market and compelling hybrid options give consumers a variety of ways to beat the prices at the pump. But keep in mind that amid a vehicle shortage and rising fuel costs, these cars may be even harder to find or may carry premiums at dealers.