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How wild is demand for rugged SUVs? Even sporty Mazda is making one

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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.

Mazda CX-50

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 Meridian Edition.

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.

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Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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