2024 Mazda CX-90 review: Great expectations
Mazda goes big with the full-size and luxurious 2024 Mazda CX-90.
2024 Mazda CX-90 review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
There's little to hide the fact that I'm generally a fan of Mazda. From their enthusiast ideology that trickles down to all passenger cars, and how well they punch above their weight when it comes to interiors, Mazdas usually rank in the top two positions of every single class of vehicle they compete in. Now, Mazda is doubling down on their SUV game, creating a flagship three-row SUV dubbed the CX-90, upping the ante in space, luxury, and price. There's more than meets the eye here, as you'll soon see, that should make the blood of some Germans boil. There are things that can be done better (like the PHEV version detailed briefly later), but this is a triumph that signifies just what Mazda is capable of when they step into the batter's box with that pitch clock ticking fast.
Because I do like this car, I want to get the negatives out of the way early, chief of which reside in the otherwise impeccable interior. The gear knob is probably the worst of any new car today, with such a lack of intuition that I guarantee there will be accidents had and hopefully no lawsuits. The way it ratchets electronically is so bizarre and lacks confidence putting the car into park without having any mechanical feedback. Learn it, and you'll have no issues, so just be sure to practice, but gosh almighty is it a poor choice. Also in the interior is has a predominant microsuede trim, and while I normally love any kind of suede, the nap is too long here. You can also think of it as if a cat scratched it and slightly ruined it, the same way they eye their favorite couch corner. Most won't mind or notice this, but the suede texture is just too long and shaggy. I also have to mention the barrage of alarms the CX-90 likes to emit, being among the most annoying of all new cars if you dare start the car without your seatbelt yet fastened. Most cars beep five times, but the Mazda here beeps a long eight. Oh well.
And that's that; The rest of the car is pretty dang fabulous, including the main party piece and attraction. Under that long hood is...not a turbocharged inline four, but an inline-six capable of the same genuine amazingness that we usually associate with this classically balanced and smooth engine. Popularized by BMW for the past fifty years, the inline-six has often been thrown out for the compact, but rough V6, so it's a testament to Mazda's internal belief to create a luxury product with a deserving and complementary engine. This is made all the more apparent when the inline-six design is commonly associated with luxury for its inherent turbine-like and silky natures.
What we have here, though, is not just six cylinders fashioned in a single row displacing 3.3 liters, but also with a turbocharger and a 48V mild hybrid system. This hybrid system is most present when starting off and for increased low-end response to help fill in some power gaps left by the turbocharger. Together, they make for a superlative combination against all Japanese competitors that use thrashy V6 and four-cylinder configurations. Power is great, too, with 340 total system output that is good enough to motivate the large SUV to 60 MPH from naught in six breezy seconds. The mild hybrid, capturing otherwise wasted energy during braking and helps power electrical components of the vehicle, boosts economy to a respectable 24 MPG overall, a number that is 20 percent higher than the last CX-9 I tested with its less powerful four-cylinder. So, an engine can both be more powerful, larger, and more efficient. Sounds like a win-win by Mazda.
Of course, like all Mazdas, the CX-90 drives ceremoniously good, with great steering that bests many sporting cars for feel and response, and a handling balance that shames SUVs that come from multiple other continents. If you thought a Toyota Highlander was a behaved and capable car, the CX-90 renders it a Smart car when it comes to handling and dynamic prowess. This is not a hugely high-performance rig like a BMW M or AMG-Mercedes creation, since it rides better and has considerable body roll when loaded up, but if you go back to the so-called golden era of BMW, there's a deft blend of handling, response, and ride that makes it an enjoyable car to command - think of the first-generation BMW X5 with its slightly meaty steering and settled poise. Understeer doesn't come about until you're being stupid with speed and misjudging corners, with an overall balance that's neutral and adjustable to your inputs, but also can utilize its AWD system to pile on the power from an apex and maintain your line through a corner exit. Zoom-zoom.
This is also among the nicest quality interior for any three-row SUV in the $50-$60K price range, with supple, sultry Nappa leather in the first and second rows complete with a microsuede trim on the seat inserts; The caramel color on this example is particularly rich and tasteful. Yeah, the suede around the doors and dash has too much nap and I think cheapens the look (a Toyota GR86 with its bargain basement interior has a fake suede with similarly overlong nap), but the overall cabin is beautiful. Fit and finish is impressive, too, and everything you touch feels like it belongs in a car costing this much, if not more. A Mazda CX-9 was already good, but this takes it to a next level (trite, but accurate). Toyota has a Grand Highlander out now, and even though I am yet to drive one, it will have to do A LOT to come close to matching Mazda in the cabin department.
Space in the first two rows is plentiful, though the third row is best suited for kids; Adults won't be happy there except on the shortest of trips. This is an area where something like the Grand Highlander will likely come out ahead on, with larger accommodations in its third-row. With the back seats folded flat here, space is enough for most everyday tasks, too. For convenience, all the electronic niceties are present here, and the 12" screen in the center looks great and is mostly easy to navigate with the center click-wheel despite some clumsiness in the ordering of some pages. However, it curiously becomes a touchscreen when you connect your phone to Apple CarPlay or Andoid Auto and is easier to operate as such. Oh, and there's all sorts of safety features, of which, maybe there's too much.
Now, spending over $60,000 on a new Mazda might seem like a travesty, but after a week with the CX-90, it earns its price through its typical Mazda blend of unexpected luxury and driving dynamics. To think that this full-loaded CX-90 is still less money than a BASE BMW X5 is so revealing about how much value is actually packed in here. Better yet, other trims can be had for under $50,000. Because of how much the CX-90 leaves traditional popular picks like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander in the proverbial dust for finishing and driver satisfaction, the best competitor I can think of is the also brilliant Genesis GV80. The easy choice is to agree that Mazda has reaffirmed its position as being able to play all the positions in the field, and excelling at each. The Shohei Ohtani of the consumer car world? Perhaps.
Counterpoint - avoid the PHEV
Mazda also released a plug-in hybrid variant of the big new CX-90, and after a week behind the wheel of one, I'd say you should avoid it entirely. If you never plug it in to charge, the four-cylinder PHEV only averages a single MPG extra. Exchanging that alluring inline-six (the main draw of the CX-90) for a straight-four, you lose the smooth and luxurious nature of that headlining engine, being left with a coarse and hoarse powertrain that lacks oomph at higher speeds. Doing passing maneuvers on the highway, mashing my right foot when already at 60 MPH, left so much to be desired as the initial speed off the line disappears nearly entirely.
However, the real reason to avoid the PHEV is the clunky nature of its operation, mostly prevalent at slow speeds. Doing simple and gentle on and off throttle transitions result in shudders and jerks at times, not to mention a transmission that is far from transparent even when leisurely accelerating. It all feels unpolished, like it's a development vehicle that's still not ready for sale. And there's also lots of mechanical whirs from the CX-90 when in EV mode that might make you think it's broken. If you plan on charging it at home (and you have solar/cheap electricity), you'll see greater fuel economy returns, but even then, it's not worth swapping out that great inline-six for a weak and unfinished four-cylinder plug-in hybrid.
2024 Mazda CX-90 Turbo S
As-tested price: Estimated $60,000
Pros: Great inline-six, snazzy interior
Cons: Others are bigger still, the PHEV version disappointed