Let’s be honest. Mazda’s new three-row SUV will never be mistaken for an MX-5.
The CX-90, which starts at just over $45,000 for the gas version and $54,000 for the plug-in hybrid, is after all, a large and comfortable vehicle with the capacity to haul six, seven or eight passengers, depending on the model you choose. A sporty little two-seat roadster it is not.
And yet, it is also not a boring appliance that exists solely for grocery runs and after-school limo service. It is, instead, a vehicle that supports the notion that being a parent doesn’t mean you have to sign on for hours of tedium on the road.
The CX-90 – which replaces the CX-9 – is the biggest, most powerful vehicle in Mazda’s history. All turbo versions of it include some level of electrification from a manufacturer that is late to the EV game. And it is the company’s new flagship vehicle, built on a platform that will be shared with the two-row CX-70 when it arrives later this year.
Mazda threw out current orthodoxy when it designed the platform. Rather than placing a V6 engine sideways over a front-drive transaxle, the company created an inline six-cylinder engine, mounted it lengthwise to a slim transmission and made it a “rear-biased” all-wheel-drive vehicle. (Rear-biased means that under non-slippery driving conditions, the rear wheels do the work instead of the front wheels, as most SUVs do.)
Mazda engineers designed an all-new transmission because they wanted it to be slim enough to allow the driver to have lots of legroom. Jay Chen, manager of powertrain performance for Mazda North America, said the company ditched the typical torque converter in favour of a wet clutch technology because it is slimmer and delivers more direct shifts.
At the risk of oversimplification, the Coles Notes are that when you have more horsepower or are towing (the six-cylinder CX-90 is rated to tow 2,268 kilograms), it makes more sense to let the rear wheels do the pushing. Owners of Dodge Chargers or Mercedes-AMG class cars already know this.
None of this has to matter to you, as a driver looking for a stylish, serviceable and nimble family transporter. What matters is what it’s like to drive.
The twisty, scenic backroads north of San Francisco was where journalists recently got to test how well the CX-90 lived up to its pre-release hype. Thrashing the robust turbo-charged six through hills, hairpin turns and past the occasional road hazard revealed a 2,168-kilogram vehicle that corners with agility, accelerates with authority and stays remarkably flat.
The Canadian version of the CX-90 is offered in 10 trim configurations (using Mazda’s familiar designations: GS, GS-L, GT, plus variations) and three powertrain options: standard 3.3-litre turbo six, high power Turbo S six, and PHEV (with a 2.5-litre gasoline engine).
With 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque in the top trim Signature model (when run on premium fuel), the six hesitates for a short breath while the turbo spools. (A slightly detuned turbo delivers 280 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque). As the revs on the digital dash head north of 3,000, a satisfying if muted growl creeps into the cabin to signal that something good is about to happen.
Switching to Sport mode lights up the digital dash in devil red and keeps the revs consistently at 3,000 or above, ready to leap when you are.
It is, quite simply, more fun than any mid-sized SUV has a right to be.
For those seeking a bit of fuel frugality, Mazda says any version of the six will run on regular 87-octane fuel, albeit with slightly lower power.
But if saving fuel is your jam, Mazda offers the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the CX-90. It uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder motor, boosted by a 17.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Mazda estimates you can drive 42 kilometres on battery alone, which means you could theoretically never use the engine in town. On the highway, even under aggressive driving, the PHEV delivered just over five litres per 100 kilometres during my drive.
“We’re going to fully electrify by 2030,” said Chen. “But for now, we wanted to build the best engine possible, and add electricity.”
With style, agility and PHEV-level fuel economy, the CX-90 vaults Mazda to the lead in the mid-size three-row SUV pack. It is scheduled to arrive at Canadian dealerships this month.
2024 Mazda CX-90
- Base price/As tested: $45,900/$63,300 (Signature) & $64,350 (PHEV GT)
- Engines: 3.5-litre inline turbo six (gas); 2.5-litre 4 cylinder with hybrid electric
- Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic / all-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres per 100 kilometres): (High-power Turbo 6) 10.3 city/8.5 highway (Transport Canada); (PHEV) 4.2 combined (Mazda estimate)
- Alternatives: Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer
Elegance avoids excess, as Mazda has figured out with the tastefully understated lines of this SUV. There are no excessive bumps or curves, and yet the CX-90 exudes a slightly aggressive stance. The badging is discreet and the chrome is mercifully restrained.
High-trim models take the CX-90 into near-luxury territory with leather, upscale fabrics and tasteful use of woodgrain accents. (Low and mid-trim vehicles were not shown). Seats have been upgraded from the CX-9 to minimize body sway and more firmly support the driver and passengers. A moonroof adds to the open and airy feel. There was a modest but notable level of cabin noise at highway speeds.
With six powertrain configurations, the level of power becomes a matter of personal preference (and budget). The highest-output turbo six-cylinder delivers 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque using premium gas and is enough to move this large vehicle along smartly. The rigid platform, double-wishbone front suspension, and some nifty technology enable the CX-90 to stay flat and confident through the tightest curves. The PHEV version delivers reasonable acceleration and delivered 5.3 litres per 100 kilometres under aggressive driving conditions.
Kinematic Posture Control, first seen in the MX-5 roadster, uses electronics to apply brake force to the inside rear wheel during cornering. This helps keep the CX-90 stable in corners, even at high speeds. As with all new cars, the tech gets better as you move up the food chain. Top-tier models include a full suite of safety and convenience tech, such as head-up display, wireless cellphone charging and a variety of camera views.
Interior dimensions were not available, but the CX-90 makes the same cargo compromises that all mid-sized three-row SUVs must. Weekend bags only.
This is a refreshing entry into the mid-size SUV market, with some remarkable out-of-the-box thinking. Subtle good looks, sprightly performance and remarkable fuel consumption in the PHEV version make this a contender and a family vehicle right for the times.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated the CX-90 is Mazda’s first step into electrification. In fact, Mazda produces the MX-30 EV, which in Canada is only sold in Quebec and British Columbia.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated the starting price for the plug-in hybrid version was just over $64,000. In fact, the GS starts at $54,900 and the GT at $64,350.
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