It’s been a long wait for Mazda’s new three-row SUV with a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) powertrain – the company’s second electrified vehicle. Mazda has already paid millions of dollars in penalties to the provincial governments of Quebec and British Columbia for not selling enough EVs as a proportion of its overall sales, and many millions more to other scolding governments around the world. Apart from satisfying a public that wants to drive a PHEV, it can’t afford to not build electrified cars for the future.
Mazda says it will be a fully electrified brand by 2030. That’s not the same as all-electric, because some electrified vehicles still use gas engines attached to electric motors and batteries for the majority of their power, but it will turn down the heat for paying those expensive penalties.
Aside from the new CX-90, the only other electrified vehicle Mazda sells is the all-electric MX-30 compact crossover. Its sales were poor in the United States, and the maker pulled it from the American market earlier this year, but it’s still sold in Canada. To date, it has sold almost three times as many units here as it did in the United States, and the 2024 model will be sold here next year.
This doesn’t mean the CX-90 PHEV, which starts at more than $55,000, was rushed into production. Far from it, and the SUV feels like a mature and refined electrified vehicle. Unlike the MX-30, Mazda’s seen what other brands offer and is making sure its flagship vehicle is competitive.
It’s the largest vehicle in Mazda’s lineup, with a wheelbase 19 centimetres longer than the CX-9 it replaces. It’s still not big enough to be comfortable in all three rows, however. As with most other SUVs that offer a third row, those rearmost seats have very little legroom, and space is cramped for heads and feet. It’s fine for smaller children but your kids will complain if they’re much taller than five feet.
The configuration works best if the third row is folded flat, to provide reasonable cargo space, but wasted if the seats are rarely used. At least there’s room for a temporary spare tire under the floor of the cargo area.
The important thing with the CX-90 PHEV is that you can drive it for up to 42 kilometres on electricity alone, taken from your household power outlet. Because the 17.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack is fairly small compared to a fully electric vehicle, it will charge overnight from a standard 120-volt plug, and in just a couple of hours or so at a Level 2 charger. The power port on the SUV looks as if it will accommodate a fast-charging Level 3 plug but it’s just a cruel joke.
If 42 kilometres doesn’t sound far, remember the theory behind any PHEV is that you probably don’t drive all that much in an average day, and you may well be able to plug in for a top-up while at work. (Of those Canadians who commute by car, the median distance was 8.7 kilometres, according to survey results collected in 2016 by Statistics Canada). This means you’ll use very little gas on most days, probably Monday to Friday, and on longer weekend trips, the regular engine will just kick in when the battery is drained. The CX-90 will be thirsty once this happens, however: Mazda says the vehicle uses an average of 9.4 litres per 100 kilometres when you’re running solely on gas.
It’s too bad the electric range isn’t at least 50 kilometres, because then it would qualify for the full $5,000 federal rebate, like the Kia Sorento and Mitsubishi Outlander. As it is, it qualifies for $2,500 back, plus whatever your province may offer.
Mazda also claims the CX-90 PHEV is good for 323 horsepower if you use premium fuel, but you can use regular fuel if you don’t mind sacrificing some power. Because the loss in oomph is marginal when you use regular gas – just four horsepower – and premium fuel costs considerably more, I doubt any owner will ever use anything but regular.
2023 Mazda CX-90 PHEV
- Base price/as tested: $57,228 / $66,695, plus taxes, but before rebates
- Engine: 2.5-litre inline-four cylinder with motor and 17.8-kilowatt-hour battery
- Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic / all-wheel drive
- Fuel consumption (litres per 100 kilometres): 4.2 litres equivalent (9.4 with depleted battery)
- Alternatives: Kia Sorento PHEV, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Lincoln Aviator PHEV, Volvo XC90 Recharge
There’s nothing to differentiate the PHEV from the conventionally powered CX-90 except for a couple of discreet badges and an extra filler cap, but that’s not a bad thing. Mazda calls its design “dignified beauty,” and its gentle curves look good among all the other SUVs in the mall parking lot.
I drove the high-end GT edition, which includes Nappa leather seats that were very comfortable. Less costly trims feature cloth or leatherette upholstery, though the seat design is the same. Only the base GS trim allows eight passengers, with a bench seat in the second row, while the two higher trims have individual “captain’s chairs” in the second row that are more comfortable but allow only seven people in total.
The cabin is refined – this is Mazda’s most expensive vehicle and it has worked overtime to make it worth the money. The central display screen is shallow, however, and much smaller than the huge screens other vehicles feature at this price. It’s well integrated into the dash, but it could have been brought a little closer to the occupants and doubled in size.
The CX-90 is a true PHEV, which means it will drive at speed using only the electric motor. It will use up the battery quickly, however, and especially in cold weather.
That said, the SUV doesn’t lack for power and the automatic transmission doesn’t hesitate in changing gears. This is a driver’s vehicle, with relatively heavy and precise steering and plenty of torque. Mazda claims 369 lb-ft at a fairly high 4,000 rpm, though that doesn’t change with the grade of gas in the tank. Towing capacity is 3,500 pounds, which is good for a small boat or camping trailer.
There’s clever stuff in even the most basic trim, including active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance. You have to buy the costly GT edition if you want wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, however, as well as front cross-traffic alert and automatic braking for rear cross traffic.
The CX-90 PHEV will let you charge the battery while on the move, and to a preset level, but there’s rarely much call for that since it just steps up the fuel consumption.
Lots of room with the third row flat, not so much with people sitting back there, though the third-row seats are split 60/40. There’s just 423 litres of cargo behind the third row, 1,133 litres behind the second row and 2,101 litres when both rows are folded flat.
The CX-90 is a lovely PHEV SUV, and good value for money. So is the Kia Sorento and the Mitsubishi Outlander and they’ve been around for much longer. It’s too bad Mazda’s only just catching up with its competition and not really offering anything extra, but that shouldn’t detract from the overall appeal of its flagship model.