There isn’t a single new car on the market we’ve been more curious about than the Mazda CX-90. Normally we wouldn’t think twice about a heavy three-row SUV, but the CX-90 marks the long-awaited arrival of Mazda’s rear-wheel-drive, inline-six platform to the US market. On the one hand, the CX-90 is the glorious fruition of the ideal vehicle layout from Hiroshima’s wizards of motoring joy, but it’s also the largest and heaviest possible iteration of said layout. Would the driving experience be so good that we could forgive it for killing its unborn sports sedan sibling in the womb?
To find out, we recently got behind the wheels of two versions of the CX-90, a plug-in hybrid version that produces up to 323 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, and the top-trim Turbo S generating 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. Mazda also offers an entry-level Turbo trim that makes 280-horsepower and 332 lb-ft, but they didn’t provide a test car equipped with that powertrain. To be clear, all CX-90s are technically all-wheel-drive, but the key point is that the AWD systems are rear-wheel biased, conferring all the handling benefits that layout inherently imparts.
Both cars look the same from outside. They have certain design cues found on recent Mazdas, but don’t look as good as the 3, 6, or even the CX-50. The surfaces seem to be less sculpted and flowing than others in the Kodo design family. Also, the details on the CX-90’s nose lacks cohesion and the tail is a bit plain.
However, the CX-90 does look better in person than in photos, with a distinct and substantial presence when viewed in person. It’s tough to make a three-row SUV look sleek, but we wish Ikuo Maeda hadn’t retired. If his team could surmount the design challenges of making even a compact sedan like the Mazda 3 as stunning as it is, we would have loved to see what he could do with the CX-90. Still, it’s far more elegant than any number of hotcake cars in the segment, like the Toyota Highlander, VW Atlas, or Audi Q7 to name a few.
The interior is where the CX-90 really shines. Mazda’s recent cabins rival those of any top-tier luxury marques and the CX-90 is no exception. The sumptuous materials well-executed and design simultaneously exude splendor and simplicity, the perfect roost from which to command the road. A sense of high quality permeates every surface, without being fancy or complex simply for the sake of it. Our test car was equipped with tan leather, but we preferred the option that swathes the dash and door panels in nishijin ori fabric.
Physical buttons exist for most key functions like climate and cruise control. Every detente and click is consistent and satisfying to the touch. Systems like the Bose stereo and nav come through a dash-mounted screen, but the console-mounted dial that governs those functions is intuitive. Once you get used to it, it can be easily operated by feel only with no need to take your eyes off the road.
Plug-in hybrids are often seen as a stopgap between gasoline engines and battery electrics, but we think there’s room in the market for both to exist alongside each other. For local driving it runs on electric power only and you get all the benefits of a full EV without drinking a drop of petrol. On a road trip the gasoline engine takes over and it behaves like a traditional car, complete with quick fuel stops. It’s a perfect balance for the family that needs one car to do it all.
Having said that, the CX-90 PHEV has a rather short 26-mile battery-only range. By the time we got from our start on Mazda’s prescribed route at the Ferry Building in Downtown San Francisco to Richmond (the city, not the district) it had already switched to gasoline. We can understand why Mazda made the decisions it made. More battery capacity means more weight, and like in the MX-30 Mazda seems only willing to sacrifice a minimal amount of driving dynamic. A laudable goal.
Another drawback of the PHEV is that there’s a lot going on between your foot and the turning of wheels. There’s regenerative braking, and you can adjust the settings so as not to dip below a certain charge. That’s because aggressive jabs of the throttle can summon an electric boost to supplement the 2.5-liter inline-four when needed. Even with batteries completely depleted the PHEV never feels underpowered. With all that computerized thinking going on, there are split-second delays in the throttle response.
Those delays may not have been noticeable at all had we not immediately jumped out of the hybrid and into the CX-90 Turbo S. The turbocharged DOHC 3.3-liter inline-six is a gem of an engine. Throttle response is excellent with linear power delivery and plenty of low-end torque thanks to its massive compressor. Innately balanced due to its layout, the straight-six is as smooth as Barry White, with similar baritone rumble, just enough to let you know it’s there without being intrusive. Oh, and there are no fake engine sounds being piped into the cabin.
The CX-9, which the CX-90 replaces, always felt like the weak link in the Mazda lineup. Front-wheel-drive vehicles are intrinsically nose-heavy, and a large and long vehicle only exacerbates the feeling that you’re dragging around a huge box. On top of that, the CX-9 had a Boaty McBoatface soft suspension.
The main event for any Mazda is how it connects driver and road, and the CX-90 reignites that jinba ittai magic. At speed it’s supremely steady and composed, unflustered by road imperfections. On curvier roads, its handling is so taut you’d be forgiven for thinking the CX-90 is far smaller than it actually is. The CX-90 is 8 inches longer than the CX-9 and has three to four more cubic feet behind the third row, but handling is night and day compared to its predecessor.
That balance is made possible by the lengths Mazda engineers went through to ensure that, whether you choose the PHEV or the straight six, the engine sits behind the front axle in a front-midship design. They even had to develop an in-house 8-speed transmission with planetary gears and replace the torque converter with a wet clutch design. No off-the-shelf Aisin or Getrag would work, as they are all too wide and would intrude too much on passenger space if pushed back as far as the engine required.
There’s very little body roll thanks to the CX-90’s double-wishbone front suspension and five-link rear. Chassis flex has been greatly reduced as well, due to cast aluminum shock towers that are much stiffer than their counterparts on predecessors. Cornering tightness is aided by the Kinematic Posture Control system, an imperceptible dab of brake to the inside rear wheel during turns, ported over from the Miata. On top of all that the inline-six variant is about 500 pounds lighter than the PHEV (4,709 pounds vs 5,243) , and you can feel its nimbleness as you toss it across two-lane twisties.
The steering feel is superb, precise and intuitive. You’ll notice when slinging the CX-90, or any Mazda, that you don’t need to apply minor corrections mid-turn because the steering is already so accurate and predictable. Part of that stems from how the CX-90 engineers mounted its steering rack ahead of the steering axis for more direct response. The AWD system also monitors steering input and reduces yaw dampening in proportion to the driver’s input, which firms up directional stability (it also reduces sway during towing, of which the CX-90 has a max of 5,000-pound capacity).
On the day of our scheduled test drive a drenching downpour flooded some of the smaller roads and limited how far we could push the CX-90. Even in wet conditions we felt completely confident in its roadholding ability, and were able routinely shave a minute or two off Google Maps’ time estimates between checkpoints. It felt far more poised than a CX-9, and even more than the much smaller CX-5 that we daily.
Originally Mazda’s goal was to debut a sedan on this straight-six, RWD platform, but the crossover takeover forced them to change course. One engineer told us this time that Mazda did not create this chassis just to make SUVs. But, he added, to make a sedan they have to amortize the platform’s cost by selling a crap-ton of SUVs first. So there is hope for the sedan, perhaps after the smaller, two-row CX-70 debuts later this year.
We’re not fans of large SUVs in general, but if life circumstances forced us into a three-row behemoth, the CX-90 would be the one to get. If Mazda can squeeze this much handling sharpness out of a two-and-a-half-ton slab, just imagine what they can do with the CX-70, sedan or — if we dare to dream — a coupe. So encourage all your friends with big families to buy CX-90s and perhaps, with some luck, we’ll get the car that this chassis truly deserves.