Mazda CX-90: How Mazda laid out the roadmap for a glorious enthusiasts’ future, then threw it away

Many years ago a little bird at Mazda told us that the firm was working on a rear-wheel-drive sedan to be powered by a straight-six. We were stoked. On paper it was the ideal configuration — an inherently balanced engine on an inherently balanced chassis. And from the same people that built the RX-7, gave us the ND Miata, and made the CX-5 a better dance partner than a front-biased crossover has any right to be. I immediately began making plans to someday put this FR6 in my driveway. Unfortunately, time has a funny way of messing with your best-laid plans.

In 2017 Mazda would debut the stunning Vision Coupe at the Tokyo Motor Show. I was planning to get one anyway, but if the FR6 sedan was going to look anything remotely like the concept, jaw-dropping beauty would simply be icing on the cake.

Why, though, was Mazda seemingly going so far out on a limb to create something this nuts? Mazda sells about 1.2 million cars a year globally; Toyota sells 11 million. How could a tiny little carmaker from Hiroshima justify stretching its meager resources to give enthusiasts a holy grail when even the giants refused? Surely it didn’t need an FR6 to compete with Toyota, Nissan, or Honda, all of whom were content peddling front-drive, four-cylinder sedans to the masses.

Our source put it this way: In the coming age of industry consolidation, modular platforms, and a shift from carmakers to “mobility” companies, Mazda won’t survive. As a small firm, its only hope is to carve out a niche for itself, to go against the grain and make the brand stand for something. That something, the powers that be decided, was to make Mazda the fun-to-drive marque.

Its pursuit of jinba ittai, Japanese for “horse and rider as one,” would be uncompromising. It would build on its legacy as a Le Mans champion, rotary engine actualizer, and Miata maker. It would proudly lean into the traditional Japanese philosophies of minimalism, dedication to human-centric design, and relentless passion for craftsmanship.

It was a practical decision as much as it was one of passion. Mazda didn’t have the size to go head-to-head with industry’s juggernauts. It couldn’t afford to build the same cars as everyone else because it knew that nine times out of ten, customers would blindly waltz into the Toyota dealership following some vague notion of durability.

As other companies zigged towards soul-draining technologies like CVTs and infotainment, Mazda would zag towards rev-holding shift maps and nimbler suspensions. As others bet on cocooning occupants in rolling iPhones, Mazda would double down on spirited driving dynamics and heritage. It was the only path forward.

Many journalists dismissively labeled this as Mazda’s attempt to “move upscale” and scoffed. Given the years it takes to gestate a new car, Mazda knew that window for brand differentiation was closing quickly. But not even they could have predicted just how quickly that would happen.

Two years later, in 2019, my wife and I were expecting a baby. We needed a bigger car and she was thinking crossover, something about that commanding seating position. I was still eagerly awaiting the FR6, but had gotten word that it had been postponed. No matter, I can wait.

If we had to get a crossover, I thought, “Why not get the most jinba ittai one on the market, the Mazda CX-5?” Good handling, non-CVT trans that holds gears when it senses lateral g-forces, and overall pretty luxurious. I made a deal with my wife. We’d get the CX-5 now, but when the FR6 sedan comes out, we’d trade it in for that.

I was happy with the decision. Things seemed to be progressing nicely. In Japan, they killed off their minivans, cargo vans and trucks. They revamped their dealers upscale decor and big murals of 787Bs and Marathon de la Route Cosmo Sports. Mazda began to release news about the I6, and even patented a coupe version that looked like the achingly beautiful RX-Vision.

In 2019 they introduced the Mazda 3, one of the best-handling new cars on the market today. A year later they followed that up with the even more breathtaking Mazda 3 Turbo. If the FF platform car was this good, I thought, the FR platform car would be mind-blowing. In a few years I’d own the greatest sports sedan of the 21st century.

The ideal cylinder configuration made by the most passionate modern carmaker in a RWD platform whose interior was as good as any German luxury brand’s. It would be one final hurrah for the internal combustion engine.

A lot can change in four years. COVID-19, supply chain issues, company after company declaring the end of sedans, the end of small cars, and the end of gasoline. I wasn’t able to see my source during the pandemic, but when things began to lift I chatted with him again and asked about the FR6. His response gutted me. The sedan had been shelved indefinitely.

So here we are in 2023 at the global reveal of the Mazda CX-90. It looks snappy, though perhaps a bit overwrought compared to the last generation of Kodo designs. The fake “Inline 6” fender vents seem unnecessary. Still, it’s a much more dignified shape than the random jumble of lines that other companies try to pass off as sheetmetal.

Two powertrains are available. First, a PHEV powertrain with a 2.4-liter inline four making 323 horsepower. The other is a straight-six — the straight-six — making 340 horsepower from 3.3 liter. Both churn out and 369 lb-ft of torque and both run through an 8-speed automatic. Thankfully, Mazda has sworn they will never use a CVT.

The interior looks magnificent. Japanese kumihimo stitching lines the dash. Actual flamed maple wood inserts adorn the ND-inspired center console. Major panels are swathed in a luxuriant fabric inspired by a traditional Japanese obi textile called nishijin ori. There are physical climate control buttons on the center console.

The CX-90 has three rows and USB-C charging ports in the way way back. It rolls on massive 21-inch wheels, the largest ever offered on a Mazda. One official photo even shows it towing a 3,250-pound Bowlus Volterra trailer.

It’ll likely be a great 3-row SUV for anyone who wants a 3-row SUV. Journalists don’t get to drive it until later this spring so we’ll issue the final verdict then. I want to like it. But, even if it’s the greatest-handling 3-row SUV on earth, physics dictates that it would be just plain better if were lighter and lower. I hope I’m wrong about everything.

So what happened to Mazda’s plan to become the jinba ittai brand? How are they going to stand out a crowded market if they’re just going to offer a lineup of crossovers like everyone else? I asked CX-90 program manager Mitsuru Wakiie, who says that Mazda tackles each segment it enters with its unique carbuilding philosophy that prioritizes driving dynamics, human-centric engineering, and kodo design.

Its steering and dynamics will set it apart, he says. Mazda spends time and money developing technologies like G-Vectoring Control and, in the case of FR platforms like the Miata and CX-90, Kinematic Posture Control, which taps the inside rear brake during cornering to keep the back half more planted. 

I’m not sure it’s enough. It all makes sense on paper, but the average consumer wouldn’t know good handling if it kicked them in the forehead. Part of me still wonders if Mazda has truly done everything it can before surrendering to the crossover-pocalypse.

If it sounds harsh, I don’t mean to be. I’m just asking about what Mazda themselves believed. Mazda was going to build sporty cars or die trying. Of course, things change. New data comes out, executives retire. We know SUVs print money and will continue to do so until consumers’ tastes change. Or until the government stops giving “light trucks” more lenient emissions and mpg allowances. But no one is asking Mazda to build a sedan instead of an SUV.

The production of an FR6 sedan may cost the company dearly right now, but its halo effect can’t be measured with yen. Bestowing such a car onto a desperate public would be the ultimate triumph of carmaking in the waning days of internal combustion. The platform is there. Come on, Mazda. You know you want to.

The CX-90 is probably a great car. It may be brilliant. With no FR6 sedan in sight, I’ll consider the smaller CX-70 when it comes time to replace our CX-5. I’ve always liked the Infiniti FX, and I feel like the two-row CX-70 might be a spiritual successor to that. But even so, every time I slip behind the wheel, there will always be a pang of sadness in my heart for what could have been.

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26 Responses to Mazda CX-90: How Mazda laid out the roadmap for a glorious enthusiasts’ future, then threw it away

  1. Azfer says:

    Ben Ben Ben…cheer up! I’m sure that once Mazda is able to increase their sales volume, a sports coupe or sedan will be born. For right now, let’s be happy that there is another option for a driver’s crossover besides the traditional names.

    Also, I disagree about your opinion regarding its design. Its not overwrought at all. I think it’s the pessimist in you that’s clouding your eyesight, lol. This thing is GAWJUS!

    • Ben Hsu says:

      Haha, I really do hope I am wrong. If I needed a three row SUV this would be my first pick. I just fear that the window on sedans, or gasoline powered cars in general, is closing fast and Mazda won’t get an opportunity to share it with the world.

      • Danny says:

        I’m disheartened too, I was waiting to see Mazda come out with an inline 6 rwd sedan or coupe, something to compete with the Lexus RC but with more minimalist styling. That’s the sort of car I want to drive to work every day, and it would look at home next to my FB and FC RX-7s. Here’s to hoping their sales numbers flourish and a low slung car is a justified proposition again someday. The SUV trend has lasted so long I have to believe something else will come into vogue soon anyway..

  2. j_c says:

    I know people it’s been said that SUV sales allow the sporty cars to survive, like the Cayenne did for the 911, but Mazda has the CX-30, CX-5, CX-50, CX-9, and now the MX-30. Are all 5 not making enough profit to produce a halo car?

  3. Daniel says:

    Always have hope in Mazda…and its ties. Akio close to retirement but presenting hydrogen conversions may be a way to present a V6 in the form of a sedan, it is an option if the platform is already manufactured in scale and allows changing the shape, there is a way to verify if the dimensions of the new vehicle are similar to the prototype? at least the wheels sound similar, maybe there’s some secret hiding in plain sight.

  4. Kev says:

    Car makers always say that nobody buys sedans anymore, but…there seem to be lots of Model 3s everywhere.

  5. BlitzPig says:

    I almost cry when I think about all the cool cars we could have if it weren’t for women drivers needing to feel “safe”.

    • Jake says:

      This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read.

    • Shaiyan Hossain says:

      given how a good portion of crossover drivers are still dudes this comment is questonable

    • BlitzPig says:

      Check the demographics of who is making/influencing the household decisions on automobile purchases in the US. Just sayin’..

      • Alan says:

        Even without knowing you, I’d bet money that my (pretty, feminine) wife can out-drive and out-wrench you.

        Comments like this are not the calling card of a man who is secure in himself.

        • BlitzPig says:

          I wouldn’t bet on it.

          I’ve worked professionally on imports for over 30 years, I take care of one of the most successful vintage racing cars in the US, and have much track experience, and I assure you I am very confident in myself and my philosophic background. And I know plenty of ladies that like cars and are very qualified on and off track in them.. But do carry on with your ad hominem ramblings if it makes you feel better.

          • Alan says:

            I respect all of that immensely. All but the misogyny, anyway. I mean have you seen people lately? 80%+ of the population are sloppy, stupid, and distracted – to blame the rise of sloppy, stupid vehicles on women alone is misguided in the extreme.

    • anon says:

      The misogyny might help ease the pain but the reality is that crossovers dominate because the average new car buyer is of retirement age and over 2/3rds of American adults are overweight. Crossovers are built to allow fat old people regardless of what’s between their legs slide in and out without straining joints.

      • BlitzPig says:

        I am of retirement age, and am very impatiently waiting for a GR86 to show up. And since you have never met me, or have any clue about my beliefs, like the other gent in this discussion, I will leave your comment about misogyny slide, as merely forcing any comment you disagree with into your narrow, uninformed, political cubby hole.

        Have a nice day.

        • anon says:

          That’s cool, but you are an exception and not the rule. The BRZ especially has some of the youngest buyers on average:

          Take a look around you. Most people here are fat. It’s a societal problem that is not as simple as saying it’s all personal responsibility. Regardless of what the cause is, it is undeniable that the obesity crisis is having an impact on the design of cars. People don’t want to strain their joints getting in and out of their cars and they don’t want to bend down to deal with child seats and children either. Most crossovers are barely taller than their sedan counterparts, just tall enough that you don’t bend down to get in.

  6. nlpnt says:

    It looks nice, and would look nicer still on 3″ lowering springs. Too bad it can’t come like that stock or it’d be seen as a station wagon and therefore salesproof.

  7. Shaiyan says:

    im curious to see how this stacks up against the other Japanese stalwart in the “premium/near luxury” class, the Acura MDX. the MDX has always been a value seller with its 3 rows, V6 (theres a type S too now with a turbo added) and SH-AWD. I dont think this is going to lure away any BMW X5 buyers soon but if priced right this might be a better proposition than the Acura. there is also the Grand Highlander/Lexus TX on the way too

    Btw, I still think mazda screwed up not making the 3 turbo available with a manual. I understand they already make a manual 3 with the 2.5l NA engine and fwd, but its only on the most expensive trim and kinda falls flat when you compare it to a civic sport hatch let alone the fact it costs as much as a GTi. Given how the Turbo 3 costs in the same league as the WRX, Elantra N, GTi, and now GR Corolla, Mazda definitely missed a mark with their enthusiast crowd, even if its not the Mazdaspeed3 we all wanted

  8. daniel says:

    Always have hope in Mazda…and its ties.
    Akio close to retirement but presenting hydrogen conversions may be a way to present a V6 in the form of a sedan, it is an option if the platform is already manufactured in scale and allows changing the shape, there is a way to verify if the dimensions of the new vehicle are similar to the prototype? at least the wheels sound similar, maybe there’s some secret hiding in plain sight.

  9. speedie says:

    If driving enthusiasts were the only car buyers all vehicles would handle like indie cars and look drop dead gorgeous to boot. Unfortunately Mazda is a company that needs to make a money. It spent a lot of R&D yen on the development of this new engine and it needs to make a profit on the cars it is installed in. As I noted in a previous post, Mazda could not have picked a worse time to invest in an all new internal combustion engine. All most every other car maker has stopped investing in ICE technology (a glaring exception is Toyota which is still pushing for a hydrogen future) and instead putting their dollars into electric drivetrains. While I too would love a beautiful sports sedan, I want more that Mazda survives and continues to make fun driving experiences no matter what the platform.

    • Alan says:

      Thank you for the utterly unoriginal and banal lecture about economics. I’ve heard it before, and guess what? I still have an emotional connection to emotional cars – crazy right?

  10. Steve says:

    This is crazy for 17 hp and no additional torque. Investment in tooling and validation for mpg and emissions appears a huge waste of time and human and natural resourses.

  11. dankan says:

    While we can all hope that someone at Mazda goes slightly crazy and does their sedan/coupe moonshot halo car, I can understand why they’re chasing the money. As a very small company they can afford literally zero mistakes at this point, especially with their very thing margin for profitability.

    Still, it is sad that literally all fun ideas are being killed off, yet we still see them going ahead in other markets. Those other markets buy a ton of SUVs too, but for some reason they aren’t assumed to have a public unwilling to have fun. The bigger issue is the aggressive move away from affordable cars by all the manufacturers. I get the data leads them that way, as the increasingly strained finances of anyone younger than 50 means that the car buying public gets older, and the offerings are increasingly tailored to match, but you’d think that someone would want to zig where everyone else has zagged and try to make other niches work where they wouldn’t be facing 9 other brand with identical products.

  12. MrILO says:

    Gloom be not upon us. After all, Mazda kept the Wankel alive

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