2024 Mazda CX-90 Test Drive and Review
Mazda ditches the CX-9 for the CX-90, but its riches likely remain in the niches.
Mazda isn't like other car companies. Compared to behemoths such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagen, Mazda remains fiercely independent. This means it can build highly desirable products for its loyal customers, but growth can pose a challenge.
Perhaps the new 2024 Mazda CX-90 will allow the automaker to leverage its strengths while mitigating its weaknesses. A midsize three-row SUV, the 2024 CX-90 replaces the Mazda CX-9 and represents a dramatic improvement over its predecessor. Not only that, but the CX-90 is also an ideal ambassador to demonstrate Mazda's premium-brand position, where it wants to rival the top-trim versions of models such as the Ford Explorer while attracting new customers who might otherwise choose an Acura MDX.
More than any new Mazda in recent history, the CX-90 holds the key to the company's future success. Built on a new platform, equipped with new powertrains, and showcasing new technologies, it serves as Mazda's flagship model and sets the standards for all of the automaker's upcoming products.
But will the new 2024 CX-90 appeal to more than just the people who already love Mazdas? Or will the company discover that its riches remain in the niches? At Mazda's invitation, I set out for the San Francisco Bay Area for a day of driving to find out.
The 2024 Mazda CX-90 comes in 3.3 Turbo, 3.3 Turbo S, and plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) model designations. Depending on the model, CX-90 trim levels may include Select, Preferred, Preferred Plus, Premium, and Premium Plus. Base prices range from the low $40,000s to the low $60,000s, including the destination charge to ship the SUV from the Hofu, Japan, factory that builds it to your local dealership.
For this CX-90 review, I test-drove two models equipped with Premium Plus trim and extra-cost paint. The CX-90 PHEV Premium Plus had a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $58,920, including the $1,375 destination charge. The CX-90 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus wore a window sticker reading $61,920, including destination. Mazda provided both vehicles for this CX-90 review and paid for lodging and meals during the evaluation period.
2024 Mazda CX-90 Review: The Design
Mazda successfully alters the SUV's proportions by constructing the CX-90 on a rear-wheel-drive platform. It has a longer hood, a shorter front overhang, and a cabin pulled back to place more visual weight over the rear wheels. This further evolves the "soul of motion" design language that Mazda calls Kodo, giving the CX-90 a cleaner, more conservative, and quietly elegant look compared to some of the company's other models.
Though the new CX-90 is longer, taller, and wider than the CX-9 it replaces, the interior room feels about the same. The front seats are far more comfortable and offer a more natural driving position. Some versions of the SUV have technology that can recommend a proper fit behind the steering wheel, but I rejected the suggestion in favor of my own adjustments.
Triple-zone automatic climate control is standard on all CX-90 models. In addition, depending on the trim level, the CX-90 offers a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, and heated and ventilated second-row seats.
A three-passenger bench seat is standard in some versions of the CX-90, while others include captain's chairs. The 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus offers second-row occupants an exclusive center storage console with cupholders. Both test vehicles had comfortable captain's chairs with tall, supportive cushions, but second-row legroom remains tighter than most rivals. In addition, the distance between the front- and second-row seatbacks appears short, which may make it a challenge to install reverse-facing child safety seats.
Mazda offers the CX-90 in six-, seven-, and eight-passenger seating configurations. However, you will have a hard time squeezing eight people into this SUV unless you put three small children in the third-row seat. You'll also struggle to squeeze in six tall adults because the third row can be downright uncomfortable.
I climbed into the third row of my 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus test vehicle. Unfortunately, only one of my size 13 feet could tuck under the second-row captain's chair, and because this model has a standard console in the second row, there was nowhere for my other foot to go. In addition, there was no way the second-row seat could slide back far enough to accommodate my 6-foot-tall doppelganger, and getting into and out of the CX-90's third row was an exercise in humility. So, if you plan to carry taller adults in an SUV's third-row seat regularly, you may want to skip the CX-90.
Regarding quality, interior design, and the control layout, a CX-90 with Premium Plus trim is convincingly upscale in white or tan leather, less so in black. All three colors come in nappa premium leather, but white and tan feature more creative use of trim and fabric, while black is comparatively plain aside from the simulated metal trim Mazda uses to brighten up things. Neither of my test vehicles had fancy-looking speaker grilles, a notable omission in the top trim level.
The control layout is familiar, with highly legible digital gauges, physical controls for the climate system, and a Mazda Connect 10.3-inch infotainment screen. Unfortunately, the screen only offers touch operation when using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Otherwise, you must rely on the system's center console and steering wheel controls or a subpar voice recognition system. Still, once you know your way around the dashboard, you can find a way to make the CX-90's layout work for you. Even the electronic shifter makes sense after a while.
Storage space is modest. If you're looking for an SUV that offers nooks and crannies in every available location, this Mazda probably isn't right for you. The split-top center console lacks depth, the bins on the lower door panels are small, and the tray containing the available wireless smartphone charger holds one device at a time. One of the test vehicles had the second-row center console, which offers decent storage volume. Otherwise, you won't find hooks, compartmentalized seatback pockets, or other thoughtful utility details aboard a CX-90.
Cargo space is equally restricted. Behind the third-row seat, the CX-90 supplies up to 15.9 cu-ft of volume, depending on the model. Fold it down, and the SUV offers as much as 40.1 cu-ft of space, a reasonable amount. The maximum cargo volume measures as high as 75.2 cu-ft — smaller than expected for this three-row SUV.
2024 Mazda CX-90 Review: The Technology
Full digital instrumentation is available on the 2024 CX-90. It features a 12.3-inch display that mimics the appearance of Mazda's traditional analog gauges and changes its layout when using the driving assistance technology to emphasize system status visually. In addition, a head-up display is also available, providing a comprehensive array of information, including helpful blind-spot notifications. It remains faintly visible when you're wearing polarized sunglasses.
The 10.3-inch Mazda Connect infotainment system display is standard in the CX-90, with a 12.3-inch display available as an upgrade. With the larger display, the screen offers touch control for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Otherwise, when using the native Mazda Connect functions, you can operate the system using the controls on the center console or the steering wheel. Voice recognition technology is also available, but it doesn't work well.
My test vehicles had the larger display with touchscreen operation of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. In addition, with these smartphone integration platforms running, the voice recognition system works well with their virtual assistants to make life easier.
Comparatively, using Mazda Connect's native satellite radio and navigation functions is unnecessarily complicated and distracting. However, I did notice that manually tuning between satellite radio stations seems easier with this version of Mazda Connect than in the past.
Mazda Connected Services are also standard, with a complimentary three-year trial subscription. The package includes automatic 911 emergency calling, a vehicle finder function, and remote access to some vehicle functions. In addition, through this platform, you can sign up for an extra-cost Wi-Fi hotspot connection.
Mazda also offers a 12-speaker Bose Centerpoint surround-sound audio system for the CX-90. My test vehicles had this upgrade, and it sounds better than expected but not entirely up to par with what you can find in some rivals.
You can choose from numerous settings to personalize the CX-90 through the Mazda Connect system. If you share the SUV with other drivers, an available Driver Personalization System uses facial recognition technology to automatically pair a driver with the settings saved to their profile, from the seat positions and favorite radio stations to safety system preferences.
Regarding safety features, every 2024 CX-90 comes with the advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) you expect in a modern vehicle. Mazda packages them together under the i-Activsense branding banner.
Depending on the model and trim, safety feature upgrades include:
- A post-collision braking system that brings the CX-90 to a stop as soon as possible following a collision resulting in airbag deployment
- An active blind-spot assist that helps prevent unsafe lane changes
- An emergency lane-keeping system that tries to avert road departures and collisions with oncoming vehicles
- Intersection assist technology with a front cross-traffic alert that can automatically brake if a crash might occur
- A rear automatic braking system with pedestrian detection
- A see-through-view surround-view camera system
In addition, the CX-90 introduces Mazda's new Cruising and Traffic Support technology. Cruising and Traffic Support is a Level 2 semi-autonomous assisted driving system with an adaptive cruise control system and a lane-centering assist function. It requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.
As soon as I was free of downtown San Francisco's gridlocked traffic and heading across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Marin County, I activated the CX-90's new Cruising and Traffic Support system. It worked well traveling across the bridge but struggled with the curves and narrow lanes of the 101 freeway as it winds into the hills west of Sausalito. However, once the highway straightened out and widened some, it felt more natural.
Overall, the CX-90's tech produced few, if any, false alarms. The blind-spot monitoring system errs on the side of caution, but that's for the best. I particularly like the lane-departure warning system's silent steering-wheel vibration, though you can choose an audible alert if you wish. While hustling the SUV on winding roads near Point Reyes, the ADAS produced no false collision warning alerts.
Since the CX-90 is a new design and was just going on sale as I wrote this review, crash-test ratings were unavailable. However, you can check the websites of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for updates.
2024 Mazda CX-90 Review: The Drive
Mazda equips the CX-90 3.3 Turbo and 3.3 Turbo S models with a new 3.3-liter inline six-cylinder engine, a new eight-speed automatic transmission, and a standard all-wheel-drive system that biases power delivery to the rear wheels. In addition, a 48-volt mild-hybrid system with an electric motor helps to improve acceleration and efficiency but does not offer electric-only propulsion.
In the 3.3 Turbo, this e-Skyactiv drivetrain generates 280 horsepower from 5,000 rpm to 6,000 rpm and 332 lb-ft of torque between 2,000 rpm and 3,500 rpm. It doesn't matter if you run it on regular or premium gas, and Mazda estimates fuel economy at an average 25 mpg. The engine can tow up to 3,500 pounds, but you can upgrade the capacity to 5,000 pounds with some models.
The 3.3 Turbo S is more powerful. It supplies 319 horsepower on regular and 340 on premium. When using higher octane gas, peak power arrives 500 rpm sooner. Torque measures 369 lb-ft no matter what gas you use, but with premium, it gets spread between 2,000 rpm and 4,500 rpm. WIth lower octane fuel, the torque peak is 3,500 rpm. Mazda says this powertrain also provides 25 mpg and can tow 5,000 pounds.
Unlike other automatic transmissions, the CX-90's new eight-speed unit lacks a torque converter. Instead, it uses a wet clutch. That doesn't make it an automated manual transmission, however. A Mazda spokesperson told me the design helps launch the CX-90 from a stop without delay, and the mild-hybrid system's electric motor also assists in this regard.
Three software algorithms control the i-Activ all-wheel-drive system. Under normal driving conditions, most of the engine power goes to the CX-90's rear wheels. However, the power split adjusts based on wheel slip, steering input, and weight transfer. The CX-90 offers 8.0 inches of ground clearance (8.1 inches with the 21-inch wheels), likely enough to battle a snowstorm but probably not what you need for serious off-roading. In addition, the CX-90 offers Normal, Sport, Off-Road, and Tow driving modes.
By using a longitudinally mounted inline-six-cylinder engine and a compact automatic transmission mounted as far back on the CX-90's platform as possible, Mazda says it had enough room to employ a sophisticated double-wishbone front suspension. That design, coupled with a five-link rear suspension, improved weight distribution, Mazda's brake-based Kinematic Posture Control system, and other suspension tweaks, supplies ride and handling qualities that can put a smile on a driver's face. In addition, the CX-90 features a rack-mounted steering system, which typically supplies better feel and feedback.
I spent a morning driving the CX-90 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus, and I can report that this SUV is quick, sounds terrific when revved, and feels alive in your hands. However, there is too much road noise on highways with the 21-inch wheels. There is also a sensation of friction in the drivetrain and an occasional delay in downshifting when driving in Normal mode, but neither trait is consistent nor particularly concerning.
What was most noticeable in my experience of driving the CX-90 is the near-total absence of unwanted body motion or weight transfer, no matter the road surface or how I tossed the SUV through the S curves. Inherent in their design, SUVs are top-heavy with a higher center of gravity than cars. This means that when you drive one with enthusiasm, body roll and weight transfer can cause excessive lateral rocking and rolling and noticeable fore-aft bobbing and weaving. But in the Mazda CX-90, you probably won't feel any of that — at least not in the 3.3 Turbo or Turbo S.
The CX-90 PHEV is another story. In Premium Plus specification, it is 344 pounds heavier than the 3.3 Turbo S, and that added weight is snugged low in the chassis in the form of a large battery pack and electric drive motor. While this low-mounted weight helps to reduce the CX-90 PHEV's center of gravity and enhance its feel in corners, the suspension can also struggle to prevent that mass from making itself known, such as when driving over humps and dips in the road or when traveling across some highway bridges.
The PHEV is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, and a Mazda spokesperson told me it offers 26 miles of electric driving range before switching to gas-electric propulsion. Official fuel economy figures will be available closer to when this version of the SUV goes on sale expected Spring of 2023, so be sure to check the EPA's fuel economy website for updates.
Mazda bases the PHEV powertrain on a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine, a 68-kW electric motor, a 17.8kWh lithium-ion battery pack, and the same eight-speed automatic transmission and i-Activ AWD system as the turbocharged CX-90 models. The combined power rating is 319 to 323 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. To get the 323 ponies, you need to use premium gas, which hardly seems worth the cost. Mazda says you can use a standard household wall outlet to reach 80% charge for the CX-90 PHEV in less than seven hours.
Naturally, the CX-90 PHEV adds an EV driving mode, and the SUV gets along fine without the gasoline engine. But acceleration is leisurely, and depending on the driver's demands for power, the gas engine may fire up to assist on occasion. There is also a Charging mode, which uses the gas engine to recharge the PHEV's battery as you drive. In my experience, I gained about a mile of electric range for every six miles of driving on the highway.
During my short time behind the CX-90's steering wheel, the SUV fell a little short of indicated range at the start of the drive. When setting off, the trip computer estimated that I had 25 miles of available range from a nearly full battery, but I traveled only 24.3 miles before the gas engine turned on to help propel the CX-90. The SUV consumed electricity at a rate of 2.0 miles per kilowatt-hour.
After conducting a range test, I recharged the battery to five miles of added range to sample maximum power in the Normal and Sport driving modes. While the CX-90 PHEV weighs more than the 3.3 Turbo S, it offers a healthier punch of low-end electric motor torque, which makes it feel lively. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound as delightful as the inline-six when you rev the four-cylinder gas engine, and in some situations the PHEV's added weight takes a noticeable toll on the ride and handling.
Still, considering that the CX-90 PHEV makes about the same power as the CX-90 3.3 Turbo S while offering an estimated 26 miles of electric range, it strikes me as the best version of this SUV, even if it's unavailable with some of the features you can find only on the top version of the 3.3 Turbo S.
Is the 2024 Mazda CX-90 a Good SUV?
Mazda excels at appealing to your emotions. Through design, materials, and driving dynamics, every one of the automaker's cars and SUVs is visually and viscerally rewarding. That's true of the new 2024 Mazda CX-90, too. This is a midsize, three-row crossover SUV you buy because you like the styling, the interior, and the way it makes you feel when driving it.
However, like other Mazdas, the CX-90 is a little more expensive and slightly smaller inside than its mass-market competition. Unless safety is high on your shopping list and Mazda's track record in this area impresses you, you're unlikely to choose a CX-90 for practical reasons. Or to go off-roading.
Instead, the new Mazda CX-90 is a legitimately convincing and value-rich alternative to vehicles like the Acura MDX and Infiniti QX60. In addition, the CX-90 PHEV is a rarity in the midsize three-row SUV segment. Aside from the Kia Sorento Plug-in Hybrid, the only alternatives are much pricier luxury models, including the BMW X5 xDrive45e, Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring, and Volvo XC90 Recharge.
Is premium a niche Mazda can exploit? I'd say so, and the 2024 CX-90 is well packaged and positioned to do it.