I had a moment when I was unloading this white 2024 Mazda CX-90 outside my place when I noticed a couple—older than me, maybe mid-50s, stylishly dressed—kind of hanging around and staring at it. Now, here in New York, you have to call your shots carefully when you talk to strangers on the street, because we’re predisposed against that sort of thing. Evidently, they decided it’d be worth it. “Say, what is that thing?”, the man asked me.
I told him. And what followed surprised even me: “Can I take a look inside?”
Being the gregarious Texan import and evangelist for Good Cars that I am, I, of course, obligated. “Say, this is nice,” he said, drawing out that last word while he hooted and whistled. “I have a Land Rover but it’s in the shop all the damn time. I didn’t know these existed. I should take a look at this instead.” (Mazda, if this interaction did in fact turn into a sale, you’re welcome.)
This, reader, is what’s known in the business as a “conquest.” And it’s exactly what Mazda hopes to do with its newest, biggest, most expensive and most luxurious SUV ever. The CX-90 is Mazda’s most important car in a long time, a demonstration of where it wants to go with style and technology—especially in plug-in hybrid form like my tester—and most crucially for the Japanese brand, price.
Will Mazda’s luxury push actually work? It’s too early to call it based on one car, but the CX-90 is good enough that it proves the concept. Now, we just need its vibes to trickle down to the rest of the lineup.
[Full Disclosure: Mazda loaned me this CX-90 PHEV with a full tank of gas for a week.]
The CX-90 is a large crossover SUV that’s new for the 2024 model year. It replaces the old, similarly sized CX-9, and follows a similar concept to that vehicle with the “luxury” dial turned way up.
It used to be that when a car brand wanted to launch an “upscale flagship” vehicle, it was a big luxury sedan (or maybe some kind of supercar.) We live in an SUV world now, so increasingly the standard-bearers are large crossovers like this one.
The CX-90 isn’t just a big car; it’s a big deal for Mazda. After years of fits and starts, it represents the actual execution of the small, independent Japanese brand’s longstanding plan to become more premium. See, Mazda can’t compete with the likes of Toyota and Honda on volume, so it’s going to try and compete on profit margins instead. Its last few crop of cars started moving this way (see the turbocharged Mazda 3 hatch, for example) but as nice as they were, they were a bit lacking in the powertrain department. The inline-six is meant to fix that, and the plug-in hybrid tech tested here should build a bridge to a more electrified future.
So the CX-90 is the coming-out party for a Mazda that offers nicer everything: interiors, paint, engines, tech, you name it. It’s going to be more focused on America with lots of crossover options. So far, the approach seems to be working. Great. Whatever it takes to pay for the next Miata.
In America, the CX-90 can be had with two different engine options (a new 3.3-liter turbocharged inline-six or a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated hybrid four-cylinder) across a staggering 11 different trim levels. This tester was the PHEV Premium Plus, sitting at the top of the PHEV range. All-wheel-drive is standard on the CX-90 and the only gearbox option is an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Price: $47,445 starting for PHEV; $56,950 for Premium Plus
Power: 323 hp and 369 lb-ft
Battery (Hybrid): 17.8-kWh
EPA Fuel Economy: 25 MPG (Mazda estimate)
Drive: All-wheel drive
Curb Weight: 5,243 pounds
Body Style: Five-door SUV
How Does It Look?
On the whole, the CX-90 is seriously Not Bad. It’s tough to make a big crossover look like anything; most of them end up being just blobs. (If you lopped that enormous grille off the BMW X7, for example, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it apart from anything else in that class.) The big Mazda ends up being handsome, if indistinctive; it’s not as bold as the current Mazda 3 hatch, for example, which is deeply polarizing but a win in my book.
The greenhouse is big, the proportions are balanced enough and the accents over the front wheel arches are a nice touch. My tester’s bland white color didn’t really do it any favors. Mazda offers some far more interesting options for the CX-90, like two shades of red (including Soul Red Crystal Metallic, one of the better reds anyone’s making right now) and Platinum Quartz Metallic, which is a really unique and understated choice. Any of those are better. I dunno, “white three-row crossover” just screams “minivan” to me. And you’re buying a car like this explicitly because you don’t want the minivan.
The point is, the CX-90 is visually appealing enough, even if it can’t match the Kia Telluride, arguably the reigning design champion in this segment. I think a lot of the CX-90 is aimed directly at that car, in fact, since that’s been an upmarket game-changer of its own for the Korean brand.
How About The Inside?
Okay, now we’re talking. The “understated” vibe carries on inside the CX-90, but this is where it really feels like Mazda did its homework.
It’s a very nice interior, and extremely convincing for this price tag. Lots of soft-touch materials across the dash, high-grade leather, brushed aluminum and nice attention to detail on the switches and buttons—which it does have. If that’s less your jam, other options have maple wood accents and a fabric-stitch pattern on the dash; I’d go with that, and a lighter color, over the dark leather in my tester, but only out of personal preference.
It’s refreshing, in 2023, to sit in a car where the design ethos wasn’t just “Screen.” Sure, the CX-90 has one of those, but it’s a tastefully done landscape 12.3-inch infotainment setup that emphasizes functionality over screen supremacy. (Lower trims feature a similar 10.3-inch screen.) Also appealing on my tester was the 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster; tastefully done, all of it.
Seating is a big deal on the CX-90. If you’ve got kids to haul, Mazda’s got options for you. It only comes in three-row form, but the way it does it varies from model to model. It’s so complicated that I’m going to cheat here and just show you Mazda’s description instead:
See? I’m not writing all that out. I have other stuff to do today. If you get the second-row captain’s chairs, like my tester had, they can be heated and cooled. I told you this thing was nice! I will say I didn’t care for the little mushroom-toggle that passes for a gear selector; park is up and to the left and reverse is the top gear when you move it over. It’s needlessly complicated and set me up to rev in neutral a few times.
Now, the CX-90 has been dinged in some reviews for not being quite as spacious as some three-row crossover competitors, or for having as much legroom as some testers would like. And it is true that the CX-90 doesn’t have as much cargo space or rear headroom as several three-row rivals. I suppose this question depends on your needs; I sat back there and while I can’t say I had an amazing time, I didn’t think it was terrible at all. I’m kind of baffled at people who say the CX-90 isn’t “big” enough, but everyone’s needs are different.
Granted, I didn’t test the CX-90 the way some did, like by taking five other passengers on a road trip to a Taylor Swift concert. And I’ve found that most third-row seats on these SUVs are almost always best used in a pinch anyway, like when the kids have their friends over or you need to travel short distances with a bunch of people.
But if you’re really in the market for a three-row and you’re worried about space, make sure to test this against a few other options like the Kia Telluride, Toyota Grand Highlander and Jeep Grand Cherokee L. And remember, there’s no shame in getting that minivan; frankly most people would be happier in one anyway, but they just won’t do it. I suspect Mazda will remedy this criticism by making the next CX-90 even bigger, and of course, more expensive.
Overall, there’s not a ton to complain about inside. The CX-90 doesn’t push the envelope of tech and design; instead, it’s very contemporary, upscale and comfortable.
How Does It Drive?
What that new turbo inline-six and a rear-wheel-drive setup, the term “Japanese BMW” got tossed around a lot to describe Mazda’s transformation. In truth, it’s as hard to make a three-row crossover drive in a compelling way as it is to make it look good. Most of these kid-hauler SUVs inherently won’t be known for their sporty dynamism.
So even though I’m a believer in Mazda’s athleticism—it’s why my daily driver is a last-generation 3 hatchback—my expectations were low with the CX-90. It’s definitely a big car; I can’t imagine driving a three-row crossover where I live. Brooklyn parking was a bear in this thing. (Then again, I saw a few stroller-toting parents staring at this thing longingly as I drove past; people make it work when they have to.)
In practice, the CX-90 is more like a Japanese Volvo than anything else, or one that hits the gym a few times a week. It’s actually pretty solid to drive, and even fun at times—for this class, anyway.
The hybrid is a pretty refined powertrain overall; 323 HP and 369 lb-ft is nothing to sneeze at from a four-cylinder engine. Granted, it has more than 5,000 pounds to move around, but I never found it wanting for acceleration. Motor Trend’s instrumented tested ranked its zero to 60 mph dash at 6.2 seconds; again, really not bad.
Mazdas seldom disappoint on the handling front and the CX-90 proved to have the taut steering and planted handling I’d expect from this brand. It’s predictable at high speeds and comfortable on the highway. I did find the suspension to be overly firm, especially on New York’s battered roads both in the city and upstate; and at the end of the day, a major infusion of athletic prowess is just kind of wasted on a car this big and heavy.
The PHEV CX-90 can run in fully electric mode and offers up to 26 miles of range on that alone, so like a lot of these hybrids, you could run a ton of daily errands and very seldom use gasoline. It uses a 17.8-kWh battery pack and, like other hybrids, won’t add electrons any quicker on a fast-charging EV station because it doesn’t really need to.
The PHEV’s gas mileage hasn’t been EPA-rated, but Mazda claims 25 mpg combined; not mind-blowing, but remember, weight cuts into fuel economy. And a PHEV will still create less emissions than a turbocharged gas inline-six, and I think that’s something more buyers should consider.
The PHEV will also fully juice the battery in about 2.5 hours on a Level 2 charger, which isn’t bad if you can find one while running your various errands.
How’s The Tech?
Much of the really notable tech on the CX-90 PHEV relates to that hybrid system. You can program it to use full-EV mode on startup, for example, so a lot of my around-town driving was all-electric from the outset. And you can hit a “Charge Mode” button to prioritize the engine’s ability to fully charge the battery.
Mazda’s infotainment system is infamous for not using touch controls; the company thinks it’s safer, less distracting and more driver-focused to use a knob and some central buttons. Most of the time, it actually works great. The real hangup is when you go to enter addresses, which can be supremely annoying (though voice controls work pretty well these days.) Mazda, however, was smart enough to make the screen touch-compatible when you turn on wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so most of the time you’ll probably end up doing that.
Oh, and one neat party trick? The Driver Personalization System, which sets the seat, steering wheel, mirrors and HUD based on your height and weight. It also stores your various settings that way.
There’s also the usual ADAS stuff you’d expect at this price, like a low-speed highway traffic system , but nothing extremely cutting-edge like Cadillac’s Super Cruise or Ford’s latest hands-off BlueCruise. Most of the focus on the CX-90 was on the powertrain and luxury, not on building up a cutting-edge software ecosystem.
It certainly works fine here. But even that infotainment system is fairly dull. If you want mind-blowing tech, probably look elsewhere. Mazda can’t do everything.
Three Things To Know About The 2023 Mazda CX-90
- There are three-row crossovers with more legroom and headroom in the back than the CX-90 has, but this reviewer didn’t think it was bad.
- Since the CX-90 is never going to be a “performance” car, you may as well get the PHEV version to save gas and cut emissions, and it’s definitely not slow.
- It’s a very convincing, very well-executed foray into the luxury sandbox Mazda wants to play in.
Does It Fulfill Its Purpose?
In a word: yes. There’s not a gigantic list of plug-in hybrid three-row SUVs these days, so Mazda’s now-flagship CX-90 is a strong contender in that space. And the non-hybrid, inline-six CX-90 is pretty compelling too.
I can’t say it was a car I dreamed about after it left my driveway, but I did find it very impressive on several fronts. I’m also not the target demo for a three-row luxury crossover, but I think anyone who is in that realm should give it a look.
More crucially for Mazda, this is the sort of thing that needs to trickle down to the rest of the lineup. With the already disappointing MX-30 getting axed after approximately five minutes on the market, Mazda’s electric and electrified options are disappointingly thin. It needs to catch up on that front to show it’s ready for the way the future’s moving and what customers will increasingly want. As it is, I don’t love that to get an electrified Mazda I have to spend almost $60,000 on a huge SUV.
But the CX-90 PHEV is proof that it can pull its future playbook off, and do so without losing its soul. It’s a great choice for parents who can’t (or won’t) spring for the minivan option and it’s already a sales hit. Just wait until Mazda starts applying the same hybrid tech to smaller stuff like the CX-50, which seems likely to happen soon enough.
Now, is the CX-90 worth that hefty price? I think so, considering the style, hybrid tech and quality you seem to get here. It’ll take some work to convince people that Mazda can go premium, but hey—that has to start somewhere.
What’s The Punctum Of The 2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV?
Mazda’s throwing punches as it enters new territory and the CX-90 hybrid is a convincing luxury option for all sorts of families.
All photos by Patrick George
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