Mazda's big new SUV bucks trends as well as embracing them
By Jim Bray
Is Mazda's all-new CX-90 three row SUV another "Mazdapiece" from the Japanese manufacturer?
I'd say yes, having just spent two weeks in two different versions of the vehicle. Now, I'm a Mazda fan anyway, thanks to their Japanese reliability and Mazda's famous "Zoom-Zoom" fun to drive quotient. Even a big SUV like this – formerly called the CX-9 – was more fun to drive than it had any right to be. They don't use that little kid's Zoomy utterance any more, alas, but the vehicles still embody the concept well.
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Now, along comes the company with a new and supposedly improved model that, in typical Mazda tradition, marches to its own tune, thumbing its corporate nose in a manner of speaking at the competition for their penchant for downsizing as a way to keep on the good side of the Gaia gurus.
Mazda says the CX-90, its new flagship, is built on its "all-new large platform" and is wider, longer, and features "more aggressive proportions that perfectly blend its high-performance appearance with world-class refinement". It's also available in two "electrified" versions, a new and turbocharged inline six (the nose thumbing version) as well as a plug-in hybrid that toes the eco line in a more conventional manner.
My first week behind the wheel of the CX-90 was in the top line Signature version with the inline six. I was salivating at the thought of an inline six – especially now that much of the competition is eschewing sixes of any persuasion in favour of turbocharged four bangers. Indeed, I'm a fan of that number of cylinders, whether they be mounted in a line, a V, or a "boxer" configuration.
A six is a return to form for Mazda, too, since the CX-9 started life as a V6 and then – like much of the competition – they downsized the cylinder count and added a turbocharger. That turbo four is a peach, and offered plenty of torque for such a large vehicle. Now, that turbo is available in smaller Mazdas, too, such as the CX-5 and CX-50. My best friend has it in his CX-5 and loves it.
Ah, but an inline six! That's the stuff of BMW and Toyota – which may seem like strange bedfellows until you remember that Toyota's Supra, right from day one in the late 1970's, offered an inline six. I owned one of those cars (it was a second generation 1983 Supra GTS) and loved the engine's power and smoothness. I drove that car happily for 20 years and, having experienced the new state of the art courtesy of Mazda, I could probably drive its new one for 20 years again, if I had that many years of driving left to me and wanted a vehicle large enough to camp in.
That new engine is a 3.3 litre e-Skyactiv Turbo six, though I never felt any turbo lag or other indication that the six wasn't doing everything on its own. Mazda says it has the highest horsepower and torque ever produced from "a mass production gasoline engine developed by Mazda". It's rated at 340 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque (when using the recommended premium fuel).
The engine also features "M-Hybrid Boost", which Mazda describes as a "mild-hybrid system to provide efficiency without compromising on its remarkable performance". The system puts the electric motor between the engine and the transmission, helping to create the vehicle's very smooth acceleration from a standstill; it will even power the CX-90 on its own, though as with most such hybrids I've driven, that mode is only good at a speed so low there isn't much point.
However you slice it, though, it's a fine power train and it works beautifully. In the city or on the highway the CX-90 inline six performs like a thoroughbred and you can pull out to pass with supreme confidence – something I did several times on a highway trip my friend and I took from Calgary to Rocky Mountain House. I loved it!
My second week was in the plug-in hybrid, which also displays its share of Zoom-Zoominess. Mazda's sample was also a lower, GS-L trim level compared to the Signature suit worn by the Six.
The new e-Skyactiv PHEV powertrain, which Mazda claims has been tuned specifically for the North American market, is still quite responsive and impressive. It's rated at 323 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque (with premium fuel). That's pretty close to what you get from the Six, though I enjoyed driving the Six more.
Mazda says the PHEV is designed to operate "purely on the electric motor in a variety of driving scenarios" and to be honest it does a pretty fine job of it. The gas part of the equation is a 2.5 litre four-cylinder engine "with a tuned intake to improve torque". In operation, and fully charged, you can do short trips in town without even using the gas engine – though this drains the batteries really quickly.
Tromp on the gas, however, and the whole system leaps to life as if eager to serve, and you can take off with abandon, which is handy when passing or even just merging. I recharged the batteries overnight using the adapter Mazda provides, plugging it into my home's exterior plug. It worked fine, as long as you weren't in a hurry (which is the nature of the beast) or, as happened once to me, someone comes along and unplugs it on you.
Both versions get a new transmission. Mazda has soldiered on remarkably well with its old six-speed automatic, which I liked a lot, but this new eight-speed one does an even better job. I found the old tranny tended to hold onto gears a tad long if you were in sport mode and not driving as if you were in sport mode, but this new one seems happy regardless of how far down your right foot is pressing. There are also paddle shifters and a decent manual mode to help enhance the driving experience.
As is also typical of Mazda's more recent offerings, the CX-90 looks more up market than it really is. After all, this is a vehicle that competes head-to-head with the likes of the Honda Pilot, but to sit inside its beautifully-appointed cabin you might think it's more in line with the upmarket Acura MDX.
Except it isn't. It's better. While the Acura (and its direct competitors) may still be more luxurious than the Mazda, it's hard to beat the Mazda's combination of elegance, ease of use features, and of course "Zoom-Zoom."
And just think: the loaded CX-90 with the inline six lists for $66,326, while a loaded MDX Platinum Elite will set you back $71,680 (estimated by using both companies' websites). It's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, of course, but it helps illustrate what an overall deal the Mazda is. You might lose a bit of luxury and, perhaps, cachet, but you gain a fun factor while saving some cash. Not that the Acura is a slouch by any means; I just like the Mazda better.
I must admit that I find the exterior of the CX-90 to be a tad boxy and dumpy-looking compared to the reasonably svelte CX-9, but beauty is of course in the eye of the keyholder and most people I asked thought the new model looks great. It's definitely imposing and looks like it means business.
Inside, in the Signature edition, you get premium nappa leather upholstery, a wood-trimmed centre console panel (and I think it's real wood). There's also wood trim on the upper door panels, and the Bose premium sound system the Signature had, with 12 speakers, is very good.
Mazda's sample Signature also featured a 12.3-inch colour display and the second row was fitted with premium Captain's chairs with a console between them. The Captain's chairs are very comfortable and also help facilitate access to and from the third row. I wouldn't want to drive across Canada in Steerage, but found the room back there was surprisingly adequate. I even had little difficulty getting my short legs and fat posterior back there, though getting out proved to anyone watching that yours truly lacks a certain grace.
The Captain's chairs version means you can't put eight people inside unless they're on each other's laps, but if you don't need the extra bun supports you'll probably love the Captain's chairs.
The PHEV wore the GS-L trim, which is the middle of three trim levels from which to choose. Not being the highest end model, you lose certain creature comforts such as leather seats, and the centre stack-topping LCD is a lot smaller and the camera displays are less sophisticated. But it's essentially the same vehicle and how can that be a bad thing?
Mazda's interfaces have traditionally not made me want to tear out what's left of my hair, for which I've been very grateful, and even though this new model ups the interior ante it isn't at the expense of usability. You get physical buttons for the HVAC, for example, and Mazda's centre console-mounted "features controller" and volume control are easy to fathom.
You do get all the usual safety aids and nannies, but Mazda never really beats you over the head with them. Even "safety features" such as the horrid lane-keeping thingy that can fight you for control of the vehicle (depending on the vehicle and how you have it set) is easy to deactivate – and once off it stays off! Bravo!
There isn't space enough here for me to do more than mention some of the high points (I didn't mention the lovely panoramic sunroof – though it doesn't open very much, for instance). Suffice it to say the new CX-90 is an exquisite vehicle regardless of how you configure it.
If it were my money, I'd opt for the Signature with the inline six. And it's only a couple of grand more than the PHEV model I tried, despite its higher trim level. According to their window stickers, the Mighty Six Signature lists for $63,950 (including optional, and cool, exterior paint), while the PHEV lists for $60,400.
Either one is a winner.
Copyright 2023 Jim Bray