Review: 2024 Mazda CX-90 Aims for Unexplored Luxury Territory

The beautifully-designed three-row SUV is being pitched as a major upgrade

August 18, 2023 7:34 am
The 2024 Mazda CX-90, a new three-row SUV, in white
Goodbye CX-9, hello CX-90.
Mazda

Mazda has spent much of the past decade making over its lineup as it pushes closer to the luxury-adjacent price points it has underlined as a path to profitability. Although much of the early attention was foisted on the Mazda 3 sedan and hatchback (which went decidedly upscale in their most recent generation), the effort began with the full-size CX-9 SUV all the way back in 2016.

As the first hauler from Mazda that proved its interior designers could teach their European premium counterparts a thing or two, the CX-9’s persona provided a tantalizing glimpse at what the road ahead might look like for the brand. And now, with the introduction of the CX-9’s replacement, that future is finally here.

The 2024 Mazda CX-90 might directly slot into the CX-9’s showroom space, but there’s much about this model that pushes past its predecessor’s ambitions. Not only is the CX-90 the largest — and most expensive — Mazda to date, but it also brings brand new engine technology to the table, along with a clean-slate platform that aims to accentuate the driving pleasure that the company is known for.

All of the above is a sizable task, especially considering just how dazzling several of the CX-90’s three-row competitors already are at packaging performance, value and practicality in a family-friendly machine. Big swings like this hefty Mazda play are often key to winning the game, but the arc of a bat this heavy reveals a few areas that its first effort has overlooked.

The dashboard and infotainment in the 2024 Mazda CX-90 SUV
The cabin environment is an upgrade over past palettes from Mazda.
Mazda

Starting From Scratch

It’s important to point out that everything about the Mazda CX-90 is brand new. There’s no rehashing past achievements or leaning on older technologies here: From its sheet metal, to its chassis, to its drivetrain choices, to its interior, Mazda has thrown its weight behind the CX-90 as a comprehensive encapsulation of where its automobiles are heading.

For longtime fans of the brand, some aspects of this statement will be a bit shocking. It starts under the hood, where most versions of the CX-90 sport a 3.3-liter inline six-cylinder engine, a marked departure from the V6 and straight-four options that have been the automaker’s bread and butter for the past 25 years. There are two iterations of this engine, each of which features a single turbocharger and a 48-volt hybrid system (note: there’s also a four-cylinder, plug-in hybrid CX-90 available).

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The top-shelf model I drove delivered 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque on premium fuel (with a 280 horsepower, 87-octane tune also available for lower trim levels).  The 48-volt hybrid system adds close to 110 lb-ft of additional electric motor torque in short bursts at low speeds, mixed in to alleviate the perception of lag from the Mazda’s turbo.

These numbers are impressive, but the CX-90’s substantial weight and its unusual wet-clutch, eight-speed automatic transmission exact a penalty in outright acceleration. The SUV falls behind lesser-powered luminaries such as the Ford Explorer, and is neck-and-neck pace with the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade (with the latter two down more than 50 ponies in comparison). In everyday driving, the CX-90 has more than enough gumption to transport brood and baggage without any trouble, but it’s not quite the rocket that some of the luxury rigs it is aimed at happen to be. That average impression extends to other areas of the commute as well. Even with its longitudinally-mounted engine setup and standard, rear-biased all-wheel drive, handling remains on the acceptable, rather than the exciting side of the ledger.

There’s also the matter of the Mazda’s growing pains. Initial evidence of the “first-year-itis” afflicting the CX-90 manifests in the occasionally rough character of its automatic engine start/stop system and a throttle that is difficult to modulate for maximum smoothness. That being said, there’s solace to be taken in the SUV’s outstanding fuel economy: 25 mpg in combined city and highway driving, numbers that are as much as 25% better than similarly-sized rivals.

Cargo space with bags in the new 2024 Mazda CX-90 SUV
It’s far from the largest three-row SUV on the market, but the cargo space is ample.
Mazda

Easy on the Eyes

One area where the CX-90 has carried over at least a little of its ancestor’s mojo is its sheet metal. Lupine, long, and on my tester finished in a gorgeous dark burgundy hue, the large sport-utility vehicle is striking and well-balanced, failing to fall prey to the lure of enormous grilles or overwrought rear-end motifs that have spoiled so many same-sized designs. There are a few details that scream “look at me” perhaps more than they should — the “INLINE 6” badge spelled out in chrome on the front fender, and “MAZDA” engraved in similarly shiny font on the door bottoms — but overall it’s a restrained, yet still eye-catching vehicle.

This impression continues inside the Mazda, where substantial wood accents join sharp-looking leather to create a cabin environment that is an upgrade over past palettes from the brand. It’s a much nicer place to spend some time as compared to a number of erstwhile competitors (such as the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander and the previously-mentioned Explorer). The only misstep in terms of look is the single-stitch motif on the fabric dashboard covering, a decision that could perhaps be pulled off with cowhide but had me nervous for eventual tearing of the thin material.

The CX-90’s interior is reasonably spacious, growing past the CX-9 and providing a comfortable perch for the driver and the first three passengers (with the third row best suited to those still learning their ABCs). Although not as large on paper as several rivals, there’s still more than enough cargo space to be found inside the vehicle. I folded down the last two rows to near-flat and was able to pack moving boxes floor-to-ceiling with no issues.

My problems inside the Mazda had more to do with teething. Door locks occasionally cannonaded through the interior like the sound of a rifle being cocked, and the puzzling infotainment display offered touchscreen functionality only when using Android Auto, and even then exclusively when at a standstill, requiring the twist of a console-mounted knob at all other times. Much worse was the fact that more than half the time, the display blacked out after startup, showing the welcome screen and then fading to darkness until I mashed a random assortment of hard buttons beside the spinner to bring it back to life.

The 2024 Mazda CX-90 SUV driving down the road
Are you ready for the upgrade Mazda is offering?
Mazda

Almost There

It’s hard not to feel that some aspects of the 2024 Mazda CX-90 were rushed out the door. I’m hopeful that Mazda can find a way to paper over the rougher aspects of its drivetrain, and that the issues I experienced with door locks and infotainment system are a simple software update away from being resolved. This is ultra important in a segment where the most expensive CX-90 (the S Premium Plus trim) retails for more than $61,000, which is a considerable $4,000 to $6,000 bump over several of its closest comparators (though it starts around $20,000 under that top price). 

Mazda’s luxury push, and concomitant price tag increase, raises expectations across the board. Execution is everything, and although the CX-90 meets the challenge in a number of key areas, overall the SUV isn’t quite where it needs to be to justify such a significant window sticker at the top end — especially when more affordable Korean options are nipping at it heels in terms of performance, finish and features.

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