2024 Mazda CX-90 First Drive Review: The Family SUV With Plenty of Hustle
A subtle suspension tweak would go a long way in making the top Turbo S trim more palatable.
Mazda is one of those car companies that most tend to forget about until they see one. At this point, you often find yourself asking why it isn’t as popular as some other automotive brands. Mazda has clearly wondered the same thing over the years and built an incredibly capable arsenal of vehicles over the last decade to combat such absent-mindedness.
Yet, even though nearly everything in its lineup has received rave reviews from more enthusiast-based reviewers—apart from the very odd MX-30 EV—it’s still one of the most slept-on car companies around. It represents only a tiny fraction of the market. And while enthusiasts like myself would likely tell the brand to do something wild like bring back the RX platform or build some sick Miata Speedster, those don't sell in the ways that keep a company afloat. Mazda knows the way to most buyers’ hearts and that’s SUVs.
Despite skyrocketing interest rates and average vehicle transaction prices, there’s no stopping the onslaught of new SUVs. Buyers just keep eating them up, especially those in the luxury segments, which the full-size 2024 Mazda CX-90 aims to target. But this is still Mazda. It's still a company of enthusiasts, and the CX-90 could be something that pulls at the heartstrings of both regular consumers and us automotive nerds.
Beneath that sculpted exterior lies not just the normal luxury accouterments of leather, polished metal, and a bangin’ sound system, there's also a potent all-new turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine. And while average consumers will just glance past the spec, it screams of the inline six-cylinder heyday of the legendary RB26 or 2JZ engines. Maybe that's a little too optimistic.
But just maybe by adding such enthusiasm to an even more non-enthusiast architecture like a full-size SUV will show that Mazda’s finally figured out how to speak to the masses and the enthusiast crowd. Maybe? Well, it got damn-near close to producing a perfect SUV for both, but if Mazda truly wants to pull itself out of semi-obscurity in the general public's mind, it’ll give the Turbo S spec the same ride quality the PHEV has.
2024 Mazda CX-90 Specs
- Base Price (As Tested): $39,595 (CX-90 Turbo S Premium Plus $59,950)
- Powertrain: 3.3-liter turbocharged inline 6-cylinder or 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder plug-in hybrid | 8-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 280 to 340
- Torque: 332 to 369 lb-ft
- Curb Weight: 4,709 to 5,243 pounds
- Seating Capacity: 8
- Cargo Volume: 52.9 cubic feet with rear seats up | 96 cubic feet with rear seats folded
- Towing Capacity: 3,500 to 5,000 lbs
- Fuel Economy: 24 mpg city | 28 highway | 25 combined
- Quick Take: So close to being great for the average SUV buyer and the enthusiast who now has school runs.
- Score: 8.5/10
What’s the Deal Between the PHEV and Turbo S?
For the 2024 Mazda CX-90, the brand offers three different powertrain options (Turbo, Turbo S, and PHEV), but I was only offered two during our test drive in Northern California. The two in question were the 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder plug-in hybrid electric and the 3.3-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder Turbo S, the latter of which is a brand-new engine architecture for the Hiroshima-based automaker.
The PHEV system is rated for 323 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque in combination with its 17.8-kWh battery pack, while the turbocharged inline six-cylinder is good for 340 hp and 369 lb-ft. The all-new six-cylinder engine is also assisted by a 48-volt mild hybrid system for better fuel economy, smoothing out the car’s auto start-stop, as well as powering the SUV’s accessories.
Mazda also offers a base spec CX-90 that utilizes the same new 3.3-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine as the Turbo S, however, it’s been detuned to produce just 280 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque.
All three powertrains are coupled to the vehicle’s AWD system via an in-house designed eight-speed automatic transmission. The specs combine for a tow rating of 3,500 pounds in the PHEV—good enough to tow a jet ski or small motorcycle trailer—and 5,000 pounds with the new six.
Those numbers aren’t the best, but they’re not nothing for the class.
The PHEV also has a fully electric mode, which cuts off the internal combustion engine and propels the car silently through traffic. It's good for about 30 miles of full EV range before it kicks the 2.5-liter engine back on to propel the vehicle forward and help charge the battery back up.
In terms of big differences, that’s it, as the CX–90 trims all use a longitudinal powertrain layout, with a front engine and rear-biased all-wheel drive, double-wishbone front suspension, multi-link rear suspension, and brake vectoring through Mazda’s Kinematic Posture Control. It also comes in 11 different trims, which include a variety of different options like an advanced safety system, better stereos, different seating layouts (six-, seven-, and eight-seat layouts are available), and premium colors, including everyone’s favorite: Soul Red Crystal.
I’ll also call out the stereo—despite Bose not particularly being my favorite audio brand, the system in here is solid. I threw my patented audio test playlist at the CX-90’s system, and it handled it pretty well. The highs were great, while the bassy lows were just alright. Where it excelled was music with higher trebles and more mid-tones, while the low bass of some hip-hop fell short and was pretty messy. Super produced music like Timmy Trumpet or Galantis sounded fantastic.
No matter the trim, though, the cabin is spacious and well-appointed. Hell, my six-foot-four frame fits in both the first and second rows with ease, and the front seats were great at holding me in but not tiring me out after long stretches on California's coastline. And while I can fit in the third-row seats, I wouldn’t want to be crammed in there for long periods like a road trip. Those are still for children.
As for the appointments, the leathers feel premium, the steering wheel itself is the right width and girth (not too wide, not too thick), the seats are comfortable but well bolstered, and there are all the accessories that folks want, including heated and ventilated seats, and best of all, physical buttons to control it all!
I know that every automaker wants to preach the benefits of touchscreens and how “people just want iPhones in their cars,” but that’s just not true. You don’t have automakers like Honda going back on touchscreens and returning the volume knob on a whim. People like physical buttons, as they’re easy to use, and can be operated without staring at a screen. They’re safer, and I applaud Mazda for making every button an actual button but doing so in a way that it doesn’t feel like the entire cabin is full of 'em. It was a breeze scrolling through music or inputting my destination using the interface.
The gauge cluster is digital, as is the infotainment stack, but the actual user experience interface is all analog buttons, and I’m here for it. I think others will be, too.
The Turbo S Needs More Squish
Despite the similarities between the specs, the CX-90 PHEV and Turbo S drive pretty damn differently, though the sporty aspects that Mazda is known for come through no matter the trim or engine.
I started the day behind the wheel of a top-spec straight-six Turbo S (Porsche who?) and I was immediately won over by the quickness of its power and torque. A moment of lag is quickly shooed away and you’re off to the races, hurtling off into the distance. It’s an addictive push, one I entertained whenever I found the chance to speed away from a stop.
The new engine isn’t as sonorous as the inline six-cylinders of old, as fuel economy and emissions regulations have all but destroyed the idea of high-revving engines. But there’s still a soul here, and for the average consumer, the six-cylinder has more than enough grunt to get onto a highway or speed off toward your kid’s soccer game that you’re running incredibly behind getting to—listen, coach, Timmy wouldn’t put on his cleats!
I did find one odd issue with the new six-cylinder, though. At around 65 to 70 mph, small throttle inputs caused a hiccup in power delivery. It almost felt as if the transmission stuttered between gears, but I wasn’t giving it enough gas to cause the transmission to downshift. I talked with my colleagues after the drive, and a few felt the same issue. It wasn’t anywhere else in the rev range, however.
Mazda’s PHEV is also stout, offering enough oomph that you’ll find yourself wondering if you’d chosen the six-cylinder instead of the one with the battery pack. Though, whereas the six-cylinder is pretty damn smooth in its power delivery, the PHEV is a little more thrashy when you hit the throttle. There’s more harshness that enters the cabin, though it’s not a dealbreaker in my opinion as the cabin is well-damped.
Mazda’s new eight-speed automatic transmission is also impressive, never hunting for the right gear when left to its own devices. There's also this sense that no matter what trim you have, the CX-90 can get onto its toes, but keep its weight extremely low. Seriously, this SUV is far more nimble than it has any right to be.
What’s more, the sportier front bucket seats both hold you in and are comfortable enough that parents will enjoy both short trips romping around tight backroads, instilling some sense of joy in their now normal parent lives, and eating miles on their third cross-country trip. Or, you know, just hitting up the school drop-off line.
The brakes are impressive, stopping the nearly 5,000-pound SUV quickly and efficiently, though I found they were quite grabby at the start of the day. That, however, could’ve been because the temperatures had fallen during the night and the rotors and pads got cold. They mellowed out during the day. That said, what didn’t mellow out, and what Mazda needs to look at, is the CX-90’s suspension setup.
Mazda is a company run by enthusiasts and, as such, its offerings have those enthusiasts in mind. Even the company’s SUVs cater to young adults who used to love their MX-5 Miata but now need the utility of an SUV to haul around their children. As such, Mazda can often find itself making something that might just be too niche of a product for the general public. And the CX-90 Turbo S falls into this category.
While the steering is direct and communicative in a way I enjoy as an enthusiast, I feel most buyers won’t like how much comes through the steering wheel. Over the pockmarked, pitted, and trash roads that make up this country's infrastructure, the CX-90 Turbo S vibrates to a frequency that’ll cause many normal SUV buyers to ask, “What’s this?” It jiggles and jitters as you pitch the SUV across the road.
It’s amazing that Mazda can build this communication into an SUV, especially for those of us who love to know what the tires are doing every second. But for those just looking to get from Point A to Point B, there’s no need for it. And crucially, the CX-90 PHEV doesn’t have this same issue, but I can still sense where the wheels are on the road, and I feel no loss of control.
The PHEV just felt far more well-damped, though after talking with the engineers, the two are pretty similar suspension setups. There were a few theories, but then I asked a simple question: Is there a weight balance difference between the two? The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
The Turbo S, with its turbocharged inline six-cylinder, is heavier at the front compared to the PHEV, and the more weight on the nose, the more input the steering wheel relayed back to the driver. Mazda’s team said it’s a pretty simple suspension tuning change to solve that, so here’s hoping that the team listens to the feedback. Because if you’re a regular driver, you’ll likely want something that isn’t as talkative.
For the Money
Despite my issues with the SUVs, they were few and far between, and I enjoyed my time with the 2024 Mazda CX-90. And what’s more, this full-size SUV is pretty damn affordable. Pricing starts at $39,595 for the base-spec Turbo Select, but the dollar amounts never crest $60,000 for its top-tier, at least not before tax and title.
That’s impressively affordable for what you get, especially compared to others in the segment that don’t have the enthusiast pedigree, space, or a new internal combustion engine. The Honda Pilot is slightly less expensive at its base, starting at $35,950, as is the Toyota Highlander, which starts at $36,420, and the Hyundai Palisade which begins at $35,900. However, those all have less horsepower, smaller engines, and for the most part, are front-wheel drive as standard. That’s not the case with the Mazda.
Is this Mazda’s consumer-grade home run? No, but it’s pretty close. Mazda has made some truly remarkable strides in getting folks into its vehicles and not just speaking to the newly kidded-up enthusiast parent crowd who now need an SUV. I think with a small suspension change in the Turbo S, maybe even a tire change—sidewall is your friend, automakers—and the ride would be terrific no matter the situation or pavement, but not give up Mazda's Zoom-Zoom past. It’d be the best of the two, though the PHEV with its all-electric mode is hard to argue with.
Now I just wish I could convince the company to throw the new turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine into a Miata. SEMA is just around the corner, Mazda.
Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: firstname.lastname@example.org