When I first read the spec sheet for the 2024 Mazda CX-90, it felt like Mazda tailor-made an SUV just for me. With its handsome but understated good looks, three rows of seating, an affordable price, and an all-new straight-six engine, the CX-90 seems like my perfect daily driver. But that’s actually sort of a problem for Mazda because if it’s perfect for me, it’s probably not great for the vast majority of American SUV customers. So despite liking the CX-90 a lot, I unfortunately don’t know who’s going to buy it.
I am absolutely not the stereotypical SUV buyer in America. What I value is not what the average customer values: power, performance, steering feel, and handling dynamics. I’d sacrifice a bit of cabin space, practicality, and even some reliability for a car to feel sportier and more exciting. However, SUV customers typically favor the opposite traits. They want something that’s spacious, comfortable, high-tech, and stylish. The CX-90 is more for customers like me.
I’m not quite sure I’ve ever driven an SUV, especially one as big as the CX-90, that handled as well. And I absolutely adore the new engine. But I fear that Mazda is going to sell about 12 of them, while Honda, Toyota, and Chevy sell literal boatloads of Pilots, Highlanders, and Traverses. This is disappointing because Mazda should be celebrated for making the CX-90, a car that tries to show the world that SUVs don’t have to be so boring and sensible.
|2024 Mazda CX-90 Specs
|Base Price (Turbo S Premium Plus as tested)
|3.3-liter turbocharged inline-six | 8-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
|340 @ 5,000 rpm
|369 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
|7 or 8
|14.9 cubic feet behind third row | 40 cubic feet behind second row | 74.2 cubic feet behind first row
|EPA Fuel Economy
|24 mpg city | 28 highway | 25 combined
|A genuinely fun-to-drive three-row SUV with a brand new straight-six that deserves applause. Will mainstream buyers bite, though?
The CX-90 is a brand-new car for Mazda, as it had previously only made the CX-9, a car that’s still sold alongside its new sibling—for now, at least. With the CX-90, Mazda tried to get a bit more premium and exciting than it had ever done before. And you can tell, as it looks and feels more expensive than any other Mazda product I’ve ever driven. It still isn’t on par with premium brands like Lexus or Mercedes but I’d argue that it’s on par with most Acuras.
As fancy as it is, one of its biggest issues to me is its design. The CX-90 certainly isn’t an ugly car but it is a boring one. I like that, though, because I’m a dorky introvert and like subtle, under-the-radar designs. However, when you look at cars like the stylish Acura MDX, Kia Telluride, or even the new Chevy Traverse, the big Mazda is almost invisible. My test car’s Artisan Red paint also felt a bit geriatric and I think it looks better in more vibrant colors like Soul Red or Deep Crystal Blue. I still don’t like its front end, either, as I don’t think its tiny headlights that merge with its grille look good.
Inside, it’s a similar story. The design is tame and sophisticated but the materials are high quality and feel expensive to the touch. That said, it’s also home to the CX-90's biggest issue: tech. There’s no getting around it, Mazda’s cabin tech is beyond dated. It feels at least two generations behind, with its dainty rotary dial controller on the center console, narrow infotainment screen, and ultra-basic functionality. It feels like Mazda benchmarked BMW’s iDrive 6 for its infotainment. Of course, this won’t be much of a problem if you just use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto like a sane human being, but, for what it’s worth, the built-in systems from GM, Toyota, and Hyundai are all more advanced.
Where the CX-90 separates itself from the segment, and where Mazda differentiates itself as a brand, is its powertrain. Ain’t no puny four-pot in this big Mazda. No, friend, the CX-90 packs a twin-turbocharged 3.3-liter straight-six engine and it’s kick-ass. As someone who’s owned several straight-six-powered cars, the fact that Mazda brought a brand-new one to market warmed my heart. It’s a good one, too, with a silky smooth power delivery and plenty of punch. It certainly feels more expensive than the four-cylinder engines you get in almost every one of its competitors.
Driving the Mazda CX-90
Mazda will wax poetic in commercials about the CX-90’s driving dynamics and it’s all true. The CX-90 handles better than any other three-row SUV in its class. The only three-row SUVs that can top it have “M” or “AMG” badges on them and cost nearly triple what the CX-90 does. And still, I’d argue that the Mazda’s steering and balance are better. It flows down the road and snakes through corners with a fluidity that almost nothing else its size can match. It’s a lovely thing to drive.
That said, it isn’t perfect. Its eight-speed automatic transmission felt a bit confused at times and it never really shifted with the urgency and immediacy that I expected it to, given the grunt of its engine and responsiveness of its steering. It’s OK but it isn’t as good as the eight-speed units you’ll find in most of its German rivals. Its brakes were also unpredictable at low speeds, which made braking smoothly more difficult than it should be. And its ride is choppy, likely as a result of firm suspension tuning that’s trying to be sporty while dealing with its mass and 21-inch wheels.
Even still, the Mazda CX-90 feels like the three-row family bus for the enthusiast. It’s for the person who spent their 20s driving Miatas, Golf GTIs, or Civic Sis but now has a few kids and needs something big but doesn’t want something dull. You can tell its chassis, suspension, and steering were developed by people who genuinely love to drive.
The Highs and Lows
Without question, the star of the CX-90’s show is its engine. It isn’t just great to use, it’s wonderful knowing it’s there. Knowing that there’s a twin-turbo straight-six under its hood makes the CX-90 feel different from its rivals, even when it’s idling. And that’s cool. Its steering and handling are also among its best attributes. Its third row ain’t bad, either.
Like all things, the CX-90 isn’t perfect but it’s unfortunately more flawed than I would have liked. Its cabin tech is plain bad, some of the interior switches feel cheap, and its ride is a bit too rough for a three-row SUV in this segment. There were also some oddities that were just annoying, such as the sunroof, which barely opens, and the auto start/stop button that’s labeled “i-stop,” so I couldn’t find it for the first two days of testing the CX-90.
Mazda CX-90 Features, Options, and Competition
For almost $41,000 to start, the CX-90 comes decently well-equipped, with the big straight-six, all-wheel drive, 19-inch wheels, LED headlights, three-zone climate control, and blind-spot monitors, among a laundry list of other things. Considering that there’s no base four-cylinder model, the CX-90 comes well-equipped for the money.
Step up to the top-spec Turbo S Premium Plus model, though, and you get heated and ventilated second-row captain chairs, Nappa leather, 21-inch wheels, and a large panoramic sunroof. If you want all that, though, you’ll have to pay just under $62,000.
As for its competition, it goes up against cars like the Toyota Grand Highlander, Chevy Traverse, and Volkswagen Atlas on the lower end of its price point and the Acura MDX and Lexus TX at the higher end. Of those cars, the Mazda CX-90 is the clear driver’s car and is the only one that’s genuinely fun to drive. However, the Mazda lacks the cabin tech and (in the case of the latter two) luxury design of those cars.
For packing a big straight-six, the Mazda CX-90 is surprisingly efficient, getting an EPA-rated 25 mpg combined. That bests all of the aforementioned SUVs in the Mazda’s price point. Admittedly, I didn’t see 25 mpg but I also drove it like a hoon, pushing it hard every chance I had, and hearing that excellent inline-six noise.
However, with countless hybrids and small four-cylinder engines flooding the market, it’s certainly worth wondering if Mazda will be able to hold onto this bigger engine for much longer. It’s a large engine, one that’d be at home under the hood of a BMW, and it’s lovely to drive. But with the industry’s push for efficiency and low emissions, a brand-new straight-six seems unlikely to stick. In Mazda’s defense, though, there is the plug-in hybrid version of the CX-90, which is rated for 56 mpge while also offering 26 miles of electric-only range.
Value and Verdict
It’s hard to evaluate the Mazda CX-90, financially. On paper, it stacks up well enough with the rest of its competitors to make it a real option for customers in the segment. However, it doesn’t provide the same cabin technology or interior creature comforts that you’d find in, say, a Lexus TX. Instead, Mazda valued the heart over the head with the CX-90 and put its development dollars into providing the driving dynamics, performance, and emotion of a sports car. Will customers appreciate that tradeoff and value the CX-90 for the impressive driving SUV that it is or will they find it dated and old school? I obviously hope for the former but unfortunately expect the latter.
When the Mazda CX-90 left my driveway at the end of my time with it, I was sad. Not only because I didn’t get to drive it anymore but because I had a sinking feeling that its time on the market will be short-lived. I sincerely hope that I’m wrong but I just don’t see three-row SUV customers taking it over any of the other options on the market. It’s built for a different time, a different customer. It’s great to drive and easy to love if you value sporty driving over comfort, tech, and practicality but how many three-row SUV customers fit that description? Hopefully, for the CX-90’s sake, there are more of those folks out there than I think.
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