2024 Mazda CX-90 First Drive: New Three-Row SUV Doesn't Neglect The Driver

Mazda's CX-90 is all-new for 2024 and it's an impressively easygoing 8-passenger crossover. It's a great example of a Mazda: it just works. You can enjoy it and appreciate it without understanding every detail of why that's the case, but if you're in the mood, Mazda would love to explain how they scaled the driving dynamics of the Miata to make a three-row SUV feel effortless.

The CX-90 rides on an all-new platform that was designed specifically to offer the most fun driving experience in its segment. It boasts two new powertrains, standard all-wheel drive across the lineup, a tow rating of up to 5,000 pounds, and 11 configurations designed to make this Mazda accessible to anyone shopping this class.

Will the average crossover-shopping family care about the details of the CX-90's musculature? Probably not, but they are likely to notice the CX-90 stays planted in situations that would cause other three-row crossovers to heave all over the road. Mazda's innovative systems invariably make a difference in driving enjoyment, and it's palpable in the 2024 CX-90.

A classic exterior

The Mazda CX-90 looks more classic than new; it's beautiful, but there are no obvious markings or clues that distinguish it as the brand's latest model. Our test vehicles were available in crisp Rhodium White and sultry Artisan Red; we can't wait to see in person how Mazda's signature Soul Red Crystal wears the CX-90's lines. Along with these three colors, Machine Gray Metallic costs extra. Jet Black Mica, Deep Crystal Blue Mica, Platinum Quartz, and Sonic Silver round out the palette.

Wheels are available in 19-inch and 21-inch designs, and gracefully fill out the subtly-swollen fenders.

The CX-90 is both sweet and svelte. It's a good-looking big crossover, that cleverly disguises its size and manages to look sporty in a way that its contemporaries can't quite pull off.

A true 8-seater inside

Though Mazda refers to the CX-90 as an 8-passenger vehicle, it's also available in 6- and 7-passenger configurations. All three rows are spacious and comfortable, with supportive seats and plush materials. The dash and steering wheel are on the busy side, with too many buttons, but otherwise it's a thoughtful and elegant design. 

Features include a standard 10.25-inch and available 12.3-inch touchscreen angled toward the driver, standard wired and available wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, standard power-adjustable driver's seat, and options such as heated front and second-row seats, ventilated front and second-row seats, second-row captain's chairs with the choice of a center walk-through or center storage console, and choice of cloth, synthetic leather, leather, or Nappa leather upholstery in an elegant and upscale menu of color combinations. It's not really a luxury vehicle, but it plays the part well.

Engineering to be proud of

Boasting about an inline-6 and a longitudinal engine feels almost retro, which is deliberate according to Mazda — it's a nod to the brand's history of sports car production. There are actual advantages beyond the warm-and-fuzzy feeling, though, namely that a longitudinally-arranged engine bay frees up space along the sides, which Mazda filled with a double-wishbone front suspension setup. That helps the CX-90 feel like a smaller vehicle, by reducing the crossover's tendency to heave or lean through turns and curves. Mazda explained in the pre-drive briefing that a double-wishbone suspension system also creates less friction than other suspension types, which improves both ride quality and steering feel. The rear gets a five-link suspension, which mitigates the effect of bumps and minimizes the forward pitch that often results from sharp braking.

Kinetic Posture Control sounds like fancy seating, but it's another bit of Mazda's innovative platform technology, and interesting enough to be worth an explanation. Essentially, when pushing through a corner, a very small amount of braking force slows the inside rear tire, though the purpose isn't to reduce speed, but to cut body lean and keep the vehicle from deviating from its path.

The rear-wheel-drive-based platform with all-wheel drive delivers the sporty feeling of a rear-drive car — not quite as pure as a true rear-drive car but definitely more athletic than a front-drive crossover. Mazda's all-wheel drive system constantly monitors for weight transfer, traction, and steering input to send torque to the corners where it's needed to maintain stability and smoothness, which is helpful not just during regular driving, but while towing or off-roading.

Turbo: Mazda remembers how to make cars fun

The CX-90 is available with three all-new electrified powertrains: two inline-six options, and a 2.5-liter inline-four plug-in hybrid (PHEV). Both offer the same peak torque of 369 lb-ft, and the inline-six has just slightly more peak horsepower than the PHEV, at 340 hp and 323 hp, respectively. The inline-six and PHEV both get an all-new 8-speed automatic transmission designed in-house by Mazda, specifically for the new platform. It improves throttle response by eschewing the torque converter in favor of a wet clutch, and though the difference between this new transmission and Mazda's older unit might not be all that noticeable, the difference between this transmission and a CVT absolutely is. Enjoying the feeling of an actual gear change now evokes nostalgia. Thanks, Mazda, for making me feel old.

The 3.3-liter inline-six turbo comes in two flavors, Turbo and Turbo S, both with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system. The former is rated for 280 horsepower and 332 lb-ft, and the Turbo S is rated for 340 hp and 369 lb-ft on recommended premium fuel, and downgrades to 319 hp on regular fuel.

The inline-six gets Towing, Off-road, Sport, and Normal drive modes (the PHEV also gets an EV mode). We didn't get to test towing or all-terrain driving, but Normal and Sport modes in the Turbo S both deliver on their promises. Normal is comfortable and easy, while Sport is grin-inducing, with a growl from the engine and a satisfying burst of speed shortly after the stomp on the throttle. Neither feel quite as quick as the PHEV, but that's by design. The Turbo is rated for 24 mpg city, 28 highway, and 25 combined; the Turbo S sheds 1 mpg from that city rating.

PHEV: a Mazda unlike any other

The CX-90 PHEV is the first such powertrain in a Mazda for North America, and you can feel every bit of its 323 hp and 369 lb-ft.

Despite the similar specs between the Turbo S and PHEV, the driving experiences are quite different. Ideally, this means the shopper can pick the better CX-90 model for personal preference and budget, without necessarily being swayed by the horsepower figure. In our opinion, it would be a shame if buyers chose the inline-six over the PHEV simply because of the horsepower rating, rather than other, more rational concerns (like access to charging) that should drive such a decision.

Normal mode here seeks a balance between gas and electric power for the best efficiency, prioritizing electric power when the car is fully charged. As the battery dwindles, the system draws from the gas engine to try to maintain a 20 percent charge to ensure the electric motor always has enough power to assist. It's so smooth and compliant, we didn't even notice the elevation changes until our ears started popping.

In EV mode, the power comes fully from the battery and electric motor, both to optimize efficiency in stop-and-go driving, and to provide the full electric option for drivers who prefer not to tap into the gas tank, though this compromises acceleration. It's a compromise with a considerable payoff — we got 27 miles in EV mode in San Francisco morning rush hour traffic (Mazda hasn't yet revealed expected EPA ratings for the PHEV). Overall, the PHEV feels much quicker than the inline-six, and the quieter powertrain has appeal even when the drive is its own objective. The experience is lush, like the fog rising over the bay, the pleasant damp settling in the palms and grapevines.

Safety is sexy

Mazda believes that making vehicles safe makes drivers more confident, which in turn makes driving more fun. Standard features on the 2024 CX-90 include the Smart Brake Support automatic emergency braking system, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control. Mazda offers Cruising and Traffic Support, which provides limited hands-free driving in the form of lane centering and adaptive cruise control at highway speeds, and technologies that improve safety when interacting with oncoming and turning traffic.

A couple quibbles on the topic of safety, however. There are tons of buttons across the dash and steering wheel, seemingly a relic of Mazda's historical aversion to touchscreens. The driver can use the CX-90's touchscreen while the vehicle is moving, which is a nice change for the brand, but interior designers seem reluctant to encourage drivers to do so. It makes for a cluttered cockpit with lots of distractions, and even after a few hours behind the wheel, some steering wheel controls were still hard to find without looking.

Also, in Sport mode, the instrument cluster dials turn red, which we found distracting in our peripheral vision. Mazda says the cluster color can't be changed in this mode, but can be dialed down in intensity.

Pricing and availability

The 2024 CX-90 hits Mazda dealerships in April. So... now, or soon enough. Just enough time to figure out those 11 configurations, and potential buyers certainly have a lot of choices to make. The most important are seating configuration and powertrain; trim level feels secondary, since the SUV is pretty well equipped to begin with. Since all-wheel drive is standard across the lineup, that's one less decision and one less upcharge.

The Turbo is available in Select, Preferred, Preferred Plus, Premium, and Premium Plus; the Turbo S in base, Premium, and Premium Plus; and PHEV in Preferred, Premium, and Premium Plus. At least they're keeping things relatively simple by using trim names that make sense.

The 2024 Mazda CX-90 starts at $39,595, only $845 more than the 2023 CX-9 it's slated to replace. That's for the base Turbo; move through the ranks to the Turbo S Premium Plus and you're looking at $59,950. The PHEV isn't yet at dealerships, but will start at $47,445. That's a not-insignificant premium over the base Turbo, but also sits a trim level higher and includes more equipment in addition to the better powertrain.

It's likely to be a hit, too — if you're waiting for a Telluride or Palisade to show up at your local Kia/Hyundai showrooms, go drive the CX-90 in the meantime. Mazda's perfected the mainstream-yet-offbeat crossover formula on the brand's best-selling compact CX-5 and increasingly popular soft-road-capable CX-30. The CX-90 carries those lessons forward, with new tech and the space to take more friends along for the ride.