2024 Mazda CX-90 Review: Rewriting The Benchmarks

  • Great styling
  • Turbo 3.3L engine is potent and engaging
  • Driving dynamics that belie the size
  • Luxurious cabin
  • Third row legroom is a little lacking
  • Less cargo space than some rivals

Three-row SUVs are not generally known as being fun to drive, and that's a problem for an automaker like Mazda. After all, the Japanese car company has built its reputation on instilling engagement behind the wheel into segments that rivals are content to leave cheerless. Question is, has the 2024 CX-90 bitten off more there than it can chew?

Mazda knows how to make a handsome car, but the big, three-row SUV segment is tricky. On the one hand, buyers want a good-looking ride; at the same time, though, nobody wants to compromise on headroom, legroom in all three rows, and trunk space. That calls for a big, rectangular box on wheels, and yet — sorry, Nissan Cube — that simply isn't going to sell.

Despite these challenges, the CX-90 aesthetic works better than most. Certainly, the Artisan Red Metallic paint (a $595 option) helps its sultry, almost-purpling finish, adding just the right degree of attention to the curves of Mazda's bodywork. That helps lift what would otherwise be slabbish sides, as do the 21-inch alloy wheels. It definitely looks bigger than the CX-9 it's replacing

The front is particularly charming — Mazda's judicious application of chrome helping link the grille with its LED headlights. It's distinctive, but not try-hard, like the oversized fascias of some of its rivals. Only the rear really struggles, to my eyes: the slope of the glass hits a jutting angle of the trunk door, and while that probably helps with usable cargo space below the shoulder line, it also leaves the CX-90's rump a little misshapen.

An interior fit for the segment above

No such complaints can be leveled at the interior. Mazda's cabin design and finish have been so refined as to embarrass considerably more expensive luxury vehicles, and the CX-90 picks that baton up with aplomb.

Now, admittedly, that's the view from sitting in a Turbo S Premium Plus package car, which — with the paint job — pushes this particular CX-90 up to $61,920 (including $1,375 destination). Things in the base-spec CX-90 — which starts at $39,595 — aren't going to be quite so flashy in terms of materials and tech. Nonetheless, common across the board is a clean and straightforward layout, which happily addresses some of the most common criticisms of past Mazda interiors.

It's spacious, albeit on the snug side for adult legs in the rearmost row, and the tan Nappa leather looks and feels grand. That comes standard on the Turbo S Premium Plus trim and above; the base trim has leatherette, and leather fills in the rest. Mazda's more affordable CX-90 trims get eight seats maximum; that dips to seven from the 3.3 Turbo Premium trim, and at the very top trims, that's down to six (albeit six very nice) chairs. A useful center console separates the second row captain's chairs in that configuration.

Tech with a little touch

Mazda's detailing belies the price of even the upper-end models. The dashboard, clad across its center in tactile microsuede, looks and feels beautiful. Though, I'd be terrified of sticky fingers coming into contact with it. The switchgear for the HVAC system — with its organ toggle-style temperature controls — is a neat addition, too, and the heated steering wheel is just the right thickness.

Despite the metal-woodgrain effect, the center console trim is plastic. It, and Mazda's switchgear in general, feel solid, and the CX-90 isn't short on physical controls despite the large display atop the dashboard. That's either 10.25-inches or 12.3-inches, trim-depending, with a separate rotary controller and shortcut cluster down by the transmission shifter. 

You can touch the screen directly when you're using wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (standard on all but the two lowest trims, as is a wireless charging pad). However, Mazda's own interface favors the jog-dial, which the automaker maintains is a safety consideration.

The driver gets a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster on higher trims, with different graphics for the Normal, Sport, and Off-Road modes. Even so, there's not quite the array of customization that rivals provide. Lower trims make do with a 7-inch display alongside analog dials. All but the base trim have a pair of USB-C ports in all three rows, while a Bose audio system arrives on the 3.3 Turbo Premium.

Three engines, and AWD, as standard

Mazda has three powertrains for the CX-90, all using the same rear-wheel drive platform — though all-wheel drive is sensibly standard across the board — and two tapping a new inline-six, longitudinally-oriented engine. You can safely skip the engineering, really; suffice to say, Mazda's packaging meant the CX-90 could accommodate a fancier double-wishbone front suspension system.

Turbo and Turbo S cars get a 3.3-liter inline-six 48-volt mild hybrid. In the former, it's good for 280 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque; the Turbo S nudges that up to 340 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Either way, there's an eight-speed automatic transmission that was also developed in-house for more enthusiastic gear-changes.

Look, when automakers claim to be putting the "sport" back into SUV, it's usually worth an eye-roll. Mazda, at least, earns the benefit of the doubt: As seen from the CX-30 and CX-50, Mazda really has figured out how to strike a balance between comfort and keenness. Happily, though much larger, the CX-90 continues in that vein and — along with a 5,000 pound tow rating (or 3,500 pounds in the lower trims) — there's certainly enough here to please more eager drivers.

Not a Miata, but not an elephant, either

No, this is not a Miata, but neither is it a big, hefty-feeling family hauler. In Normal mode with the more potent of the 3.3-liter engines, the CX-90 thrums along nicely. Mazda once again demonstrates its expertise at chassis and suspension tuning, eschewing expensive air suspension in favor of a pitch-perfect middle-ground from its more traditional springs.

Flick over to Sport mode, and the CX-90's redline becomes a more familiar thing. It's amusing to find a large SUV so willing to rev up high, but it never feels frustrating (and a click of the paddles will address things if you really aren't happy). Factor in firmer steering, and there's more than enough here to assuage assumptions that a larger brood inevitably means a duller drive. It leaves me even more excited to see the upcoming, smaller CX-70, which will be based on the same platform.

Mazda also has a new — and promising — plug-in hybrid CX-90, combining a 2.5-liter inline-four with an electric motor and the same 8-speed transmission. Total system power is 323 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, and it'll be rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, with a choice of 7 or 8-seat configurations. Electric-only range from the 17.8 kWh li-ion battery is an estimated 26 miles: not a vast amount, but not bad for a PHEV of this scale.

Solid economy and ADAS tech

I'm excited to try Mazda's first ever PHEV for North America, but it has a lot to live up to from the new inline-six turbo. Not least of that is economy: the more potent of the two tunes is rated for 23 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg combined. With little effort, though, I was seeing more than 27 mpg in mixed driving.

As for active safety tech, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts is standard across the board, as is adaptive cruise control. Rain-sensing wipers, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, and lane-keep assistance are also standard. The bluntly-named "Cruising and Traffic Support" adds hands-on lane centering for highway use; it's smooth in operation, but it can't do automatic lane-changes yet.

A power lift gate, three-zone climate control, rear privacy glass, and heated side mirrors are all standard. Upper trims get a 360-degree camera, a 120V/150W outlet in the trunk, and ventilated front and — in some cases — second row seats. As for storage, there's 15.9 cubic-feet of trunk space with all three rows up, expanding to 40.1 cu-ft with the third row flat. The 75.2 cubic-feet maximum is okay, but not class-leading.

2024 Mazda CX-90 Verdict

Still, the CX-90 doesn't need segment-besting storage in order to satisfy buyers. There are more capacious SUVs on the market — and more frugal ones, and cheaper ones, too — but the Mazda's strength is in how it combines practicality with a still-rewarding experience from behind the wheel. After all, just because you have to play bus driver at times, why should that mean you can't also have fun?

This CX-90 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus trim is, at more than $61K all-in, an expensive prospect. Were it my money, I'd stick with the more powerful version of Mazda's engine, but look at the Turbo S trim instead, from $51,750 (plus destination). That is until I can try out the CX-90 PHEV, which is shaping up to be a more-than-impressive first entry in the plug-in hybrid space.

Overall, the 2024 CX-90 distills what has long been Mazda's charm into its largest vehicle yet. Engaging dynamics, handsome design, and a cabin that punches above its weight (and price tag) help offset most of the foibles, and while rivals may compete piecemeal, it's Mazda's overall package that leaves its sizable SUV feeling genuinely special.