2024 Mazda CX-90 Plug-In Hybrid Road Test
Mazda has always been a company that’s gone its own way. Its designers and engineers have an individualistic streak that, throughout the company’s history, has resulted in distinctive and innovative products and technologies – all of which have had a distinctive focus on the driving experience. Whether it’s the rotary-engined RX-7, the MX-5 Miata, the world’s most popular sports car, or even the short-ranged but fun-to-drive MX-30 electric crossover, Mazdas have always been different, and different to drive.
That’s true even of its larger, more mainstream vehicles. The new CX-90, a three-row SUV, is a great example. While it’s big, practical, and comfortable like you would expect such a vehicle to be, the CX-90 is unique in many ways, from its configuration to its drivetrain. It’s distinctively styled, and it’s distinctively sporty to drive. And from a technical perspective, it offers an interesting and compelling choice of powertrains: a smooth, powerful turbocharged inline six-cylinder or an all-new, all-wheel drive plug-in hybrid in the CX-90 PHEV.
Uniquely European Driving Experience
What makes it different? Most other three-row import SUVs – such as the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Hyundai Santa Fe – are built on a platform that started life as front-wheel drive, then adapted for available all-wheel drive capability. This generally has advantages for overall interior space, but makes for a less dynamic package. The Mazda CX-90’s platform, on the other hand, has a longitudinal engine, more in line with European luxury models such as the BMW X5, Jaguar F-Pace, and Mercedes-Benz GLE.
The layout not only makes for fantastic proportions for a three-row SUV, with a long, sleek hood and an aggressive cab-back stance, but it also means the CX-90 delivers a more premium driving experience. From the first turn of the steering wheel, you can sense there’s something different about the way it drives compared to its class competitors. The ride is very comfortable, even on the 21-inch wheels of the Premium Plus trim, and the steering feel and general responsiveness are really a cut above. The CX-90 turns naturally into corners and feels more stable and secure at higher cornering speeds; it handles like a far more expensive vehicle than it is.
Mazda CX-90 PHEV: Range and Efficiency
And what of the plug-in hybrid drivetrain? With a 2.5-liter “SkyActiv” gasoline four-cylinder engine and powerful electric motor, the CX-90 PHEV produces an impressive 323 total hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, channeled through an eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is standard, like the Europeans, and its rearward bias in normal conditions is what makes for such a sporty drive.
The EPA rates the CX-90 PHEV at 56 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), though achieving that number is largely dependent on setting off from home with a full charge on your commute. Charging is quick and easy; on a Level 2 charger, you’ll need less than two hours to fully juice the battery, or 7 hours on a Level 1. In cold winter conditions, range in full-electric mode was about 15 miles, but my average MPG was a still-decent 32 mpg – not bad for a large, three-row SUV.
Certainly, the PHEV CX-90 is swift and capable. Indeed, its claimed 0-60 mph time of 5.9 seconds is actually faster than the more powerful 340-hp turbocharged six-cylinder version. The electric motor provides instantaneous torque off the line, and gear changes are fast and seamless. However, unlike the rest of the package, the gasoline engine can be a little gruff under hard acceleration, somewhat disturbing the high-end feel.
Fortunately, in most city and highway situations, the electric motor has more than enough power and torque to mooch around silently, with the gas engine blending in smoothly and imperceptibly when needed. Electric-only range is an impressive EPA estimated 26 miles, enough for many Americans to drive to work and back without using any gasoline. More impressively, there’s more than enough EV power not only for driving into the city, but also for merging easily onto the freeway, and even for high-speed cruising.
CX-90 Interior and Technology
The CX-90 PHEV’s driving experience isn’t the only thing about it that feels like a high-end Euro import. Its cabin is equally impressive, especially in the higher trim levels, where Nappa leather sits alongside beautifully-finished metal and wood trim inserts.
The front seats offer plenty of adjustment, and the second and third row are both impressively spacious given the packaging compromises of the rear-biased platform. While the Preferred trim level has eight seats, with three chairs in the second and third rows, Premium and Premium Plus models have captain’s chairs in the middle row, offering even more luxury. With all three rows of seats in use, the cargo area is about as spacious as a Highlander’s or a Pilot’s – which is to say, not very – but with the third row folded down, there’s cavernous room for all your cargo. A false floor in the trunk has a convenient compartment for a spare charging cable and tool kit.
What we like most about the CX-90 is the simplicity of its controls. Instead of following the trend – especially with luxury brands – towards consolidating everything in a series of menus accessed through a fiddly touchscreen, Mazda has kept physical controls for all essential functions. There’s a full-on climate control panel that makes it easy to set temperature and fan speed front and rear, with dedicated buttons for seat and steering wheel heating, among other things. And the infotainment system, while featuring a large, wide screen and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, is operated through a central control knob that makes it easy to navigate your smartphone’s interface on the go. It’s a far more elegant and less distracting solution to use while driving – improving safety as well as ease-of-use.
Full Suite of Driver Assists
Naturally, the CX-90 PHEV comes with numerous safety and driver assistance systems, which use a battery of sensors and cameras around the car to help make driving this big SUV safer and more convenient. In addition to adaptive cruise control, which maintains a safe following distance from the vehicle in front, the CX-90 offers lane keeping assist, and it can even actively work the steering to keep the vehicle centered in a lane, even in corners. It will automatically sound and alarm and even apply the brakes if it senses an impending collision.
At lower speeds, multiple cameras offer a bird’s-eye view when parking, and rear-facing sensors can automatically brake the vehicle when backing out of a parking spot if vehicles cross into its path. Even when switched off, the CX-90 warns you of approaching traffic as you open its doors.
Mazda CX-90: Pricing and Availability
Mazda offers three trim levels for the CX-90. The Preferred trim starts under $50,000, offering all of the capability and power of more upscale models, but with an eight-passenger interior and cloth seats. You give up wireless CarPlay and Android Auto, and get 19-inch wheels instead of 21-inchers, but it’s still a very well-equipped package, with a power moonroof, fine sound system, and all of the creature comforts you would want.
Step up to the Premium trim for a starting MSRP of $54,400, and in addition to bigger wheels, you get an added towing mode for the automatic transmission, second-row captain’s chairs, some extra glitz on the exterior, synthetic leather seats, and more color choices. The top-of-the-line Premium Plus adds gorgeous Nappa leather inside, seat ventilation, rear seat heating, power-folding mirrors, extra LED illumination in the cabin, and much more.
Whichever CX-90 PHEV you choose, you get a distinctive, well-thought-out package with a spacious, user-friendly interior, intuitive tech, and impressive economy and performance. Plus, because it’s a Mazda, you get an entertaining and engaging driving experience that’s unique in its class.