Test drive: 2024 Mazda CX-90 3-row SUV grows brand’s ambitions

The new 2024 Mazda CX-90 three-row SUV elbows the small Japanese brand onto the luxury table. It might be a privilege to sit alongside rivals ranging from the Volvo XC90 and Lincoln Aviator to the more expensive BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, but such company also shows how far Mazda has to go to prove itself with its new flagship, let alone unseat them.  

The largest vehicle in Mazda’s lineup rises above the CX-9 three-row crossover, and its interior finish also sits a grade higher the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade. It channels BMW and Mercedes with a turbocharged inline-6, and embraces a rear-drive architecture like those vehicles and the Lincoln Aviator. A mild-hybrid system supplements power off the line and eases the electrical load off the engine, like the Volvo XC90, and Mazda offers a plug-in hybrid powertrain at the top of the lineup.

Over the course of a long road trip, I tested the turbocharged 3.3-liter inline-6 in a top trim that suggests Mazda USA still hasn’t quite figured out how to brand its premium status: The 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus Package is not something that rolls off the tongue from shopper to salesperson, or otherwise.

The long hood and smooth sides combine for a sporty elegant look, and the mild-hybrid system helps with fuel economy without compromising the power of the turbo-6. The interior ditches the understated design of past Mazdas with something more sumptuous. But there are some wrinkles that could use ironing, from the gear shifts to a third row that, while ample, might stuff the 10 little piggies into overcrowding. Here’s the takeaway.  


Pro: Mazda’s new flagship ascends, inside and out

If there were any doubt about Mazda’s intention to climb the class ladder, it’s evident in the design. In profile, it mirrors the Lincoln Aviator’s rear-drive architecture but doesn’t look as long or wide, thanks in part to its rounded hindquarters topped with an integrated rear roof spoiler. Chrome trim accents the winged grille, front splitter, and rocker panels, as well as the window line, lending it suburban sophistication in a class that’s gone goofy with rubber-cladded soft-roaders. 

The interior sets the table even better, especially with the top Premium Plus materials. Quilted nappa leather with accented cross-stitching blends with suede-like inserts on the door and dash panels, as if coaxing the fingertips to touch it. The brand’s characteristically spartan dash design may be even more sparing than Volvo, with a 12.3-inch touchscreen crowning the dash horizontally, and a band of climate buttons with temperature toggles running under it. Long and lean is the theme here, bookended by vertical vents. The theme comes undone, however, at the center console.

Con: Mazda’s rotary infotainment dial remains stuck in the past

The center console houses Mazda’s rotary dial to control the infotainment system, and it’s an anchor making this flagship run aground. BMW and Genesis employ a rotary dial, but their systems have evolved to be user friendly and they have corresponding touchscreens are close enough to actually touch. Mazda’s system will be familiar to anyone who has tested or driven a Mazda in the past half-decade, and it still takes three or four twists and presses to negotiate even your favorite audio settings. 

Con: Apple CarPlay connectivity drops too often

It’s hard to discern if the issues with CarPlay needing to be reconnected or losing connection were from traveling with questionable connections, but even once we were grounded for a few days, the CX-90 would drop CarPlay oftentimes at start up. Using Google Maps with CarPlay led to other issues, such as the rotary dial not working to access the arrows and zoom-in/out functions. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. This is not unique to Mazda, as Apple CarPlay connectivity is one of the biggest problems reported by new car owners. 

Con: CX-90 lacks the punch of German rivals

Turbo S models like the one I tested ratchet up the power from the 3.3-liter inline-6 to 340 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, with premium gas (the base Turbo turbo-4 model makes 280 hp and 332 lb-ft). The motor for the mild-hybrid system is housed in the 8-speed automatic transmission, essentially replacing the torque converter for more jump off the line. It’s more like Volvo than Lincoln in terms of power, and it can’t match the Germans in terms of thrust. It’s there, and you’re never without enough power to get where you want to go and how, but the 0-60 mph time is probably in the mid-six-second range. 

Pro: Inline-6 efficiency

In mostly highway driving, about 85% at 75 mph over 400 miles, the trip computer readout of 29.2 mpg exceeded the EPA estimate of 28 mpg highway, and that was driving at higher speeds than the EPA uses to certify its highway test. Other trip readouts continuously exceeded EPA estimates of 23 mpg city, 28 highway, 25 combined, making this one of the more efficient three-row SUVs with a mild-hybrid system, especially with an inline-6. 

The Volvo XC90 has a mild-hybrid system with a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that gets 22/28/25 mpg, while the Lincoln Aviator’s V-6 with AWD nets just 17/24/20 mpg and the BMW X5’s inline-6 with AWD gets 21/25/23 mpg. It’s 2 mpg combined more efficient than the smaller CX-9 with a 2.5-liter turbo-4. 

Con: Low gear shift hiccups

The new 8-speed automatic transmission can hiccup between lower gear shifts if the driver isn’t steady on the throttle; it mirrors the driver’s indecision, resulting in a slight shudder if you’re on then off the throttle while pulling out of the subdivision, or turning left at a light and the lead car slows. It’s a minor complaint.

2024 Mazda CX-90

Con: Front seat comfort can’t match Volvo or Lincoln

The front seats have standard 8-way power adjustments with adjustable lumbar support, and heating is included. They’re fine. But the top Premium Plus seats add no more functionality or comfort. The seats can’t come close to Volvo’s ergonomic seats with thigh, lumbar, bolster, and a multitude of other adjustments, or Lincoln’s 30-way power cushions with massaging. If Mazda wants to sit in the lap of luxury, it has to zero in on seat comfort.  

Pro and Con: Larger third row but limited toe room

Mazda’s largest vehicle is its roomiest, and it comes in six-, seven-, or eight-seat configurations, unlike most other three-row SUVs. In the six-seat configuration I drove, latches on the seat tops make for easy enough access to the third row, though push-button seats by rivals are easier. Mazda fits a center console between the second-row captain’s chairs for greater storage, but it blocks the aisle to get into the third row, meaning you can only enter by using the latch to move those seats forward. 

Once in back, headroom and legroom are more than ample on the 50/50-split rearmost seat, and sitting next to another adult back there would not feel like a punishment, depending on the company. The footroom is limited, however. I either had to wedge my feet between the captain’s chair mounting rails, or put one foot in the middle of the rails and one behind the console, and even then it was like I was heel-toeing a pedal. It would be a pain after a while. Also, the floor sits higher back there, as it does in most three-row crossover SUVs, so the knees ride higher. 

The 2024 Mazda CX-90 impresses, and much like the Toyota Grand Highlander and Jeep Grand Cherokee L, it improves on the smaller sizes of its relations to appease American appetites for size. Its presence at the luxury table is noticed, but it’s not mature or sophisticated enough to unseat Volvo or Lincoln. 


2024 Mazda CX-90 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus Package AWD

Base price: $40,970, including $1,375 destination

Price as tested: $61,920

Drivetrain: Turbocharged 3.3-liter inline-6 mild hybrid rated at 340 hp, 369 lb-ft; 8-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive 

EPA fuel economy: 23 mpg city, 28 highway, 25 combined

The pros: Style, refinement, larger third row than CX-9, efficiency

The cons: Infotainment, third-row toeroom, front seat comfort comes up short

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