Mazda North America
Well regarded by driving enthusiasts for the MX-5 Miata, “small batch” Japanese automaker Mazda builds sporty, performance-driven vehicles that not only handle exceptionally well – every model is made with the drive experience in mind – but are sharp to look at too. The newest addition to their North American lineup promises to deliver performance and elegant head-turning design with its just unveiled flagship three-row luxury SUV. On rain-soaked city streets, highways and backroads between San Francisco and Sonoma County, I recently tested the 2024 Mazda CX-90 Plug-in Hybrid Electric (PHEV) and the 3.3 Turbo S. Prepare to be impressed.
Less Is More: A Japanese Aesthetic
A steady drizzle made me appreciate the CX-90 PHEV cabin before setting out from 1 Hotel on San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront. It’s been widely reported Mazda pulled out all the stops for its CX-90 interior, and as a fan of chic neutrals, I was sold on the white perforated Nappa leather seats, wrapped steering wheel, and high-touch finishes, including elegant aluminum trim on the door panels. The cabin felt spacious, and the 12.3-inch infotainment system restrained in proportion. It was easy to navigate, and I scrolled through a pre-curated Mazda playlist while adjusting the mirrors and preparing for my journey. Stowage was also good thanks to ergonomic central storage compartments and cordless smartphone charging pad.
The gauge cluster and infotainment stack were all digital, but the user experience interface had welcome analog buttons, including a commander knob on the center console. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto integration, and USB inputs are standard on the PHEV, but wireless connectivity and a Bose premium sound system are options on higher trim packages. My drive route – taking me out of the city via the Bay Bridge and Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, along Highway 101 and through a corner of Petaluma – was already punched into the nav system.
San Fransisco to Sonoma
Making a right turn onto Mission Street, the car felt responsive – and barely audible – as I made my way through a series of traffic lights. The drizzle had turned into a steady wipers-on-max downpour by the time I crossed the Bay Bridge and made my way onto Interstate 580, but I accessed the music library and switched from Tom Petty with ease to my preferred drive soundtrack: The Cars: Complete Greatest Hits. The 12-speaker Bose stereo system delivered crisp notes from bass through mid to treble as I cranked Just What I Needed. Mazda opted to locate the base speakers in the cowl versus the door panels to eliminate rattle, thus creating an even quieter cabin – so no need to take care when tuning the EQ.
Despite intense conditions, I decided it would be hard to feel remotely stressed driving a car that soothed the senses with such a spa-like sense of serenity – or top-notch safety features. Mazda is known for equipping its vehicles with advanced safety initiatives and the CX-90 is no exception. Standard i-Activsense safety technologies include Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane-keep Assist, and a Lane Departure Warning System. However, my first experience was with Blind Spot Assist, which alerted me to a vehicle on my left what felt like a millisecond after indicating I was about to change lanes. No jarring klaxon here, just a subtle sensation in the steering wheel and heads-up screen display warning – without making me jump out of my skin.
Comprised of an inline four-cylinder engine, an electric motor, and a 17.8-kWh battery pack, the plug-in-hybrid has an estimated 26 miles of electric driving per charge so whether doing the school run or daily commute, it’s been designed so that the battery stays above 20 percent of its usable capacity. However, the gas engine will kick in seamlessly should it get low.
I nixed a designated photo stop at Stafford Lake due to the rain and got a little taste of the ultra-smooth handling capabilities through the scenic Northern California countryside – rolling green hills and ranchlands that spanned the Marin-Sonoma border punctuated by occasional bright yellow Deer Crossing signs. The driving experience felt consistent – Mazda’s Kinematic Posture Control works with the vehicle’s suspension and braking systems to provide better balance and feel when cornering – and the PHEV hugged the road beautifully all the way to Denmark Court, where I was due to speak with Takanori Tsubaki among other Mazda representatives.
With a wider body and longer wheelbase than its predecessor, the CX-90 is Mazda’s largest vehicle yet in North America. Set to compete in the premium three-row mid-size segment, Jon Leverett, project manager of launch strategy for the crossover, tells me it also heralds an upmarket shift for the brand. “In the automotive world, we’ve been pursuing what we call ‘Mazda premium’ for a while and this vehicle is the fullest expression of what we think a luxury vehicle should be. It isn’t a German car. It’s not a Swedish car. This is a Japanese luxury by us,” he says.
And when getting to experience a vehicle that is not only dynamic in terms of drive experience but also extremely visually engaging, who better to speak its design language than CX-90 chief designer Takanori Tsubaki? For reference, Mazda’s Kodo Design philosophy (which translates to “heartbeat” or, more broadly, ‘the soul of motion’) seeks to eliminate unnecessary details and create a clean, minimalist look. “Body forms are meant to be natural and dynamic. Here the surfaces are smooth, but not flat,” Tsubaki-San explains via an interpreter while sketching out a CX-90 and CX-9 for comparison. “The long hood and rear-focused cabin should give a sense of motion even when stationary.”
Mazda’s largest – and most luxurious – vehicle yet
If its striking exterior design, spacious interior, and impressive performance capabilities weren’t enough, some of those safety features mentioned earlier will no doubt secure the CX-90 a place on next year’s coveted IIHS Top Safety Pick rankings. For reference, the Mazda3 Sedan, Mazda3 Hatchback, CX-30, CX-5, CX-50 and CX-9 all made the 2023 list.
Before returning to San Francisco, I looked at a top-tier Turbo S model in the new shape-shifting Artisan Red finish with design elements that showcase the company’s Japanese heritage: dash and door panels upholstered in delicate Kakenui-stitched fabric (a play on traditional paper binding techniques) and integrated with curly maple wood (often used for high-end furniture and musical instruments) with a wavy pattern reminiscent of Nishijin-ori woven silk traditionally produced in Kyoto.
It’s an elegant and harmonious interior with refined material choices and color palette that underscores Mazda’s design philosophies feel as good as they look. Perhaps even more impressive is that a full range of CX-90 features and options, such as this top-of-the-line trim level, comes in around $60,000. Although, Leverett informed me there are 11 different trim packages and configurations available in total, so something for every aesthetic taste.
Soul of Motion & Reflection of Light
For my drive back to the city, I was assigned a CX-90 3.3 Turbo S in the same Rhodium White exterior as the PHEV, although its interiors were decked out in handsome saddle brown leather with contrasting suede trim along the dash. Before setting off, I decided to give the driver personalization system a whirl. Tech wizardry (aka facial recognition) acknowledged me as the primary driver and adjusted the cockpit for optimum positioning. I watched – hands-free – as my seat, mirrors, and steering wheel aligned. Thankfully, the rain eased off, and I saw that my route would take me through a section of giant redwood forest in Marin County – a perfect opportunity to explore the Mi-Drive modes and pop it into Sport.
Here, enthusiasts will appreciate that the 3.3-liter inline-six engine offers 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, but for most of us, that translates into supplying smooth and seamless power for quick acceleration. It was easy to toggle between the P-R-N-D setup, too (there’s an Off-Road and Towing mode, which I didn’t try, and an EV mode on the PHEV). Save for a low growl once Sport engaged the 8-speed transmission, ran up and down the gears with ease and with AWD as standard a lovely stretch along Lucas Valley Road rewarded with tight turns plus a moment to appreciate the “reflection of light” Tsbuaki San talked about earlier during an impromptu stop. Light filtering through the giant redwoods beautifully showcased the latest Kodo design language – no filter required.
The final stretch south on Highway 101 felt like an opportune time to try another safety feature – the Lane-Keep Assist – and adaptive cruise control while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the city.
With a hands-free rear power liftgate – whether bundling the kids in for a soccer game (there is room for up to eight passengers) or loading up the skis for a couples’ mountain getaway (the rear seats fold down to create more storage) – the CX-90 is an upscale SUV that not only looks good but provides subtle muscle drive enthusiasts will appreciate. mazdausa.com
All image credits courtesy of Mazda North America unless otherwise noted.