Mazda North America
Well-regarded by driving enthusiasts for the MX-5 Miata, Japanese “small-batch” Japanese automaker Mazda builds sporty, performance-driven vehicles that not only handle exceptionally well—each model is made with the driving experience in mind—but are sharp to look at. The latest addition to their North American lineup promises to deliver performance and stylish design with their newly unveiled flagship three-row luxury SUV. On rain-soaked city streets, freeways and back roads between San Francisco and Sonoma County, I recently tested the 2024 Mazda CX-90 Plug-in Hybrid Electric (PHEV) and 3.3 Turbo S. Prepare to be impressed.
Less Is More: A Japanese Aesthetic
A steady drizzle made me appreciate the CX-90 PHEV’s cabin before I set off from 1 Hotel on the waterfront of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. It’s been widely reported that 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-pressure finish, including sleek aluminum accents. on the door panels. The cabin felt spacious and the 12.3-inch infotainment system is restrained in proportion. It was easy to navigate, and I flipped through a pre-curated Mazda playlist while adjusting the mirrors and preparing for my ride. Storage was also good thanks to ergonomic central storage compartments and wireless smartphone charging pad.
The gauge cluster and infotainment stack were all digital, but the user interface had welcome analog buttons, including a command button on the center console. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto integration and USB ports are standard on the PHEV, but wireless connectivity and a Bose premium audio system are options for higher trim packages. My driving route—which took me out of the city via the Bay Bridge and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, along Highway 101 and through a corner of Petaluma—was already entered into the navigation system.
San Francisco to Sonoma
Taking 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 downpour by the time I crossed the Bay Bridge and onto Interstate 580, but I accessed the music library and easily switched from Tom Petty to my preferred soundtrack: The Cars: Complete Greatest Hits. The 12-speaker Bose stereo system delivered crisp tones from bass to mids to treble as I cranked Exactly what I needed. Mazda chose to place the woofers in the hood versus the door panels to eliminate rattle, creating an even quieter cabin – so you don’t have to be careful when setting 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 calm – 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 technology includes Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane-Keep Assist and a Lane Departure Warning system. My first experience, however, 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 fuss here, just a subtle feel in the steering wheel and head-up display warning – without making me jump out of my skin.
Comprised of an inline four-cylinder engine, an electric motor and a 17.8kWh battery pack, the plug-in hybrid has an estimated 46 miles of electric range per charge, so whether you’re driving it to school or your daily commute, it’s designed to last over 20 percent of its usable capacity. However, the gas engine will kick in seamlessly should it get low.
I ditched a designated photo stop at Stafford Lake due to the rain and got a small taste of the ultra-smooth handling through the scenic Northern California countryside—rolling green hills and ranch lands straddling the Marin/Sonoma border punctuated by the occasional bright yellow deer. Crossing sign. 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’s court, where I was 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 in North America to date. Jon Leverett, project manager for the launch strategy for the crossover, which will compete in the premium three-row mid-size segment, says it also heralds an upscale shift for the brand. “In the automotive world, we’ve been striving for 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’s not a German car. It’s not a Swedish car. This is a Japanese luxury of ours,” he says.
And when experiencing a vehicle that is not only dynamic in terms of driving 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 generally, “soul of movement”) strives to eliminate unnecessary details and create a clean, minimalist look. “Body shapes are meant to be natural and dynamic. Here, the surfaces are smooth, but not flat,” Tsubaki-San explains through an interpreter as he sketches a CX-90 and CX-9 for comparison. “The long hood and rear-facing cabin should give a sense of movement even when standing still.”
Mazda’s largest – and most luxurious – vehicle to date
If its striking exterior design, spacious interior, and impressive performance weren’t enough, some of the safety features mentioned earlier will undoubtedly secure the CX-90 a spot 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-of-the-range Turbo S model in the new shape-shifting Artisan Red finish with design elements that showcase the company’s Japanese heritage: instrument panels and door panels covered 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 wave pattern reminiscent of Nishijin-ori woven silk traditionally produced in Kyoto.
It is an elegant and harmonious interior with refined material choices and color palette that underlines that Mazda’s design philosophies feel as good as they look. Perhaps even more impressive, a full range of CX-90 features and options, like this top-of-the-line trim level, costs around $60,000. Although Leverett informed me that 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 dashboard. Before heading out, I decided to give the driver personalization system a whirl. Tech wizardry (aka facial recognition) recognized me as the primary driver and adjusted the cockpit for optimal positioning. I watched – hands-free – as my seat, mirrors and steering wheel fitted. Thankfully, the rain let up and I saw that my route would take me through part of a giant redwood forest in Marin County—a perfect opportunity to explore the Mi-Drive modes and get to Sport.
Here, enthusiasts will appreciate that the 3.3-liter inline-six offers 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, but for most of us, that means it delivers smooth and seamless power for quick acceleration. It was easy to switch between the PRND setting as well (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 when the Sport engaged the 8-speed gearbox, 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 ‘light reflection’ Tsbuaki San talked about earlier during an impromptu stop. Light filtering through the giant pine forests beautifully showcased the latest Kodo design language – no filter required.
The final stretch south on Highway 101 felt like an opportune time to try out another safety feature—Lane-Keep Assist—and adaptive cruise control as you drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the city.
With a hands-free rear tailgate—whether you’re packing the kids for a soccer game (there’s room for up to eight passengers) or loading up skis for a couple’s mountain trip (the rear seats fold down to create more storage)—the CX-90 is an upscale SUV which not only looks good but provides subtle muscle-driven enthusiasts to appreciate. mazdausa.com
All images courtesy of Mazda North America unless otherwise noted.