Words & Photos: via PracticalMotoring.com.au
Pop quiz – do you remember Eunos? No? I don’t blame you. It was a rather unsuccessful ’90s off-shoot luxury brand from Mazda. Its aim was to emulate the rise of Lexus, which was a ploy to remove the white-goods stigma that Toyota had garnered, particularly in the US and Europe. Mazda, however, has always been perceived a little differently in Australia; seen as a brand with more soul permeating its identity.
If you’ve noticed a ‘zero’ appearing at the end of venerable Mazda nomenclature (BT-50 aside!), then you may realise that the luxury spirit of Eunos is back. This time, however, it doesn’t equate to an obscure offshoot brand. Zeroes spearhead the contemporary, luxurious norm at Hiroshima. After the CX-30 and CX-60 set the bar, the same formula is about to be applied to the CX-9 - enter the all-new CX-90.
Not to give the game away, but after a brief stint in a left-hand drive, pre-production version of the CX-90 on a closed section of road at the former GM-H proving ground at Lang Lang, it’s safe to say the upmarket competition should be worried.
All New – Really!
The term ‘all-new’ is stated in marketing bumf as often as a participation award is handed out, but in the case of the CX-90, it’s unequivocally valid. The flagship SUV is built on Mazda’s debuting Skyactiv Multi-Solution Scalable Architecture and packs a new turbocharged 3.3-litre inline six-cylinder engine in either petrol (G50e) or diesel (D50e) guise. The e-Skyactiv G unit powering the G50e variants is actually the highest output powertrain of any series-production Mazda. It sends the grunt to the full-time, rear-biased i-Activ all-wheel drive system via an in-house eight-speed automatic transmission (with a wet clutch instead of a torque converter).
On first impression, it seems odd to be handed an old-school Mazda key fob when standing next to the Artisan Red CX-90. It couldn’t showcase the juxtaposition of ‘old versus new’ more acutely. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet it’s hard not to be taken by the CX-90’s aesthetic. At 5120mm in length, 2157mm in width and 1745mm in height, it cuts a sizeable silhouette. However, it’s elegant, with the latest version of Mazda’s Kodo design language working with the oversized proportions in a very BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 kind of way. A comparison worthy of praise, no doubt.
The European-esque vibe continues once inside the cabin, a process which includes opening a solid-feeling door that also closes with a Germanic ‘thunk’. That theme permeates through to the fit and finish, as well as the materials used. In terms of tactility, there are few scratchy plastics – even then you must go looking for them. Plush leather abounds, the dash features a suede-effect (with SP package optioned) and even the glovebox is lined with rattle-quelling felt fabric. The $5,000 SP pack also adds a dual-tone leather (and heated) steering wheel, which looks very Bentley, and second-row captain’s chairs with centre console.
Pragmatic buyers will appreciate the use of buttons for HVAC (tri-zone climate control) and infotainment. The 12.3-inch central display is clear and concise, although it was running some US-spec hardware on test and is sadly only touch-enabled when stationary.
There’s no shortage of premium tech, either, with Mazda’s Driver Personalisation system using your entered height and the driver monitoring setup to adjust the perfect driving position for you. There’s also another 12.3-inch digital display for the instrument cluster, wireless smartphone mirroring (and charging), premium BOSE stereo and a detailed head-up display amongst the highlights.
Despite appearing more as a luxurious limo, this is a three-row SUV for family duties. It’s worth noting that you can spec the CX-90 as a six-seater with individual ‘captain’s seats’ in the middle (with the SP and Takumi packages), or as a conventional seven-seater. Accessing the third row involves some origami-like movements for adults, but once seated, there is generous room – kids will certainly find it accommodating. All three rows offer ventilation and twin USB-C ports.
Head and legroom are generous, with the second row sliding forward or aft depending on your needs. The three-place middle row (when optioned) splits in a 60/40 fashion, while the rearmost pews divide 50/50. When the latter are folded flat, there’s 2,025 litres of cargo capacity (measured to the roof), which drops down to 608 litres with all seats occupied. A downside in the CX-90's design is the rear three-quarter visibility, which is hampered by a rather large C-pilar.
The Joy of Six
So, what’s it like to drive? In a world fixated on electric, it seems odd to be introducing a potent turbo petrol engine - and not an EV - as a halo powertrain. However, the CX-90 isn’t totally without a zapping, as a 48v ‘M Hybrid Boost’ system offers assistance in the lower rev range thanks to an electric motor positioned between the engine and gearbox.
From the get-go, the e-Skyactiv G unit feels more than up to the task of hauling the three-row SUV. With 254kW and 500Nm, the turbocharged inline six shifts the CX-90 with all the effortlessness you’d expect from a luxury product. The power delivery is linear and there’s certainly enough grunt for overtaking and towing (of which there’s a 2500kg braked towing capacity). It ties in well with the new eight-speed auto, with seamless shifts on the run – only proving lax to kick down on the odd occasion.
The 3.3-litre six is also aurally pleasing, somewhat mirroring BMW straight-six acoustics. Our test conditions didn’t allow for a true economy reading, but it does look as though the quoted 8.2L/100km figure is hard to achieve – especially when pushing on. Opting for the 187kW/550Nm e-Skyactiv turbo diesel claims to lower that figure to 5.4L/100km.
Big, but Agile
It seems a stretch to say the CX-90’s driving dynamics are truly engaging, given the 2,220kg mass, but there is genuine enjoyment to be had behind the wheel. As it uses the same Kinematic Posture Control (KPC) found in the MX-5, which brakes the inside rear wheel for extra lateral stability, the CX-90’s body control is impressive, and changes of direction are handled with aplomb as it rolls proportionately onto the outside edge of its Yokohama Advan Sport tyres.
Drive is predominately sent to the rear wheels and despite the long 3,120mm wheelbase, the chassis pivots and turns on its axis easily compared to the old front-biased CX-9. The playful attitude carries over to the controls, too. The dual-pinion electric power steering is well tuned with satisfying weighting and a direct response. The brake pedal is also progressive despite featuring regenerative braking (to replenish the mild-hybrid system), eschewing the traditional inconsistent feel found with such setups.
While Mazda opts not to run adaptive dampers or air suspension, the base tune of the passive setup proves up to snuff. The double wishbone (f) and multi-link (r) suspension arrangement dispenses bumps and undulations with impressive rebound control. Further urban testing is required, however, as initial impressions lean towards the lack of tyre sidewall wrapping on the 21-inch diamond-cut wheels being a slight issue at slow speeds over harsh surfaces. Trying the 19-inch shod CX-90 Touring would be ideal.
The road-focussed, 275-section Advan Sport tyres not only provide reassuring grip, they’re also quiet at highway speeds. In fact, little road noise enters the cabin with NVH levels generally low. Tied to the long-legged and absorbing ride quality at speed, it makes for a comfortable grand tourer. There is an off-road mode and more than 200mm of ground clearance if you wish to take your CX-90 off tarmac. Stay on the black stuff and there are Normal, Sport and Towing modes to play with via the Mi-Drive selector.
Safety to Match
Including the step up in design, perceived quality and powertrain clout, it’s the integration of the i-Activsense safety technology that adds the final touch to the CX-90’s upmarket feel. Testing the active safety features on Lang Lang’s high-speed bowl showcased the intuitive calibration, with the Emergency Lane Keep Assist (ELK) gently pulling the CX-90 back into line without jerky movements.
Furthermore, ELK effectively steers the big SUV for 20 seconds without intervention or ping-ponging you either side of the road. The i-Adaptive cruise control performs in the same gentle manner, plus there’s myriad cameras, blind-spot monitors and sensors to help you park.
Premium – at a Price
Price has been purposefully left out of the equation until now because the luxe pursuit comes at a significant cost. The top-spec CX-90 Azami G50e lists for $95,185 – or more than $100k when you factor in the SP pack and premium paint optioned on our American tester. Gulp.
However, the range starts at $74,385, which seems sharply priced considering where the likes of the aforementioned Volvo and BMW start. Also, note that we’re talking about Mazda in the same sentence as high-end European marques.
From what we’ve experienced with the CX-90 in Azami spec, the reality is that the flagship Mazda deserves to be in the same conversation – especially with the endearing Swede. It will be interesting to see how this monetary progression flies with buyers when it (and the CX-60 before it) lands in Q3 this year as a 2024 model.
After another sampling of Mazda’s upmarket future, it seems adding a zero makes all the difference.
Mazda CX-90 pricing*
Touring G50e – $74,385
Touring D50e – $75,800
GT G50e – $86,085
GT D50e – $84,800
Azami G50e – $95,185
Azami D50e – $93,865
*list pricing, including LCT, excluding ORCs
MAZDA CX-90 G50e AZAMI – Basic Specs
Engine: 3283cc inline six-cylinder, turbo, 24v, DOHC (with 48v hybrid)
Power: 254kW @ 5000-6000rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 2000-4500rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
On Sale: Q3, 2023
MAZDA CX-90 Options (Azami grade only)
Takumi package ($5,000): Pure White nappa leather, bright decoration panel, cloth dashboard panel with Kakenui stitching, white maple wood console and door trim inserts, second-row captain's seats with heating/ventilation and second-row centre console with storage.
SP Package ($5,000): Tan nappa leather, suede-finish dashboard panel, two-tone colour steering wheel, second-row captain's seats with heating/ventilation and second-row centre console with storage.
Premium paint: $595