Six-shooter: Mazda CX-90 goes upscale with silky inline-6 engine

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 3, 2023

Premium electric vehicles are all the rage these days as manufacturers rush to duplicate Tesla’s sales success as well as meet stringent government regulations. Audi, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Kia, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Genesis and others have introduced new, upscale EVs.

But Mazda has never been one to go with the flow.

Taking a page out of BMW’s book, the Zoom Zoom brand is upgrading its three-row Mazda SUV with a rear-wheel-drive-based, silky-smooth, turbocharged, inline-6 engine. The CX-90 expands on Mazda’s successful, turbo-4-powered CX-9 formula by adding extra width, length, features and two more cylinders. The result is a stylish three-row ute that is $25,000 less than a similarly-proportioned, inline-6-powered BMW X7 X-Drive while delivering similar performance dynamics.

In upper S trims beginning at $53,125, the Mazda’s 340-horsepower, inline-6 cylinder (the $78,845 BMW X7 makes 375 horses) offering is the headliner as the brand seeks to take its brand upscale with a new flagship. Also on offer is an entry-level, $40,970, 280-horse version of the turbo-6 plus Mazda’s first plug-in offering starting at $54,295.

Family SUVs demand gas engines for long road trips, yet the CX-90 is still “electrified” — to use that hip term — as the inline-6 offerings are paired with a 48-volt battery. The so-called mild-hybrid system — placed between the engine and transmission — complements the inline-6’s smooth power delivery while adding efficiency and helping power a cabin-full of electronic content. To optimize the new engine’s 369 pound-feet of torque for better grip and acceleration, all CX-90 models come standard with i-Activ all-wheel drive.

The Mazda CX-90 is rear-wheel-drive-based, unlike the CX-9.

The CX-9 starts at a similar $40k, but does not have the range of models like the CX-90. The CX-9 comes with one powertrain and five trim levels, while the CX-90 has three engine options and 11 trim options — the top S Premium Plus model topping out above $60,000. It even expands on the CX-9’s six-passenger capacity with room for eight.

“CX-90 offers powerful and responsive performance, alluring design and intuitive technology,” said Mazda CEO of North American Operations Jeff Guyton. “We think this is a breakthrough vehicle in its segment.”

Mazda has also dabbled in EVs with the compact MX-30 SUV. But that vehicle offers just 100 miles of range and is only sold in California to help the brand meet emissions standards. The striking CX-90, on the other hand, is a statement that smooth, powerful inline-6 engines are not just the exclusive domain of German luxury cars.

2024 Mazda CX-90 cockpit

Where elite luxury is synonymous with a la carte technology packages, the CX-90 maintains Mazda’s mass-market appeal with a laundry list of standard features including automatic braking, blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise control.

The CX-9, introduced in 2007, has gained a reputation as one of the best-handling three-row SUVs on the market, but the CX-90 is a more ambitious vehicle. Its nomenclature follows that of the mid-size Mazda CX-50, which brought more rugged looks and suspension to Mazda’s best-selling CX-5 crossover. But the CX-90 goes beyond cosmetic tweaks to the CX-9 by introducing an all-new large platform that adopts a longitudinal (not transverse) engine layout to increase rear-drive-based performance.

That CX-90 upgrade also reaches into the iconic MX-5 Miata sports car’s bag of tricks, using so-called Kinematic Posture Control to suppress body lift on tight corners while allowing occupants to maintain a natural posture. Also benefiting from the brand’s sports car DNA, the big CX-90 increases chassis rigidity for better maneuverability.

From the entry-level Mazda3 Turbo to the CX-50, the brand’s lineup has benefited from an optional, high-torque, 2.5-liter, 250-horsepower inline, turbocharged 4-cylinder mated to a silky 6-speed automatic transmission. The CX-90 flagship takes that know-how and applies it to the turbocharged inline-6 drivetrain mated to a new eight-speed gearbox.

The CX-90 will provide plenty of cargo space.

The 3.3-liter six-cylinder boasts the highest horsepower and torque output of any mass production gas mill developed by Mazda.

While the CX-50 complements the CX-5, the CX-90 feels like it will ultimately replace the CX-9. The CX-90 eschews the CX-50’s off-road-inspired body cladding and maintains its CX-9 sibling’s elegant, spare design. Also introduced with CX-90 is a new Artisan Red paint option.

The 2024 Mazda CX-90 can tow 5,000 pounds.

The simple elegance continues inside where the Mazda is trimmed with premium materials like Napa leather, wood and stitched fabrics. The horizontal cabin design gains a bigger, remote-dial-controlled, 12.3-inch dashboard display. Technology upgrades include a “see-through-view” monitor to help with parking and third-row USB-C charging ports. The Mazda can tow 5,000 pounds, which is in line with a class that includes the Kia Telluride and Ford Explorer.

In introducing its first plug-in hybrid model, the Mazda falls back on the familiar hybrid formula (used by other automakers from Ford to Honda to Toyota) of a 2.5-liter four-banger married to an electric motor and 17.8 kWh battery. Unlike other hybrid applications, the Mazda plug-in uses the same eight-speed automatic transmission that powers its gas engines.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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