Mazda's new flagship SUV delivers impressive practicality and sporting agility, but could be further refined to fully realise its premium potential.

Mazda has pushed its way upmarket towards the luxury end of the market in recent years, and proof is in the pudding with the 2024 CX-90, the brand’s new flagship SUV. Situated at the top of Mazda’s ‘Large Products Technology’ family and replacing the outgoing CX-9, this three-row mammoth has a longer wheelbase, is larger in all dimensions, and has more interior space than its predecessor, making it the largest SUV the company has ever offered on Australian soil.

In doing so, a properly rudimentary model has been phased out, making way for an upgraded version with an all-new powertrain and a higher price tag. The previous front-wheel drive CX-9 Sport, which was priced under $50,000, has been replaced by the base Touring variant we’re looking at here, which now starts at $74,385 for the G50e petrol and $75,800 with this D50e diesel powertrain, with both now coming standard with all-wheel drive. Two other variants are offered above the Touring, the middling GT and the luxurious Azami.

For that, you get the same seven seats, but now in a much more astute package. A new upscale design and construction is accentuated by 19-inch silver metallic alloy wheels, body-coloured mirrors, and a gloss-black grille with chrome accents. Despite the presence of black plastic wheel arches and lower cladding that suggest an entry trim level, the overall look still exudes quality.

Mazda’s entry-level models have always been well-equipped compared to their competitors, and this is no different. Standard equipment across the CX-90 range includes a 10.25-inch infotainment display, 7.0-inch multi-information display, head-up display, 360-degree camera, tri-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear view mirror, heated auto-fold and memory exterior mirrors, eight-speaker audio system, and the expected broad array of active safety features which I found to be surprisingly non-intrusive.

The primary display screen includes integrated wireless support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. While the system seamlessly integrates with the Mazda Connect UI and offers its own satellite navigation, its design makes it feel somewhat reminiscent of a decade-old Audi MMI system, and the absence of touchscreen capability somewhat diminishes the user experience when utilising smartphone integration.

Despite being the base Touring variant, the interior is well trimmed. Standard features include heated and power-adjusted leather seats in the front, with the leather continued in the second and third rows, as well as a leather shift knob, steering wheel and leather door trim. Most surfaces feel nice to the touch, and minimal use of piano black plastics result in an interior that is relatively resistant to scratches and fingerprints. It’s a simple design, and in some respects a little hapless to have an interior that looks like a Mazda CX-30 at this price point, but the fit and finish is excellent for a base trim level.

The interior offers generous space, as is to be expected from a car that measures 5.1 metres in length. Accommodating its full capacity of seven occupants – although only six in the Azami with its second-row captain’s chairs – is easily achievable, with ample legroom available in all rows of seating. Boot space in this configuration is a sizeable 257 litres including underfloor storage. Folding down the third row expands the space impressively to 608 litres, and folding both rows down takes it to a total of 2025 litres.

Additionally, there’s a 150-watt AC power outlet in the boot, which is handy for powering anything requiring a standard three-pin plug. Towing capacity is typical for a large SUV, with the diesel capable of towing up to 2000kg when braked, and the petrol up to 2500kg.

The inner workings of the CX-90 emphasise the brand’s move towards a more upscale market position and validate the price increase. Under the bonnet of the test vehicle is a 3.3-litre turbocharged straight-six diesel engine, the first of its kind for the brand. This powerhouse is a sizeable upgrade from the turbocharged four-pots that have become a staple in the Mazda SUV range, delivering a sturdy 187kW and 550Nm. Paired with a 48V mild hybrid system that facilitates regenerative braking and assists the car at lower engine speeds, it’s an impressive drive, managing the car’s considerable 2.2-tonne weight with relative ease.

With peak torque accessible from just 1500rpm, the updated diesel powerplant demonstrates greater responsiveness compared to the previous four-cylinder models, propelling the car from a standstill to 100km/h in a tested 7.7 seconds, beating Mazda’s claimed time of 8.4 seconds. It’s an impressive unit, but still pales in comparison to its petrol-powered counterpart, the G50e, which features a similar turbocharged inline-six but with 254kW on offer, making it Mazda’s most powerful mass-market engine ever.

What is most impressive, however, is Mazda’s use of a rear-biased all-wheel drive system – enabled by mounting the engine longitudinally – which provides a more predictable feel to the power delivery. Gear changes can be made manually through steering wheel mounted paddle shifters which are responsive, thanks to a new and rather unique eight-speed automatic.

This transmission isn’t quite on par with the industry-leading ZF 8HP, but it marks a step up from ageing the six-speed automatic used in the CX-9 and the brand’s other transverse-engine models. The new gearbox still uses a planetary gear set, but ditches the traditional torque converter for a single multi-plate wet clutch pack, with this setup similar in concept to the Mercedes ‘Speedshift MCT’ found in high performance AMG models.

Handling is phenomenal for a vehicle of its size. It won’t outpace an equivalent BMW X5 or X7, but by utilizing Mazda’s software based Kinematic Posture Control from the MX-5 sports car, the car sits surprisingly flat when being thrown around. By braking the inner rear wheel whenever it detects high g-force movements, the system attempts to counter body roll to maintain ‘posture’ and height during hard cornering. It makes for an athletic and confident steer, as punching the accelerator at the wrong time through a corner is forgiven due to the car’s computer automatically applying more braking force at the rear.

The brakes themselves work well, even under stress in periods of extended spirited driving, but push it for too long and brake fade will take over fast considering the vehicle’s weight. This brings us to a number of small caveats to the CX-90’s powertrain. Firstly, the natural sound produced by this engine isn’t quite as refined as what I’d expect from an inline six. Although a muscular augmented engine sound is pumped into the cabin, it doesn’t mask the familiar rattles and whirs of a high compression diesel at low engine speeds, something that wouldn’t be fitting in a true luxury car.

Sometimes, under hard acceleration, the car makes what can best be described as a whining sound from under the dash area, which I can only assume comes from the multi-plate clutch or electric motor-generator inside the transmission. It’s an intermittent sound, so it’s unclear whether its a car-specific issue or completely normal, although some other publications in Australia and overseas have raised questions around similar issues.

Furthermore, the gearbox itself, although smooth most of the time, can also be caught off guard, suffering from the occasional jarring gear change. Again, this is something I’d attribute to the complex clutch and mild hybrid system disengaging the engine at less than opportune times, meaning it feels as if the system still needs some extra refinement. It’s no BMW, but for a first generation attempt at something completely new to Mazda, it’s a well-balanced setup overall.

After my 1031 kilometres of testing, the diesel CX-90 maintained an average fuel economy of 8.2L/100km. While notably higher than the claimed 5.4L/100km, it’s important to note that much of my driving consisted of spirited driving through the high country. In real-world conditions encompassing a combination of city and highway driving, expect that figure to settle around 7L/100km.

As standard across the Mazda range, the CX-90 comes covered by a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty, along with lifetime capped price servicing. For the diesel CX-90 specifically, this totals to $3217 over the first five years, averaging out to $643 per service over that period. Servicing intervals are set at every 12 months/10,000km.

Overall, the CX-90 showcases Mazda’s potential in entering the proper luxury space. It’s an outstanding family SUV for those seeking understated elegance, but as a whole, it maintains a somewhat first-generation impression, which is perhaps expected given its status as an all-new platform with a completely redesigned powertrain. What’s clear is that Mazda certainly could have benefited from allowing their engineers more time to refine it further.

My suggestion? While the diesel offers a combination of both power and efficiency, making it ideal for long-distance journeys, if you’re seeking the luxury driving experience to match the build quality and price, the petrol G50e provides just that extra bit more power on tap.

2024 Mazda CX-90 D50e Touring List Price: $75,800
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 7.5/10
    Tech & Features - 7.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Excellent powertrain for a base model, good ride and handles confidently, excellent interior space, good interior fit and finish
Cons: Powertrain feels first-generation, simple interior for its price point, complicated but unrefined gearbox, all too familiar diesel sounds

In a nutshell: The CX-90 is a solid contender in the luxury SUV space. Its new inline-six engine and rear-biased AWD layout is fantastic, but lacks the refinement we’ve come to expect from a luxury car. If you’re considering buying one, ditch the diesel and opt for the G50e petrol.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Mazda Australia for eight days with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.

A special thanks to Aqiella Azhar for joining the author for this extensive road test.

Shuqi Yu
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