The words “upmarket push” have been thrown around liberally in the last year when referring to Mazda‘s revamped CX models. Many propagate this idea of the brand from Hiroshima pushing its products “upmarket” to compete in the luxury segment. But I think that’s all wrong.
With this CX-90 in Exclusive trim, it’s easy to come to the upmarket conclusion based on the automaker’s implications within the car.
Though styled very differently, the form factor is much like the Bentley Bentayga. Hefty but sexy; svelte yet heavyset. Think of the CX-90 as Henry Cavill in a three-piece suit, if you will. Yes, he looks sleek and gentlemanly on the red carpet, but there’s no hiding his girthy, muscular physique.
The Artisan Red Premium color pictured here is a P22,400 option worth every penny. Shades of crimson, red, and purple come and go as light glides across the bodywork. Chrome trim is elegantly applied throughout the car to add tasteful sophistication to its aesthetic.
The inside is very orange with luscious tan-colored suede lining the dashboard, the door cards, and the seats. There’s an air of quality and culture within the space that indeed feels very premium. The steering wheel is, again, Bentayga-esque with the two-toned upholstery, the round airbag pad, and the three-spoke design.
In this configuration, the CX-90 only seats six passengers. Two ventilated captain’s chairs and a useful center console are mounted amidships in replacement of the second-row bench. Trunk space is well above average in this vehicle with the third row up (at 257L), but sadly, legroom in the last row is just a few inches better than the rear seats in a 911. Still, the last row is well-appointed with climate vents and USB-C ports.
It also has all the mandatory luxury tech that comes in cars these days. The gauge cluster is a 12.3-inch screen with configurable interfaces and a plethora of information.
A rotary dial controls the equally large infotainment screen just like BMW’s iDrive, and is equipped with 360º cameras, cross-traffic alerts, and phone integration via wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
In addition, the car also comes with radar-guided cruise control, emergency braking assist, blind-spot monitors, and many more.
The fact that this is also coding-exempt under the EVIDA law (or is it?) adds more substance to the car’s allegedly premium positioning. Although, to be frank, it is coding-exempt on a technicality and not because it truly falls within the spirit of the regulations (more on this later).
But to say that Mazda is pushing to rank among the likes of Lexus or BMW is setting this flagship CX-90 up to disappoint. It doesn’t have clouds for suspension. The steering is not featherlight. The engine isn’t a silent lump of timid torque, and don’t get me started on the transmission. It’s just not as well-mannered as a true luxury car.
Press the starter button and the engine roars to life with a rattly hum. It sounds peculiar, if not broken. Put the transmission in Drive, and the car abruptly jolts forward. As it starts rolling, it’s hard to miss the amount of ambient noise you get from the outside, and you will feel just as much, too.
Driving around town feels a little wrong. As if the CX-90 is unwilling to do so, what with all the jerking and lugging you get from the transmission. The suspension is tough. Stiff. Hard. Noisy. Enough to make you think that something’s wrong. I couldn’t feel the presence of the hybrid system, either. I struggled with the CX-90 for a couple of days; it just wasn’t clicking for me. It felt unwieldy, uncouth, and almost unpleasant.
I later learned that’s because the CX-90 is its own thing. I’d fallen into the”upmarket push” hokum, and failed to see the car through a neutral lens. It’s not a straightforward proposition where what you see and feel is what you get. Peel back its layers and look beyond the luxurious accoutrements, and you will see the CX-90 for what it truly is: a large SUV with MX-5 DNA.
When it came time to give the CX-90 the old Italian tune-up on the open road, it suddenly made sense. The electric motor is good for an additional 16hp and 153Nm, which fattens the power band down at the bottom while the turbo builds boost.
And because peak power doesn’t come on until 5,000rpm, the CX-90 needs you to go all the way to the top. The 3.3-liter turbo in-line-six will happily rev to its 6,000rpm redline while belting a throaty, sonorous song reminiscent of old BMW straight-sixes.
The transmission also starts to come alive as it bangs shifts right at the limit. Don’t get too carried away, though, because finding the limiter feels like hitting a brick wall.
All the noise and the vibrations that come into the cabin mean you can feel the road through your hands and the seat of your pants. The steering is lovely and sharp, allowing the driver to toss the car around corners.
The longitudinal straight six is mounted low and far back into the engine bay, giving the CX-90 a delicately balanced chassis that responds to driver input with accuracy while the rear-biased AWD system gives you the confidence to put all of its 296hp and 603Nm down to the ground.
It is so immersive that I almost tried to see if I could get it sideways, but I wasn’t about to let my intrusive thoughts win.
The CX-90 needs to be driven the way it wants to be driven. There’s a duality to this car’s personality. If you want to drive sensibly around town, then do it well. Feather the throttle and allow the car to short-shift through every gear at 1,250rpm until it hits 50km/h in seventh.
After which, let the electric motor take care of coasting (in i-Stop mode). You’ll know you’re driving the car correctly if you never catch the engine at idle speed. The engine will only be on when it’s accelerating. Otherwise, it’s turned off anytime your right foot isn’t on the throttle.
It’s worth noting that this is as far as the hybrid system goes: filling the torque curve down low and powering ancillary devices while coasting with the engine off. A start-stop system on steroids. Technically still a hybrid, albeit a mild hybrid. As a result, the best I managed in city driving was 6.5km/L. Slightly better than you would expect from an engine this size, but nothing impressive.
On the flip side, if you want to drive fast, then don’t be shy. Wring its neck and push very, very hard. Rev it all the way out to peak power so the transmission can do its thing. Driven this way, everything I struggled with disappeared. Well, for the most part, that is.
The transmission will still struggle at low speeds like in car parks. Or inclines. Or reversing. Or in car parks with inclined spaces that you have to back into. The transmission isn’t the smoothest out there. The stiffness of the suspension also holds true no matter what. But again, work with the car and these will mostly fade into the background.
Yes, it’s expensive at P3,802,000 (as tested), but not because of Mazda’s so-called upmarket push. That’s just the cost of engineering driving fun into it. It’s still nowhere near as expensive as a Lexus RX or a Mercedes-Benz GLS, making it unreasonable to expect true luxury at this price point.
If you’re buying the CX-90 because it’s a bargain compared to other luxury SUVs and expect it to perform comparably, look elsewhere. But if life dictates that you drive a three-row SUV but you just can’t give up the thrills of your two-seater sports car, then the CX-90 is just the car you need.
MAZDA CX-90 AWD EXCLUSIVE
|3.3-liter in-line-six turbo gasoline with 48V mild-hybrid system
|296hp @ 5,000-6,000rpm (combined)
|603Nm @ 2,000-3,000rpm (combined)
|5,120mm x 1,994mm x 1,745mm
|P3,780,000 (P3,802,000 as tested)
|Spunky, fun-to-drive personality in a sophisticated package.
|It can be quite unrefined in daily driving situations.