For Mazda, the CX-90 marks several major departures. Its longitudinal-engine, rear-wheel-drive architecture is an about-face from all the brand’s current products save for the Miata, and both of its powertrains are Mazda firsts: a turbocharged inline-six and a plug-in-hybrid four-cylinder. The CX-90 comes in a host of configurations, and generally speaking, the plug-in hybrid costs more than the turbo six, although that depends on the trim level. Is the plug-in worth it?
First, some facts and figures. The plug-in-hybrid powertrain combines a 2.5-liter four with an electric motor and an eight-speed automatic. It puts out a total of 323 horsepower, landing it just shy of the turbo six’s 340-hp in its higher state of tune but well ahead of the 280-hp base version. Like either turbo six, the PHEV uses an eight-speed automatic with a wet clutch rather than a torque converter, and it makes an identical 369 pound-feet of torque to the non-base six. The PHEV also adds a battery with an estimated 14.8 kWh of usable energy capacity to feed the electric side of the powertrain. Despite the battery’s size, the CX-90 PHEV doesn’t qualify for the $7500 Federal tax credit due to its assembly in Japan. Mazda evidently sees the PHEV as the middle-of-the-lineup offering, and in Premium Plus trim it’s priced at $4000 more than the base I-6 and $3000 less than the Turbo S. Our plug-in Premium Plus test car wore a $58,920 sticker price.
Predictably, the PHEV’s extra hardware adds weight. The all-wheel-drive Premium Plus plug-in crushed our scales to the tune of 5236 pounds, some 350 more than a similarly spec’d CX-90 turbo six. For the most part, though, the gas-electric CX-90 shrugs off the extra mass. The PHEV reaches 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, beating its 340-hp six-cylinder sibling by 0.4 second. (We haven’t tested the 280-hp version.) In the quarter-mile, the plug-in again noses ahead, crossing the mark after 14.5 seconds at 97 mph, versus 14.7 at 99 mph for the I-6. With the electric motor’s ready torque (199 pound-feet at 400 rpm), the PHEV’s advantage is more pronounced in the suburban slog—accelerating from 30 to 50 mph takes 2.7 seconds to the I-6’s 3.6 clicks. Out on the highway, where the PHEV leans more heavily on its four-banger, the I-6 pulls close to even with a 4.5-second 50-to-70-mph time to the PHEV’s 4.4-second showing. One arena where the I-6 holds a clear advantage: towing, with the six-cylinder good for a 5000-pound max rating compared to the PHEV’s 3500 pounds.
The plug-in-hybrid powertrain isn’t as polished as the conventional one either. At ultra-low speeds, there’s often a bit of a stutter when tipping into or out of the throttle, and there’s a faint engine moan at times. The four-banger doesn’t sound great when giving its all, but the PHEV overall is quieter than the six-cylinder under acceleration or when cruising.
Of course, the plug-in hybrid also can be driven solely on battery power, relying on the 173-hp electric motor for propulsion. The EPA-estimated EV range is 26 miles, and we got the same 26 miles at highway speeds in our testing. But it takes a feather foot on the accelerator to keep from waking the engine. The EPA estimates that once the battery is drained, the CX-90 PHEV will average 25 mpg, same as the six-cylinder. So, unless you’re diligent about plugging in, you might not see much fuel-economy benefit over the I-6.
However, plugging in recharges the battery quickly (just over two hours) thanks to a robust 7.2-kW onboard charger, and there’s also a button on the console that allows the drive battery to be recharged on the move by the engine, up to a selected percentage or fully.
There are two settings for the regenerative braking, Normal and High, though the difference is barely discernible. Switching between them requires delving into the on-screen settings menu, but presumably, a driver would set their preference once and then not bother with it again. Either way, the brakes are grabby at low speeds, but stopping from 70 mph took 166 feet, an excellent result.
The steering isn’t up to Mazda’s usual standards as on, say, the CX-5. The somewhat high effort levels feel mostly like friction in the system rather than the natural loading of effort with cornering forces. And whereas the CX-5 feels nimble for its size, the CX-90 mostly just feels its size, with solid handling and 0.83 g of lateral grip on our skidpad. The ride is firm, but bump isolation is good, and the vehicle structure feels stout.
In the Premium Plus trim level, the CX-90 comes with a panoply of driver assists. They include a cross-traffic alert that works in the forward direction as well as when reversing. Unfortunately, we found it to be overly alarmist; similarly, on multi-lane highways, the blind-spot monitoring often hyperventilated when there was a car one lane over from the one we were entering. We were more impressed with the 360-degree-view camera, which is also part of the Premium Plus equipment. It can show two views at once, and the images are among the sharpest we’ve seen.
The CX-90 has upscale ambitions. Our test car’s all-black color scheme wasn’t the most flattering, but most of the cabin’s surfaces are nicely padded, and the patterned silver trim likely would hide scratches better than gloss black. The Premium Plus also includes screen-based instrumentation, and the digital instrument cluster includes two fuel gauges, one for the gas tank and one for the battery. There are also readouts showing the estimated EV range and total range in miles. The shifter has a somewhat odd pattern, with Park up and to the left and Reverse-Neutral-Drive in their traditional arrangement. An unfamiliar driver could think they were putting the transmission in Park and end up in Reverse.
Our car had captain’s chairs in the second row, which were somewhat lacking in under-thigh support but otherwise okay, although the second row isn’t as spacious as some rivals—say, the Chevrolet Traverse, the Kia Telluride, or the Volkswagen Atlas. That’s true also for the third row, which rather optimistically has seatbelts for three. Headroom and legroom are tolerable back there, but even middle-schoolers may have trouble wedging their sneakers into the footwells unless the second-row denizens scoot their seats forward. Similarly, luggage space behind the third row isn’t as good as some competitors.
Some compromise to interior space is the price you pay for the swept-back proportions of the Mazda’s longitudinally mounted powertrain, a layout that mimics many luxury SUVs. The Mazda’s plug-in-hybrid powertrain may not be as refined as those rivals, but its performance is every bit as good or better than its six-cylinder sibling.
2024 Mazda CX-90 PHEV Premium Plus
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-motor, all-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 4-door wagon
Base/As Tested: $58,325/$58,920
Options: Rhodium White paint, $595
DOHC 16-valve 2.5-liter inline-4, 189 hp, 192 lb-ft + AC motor, 173 hp, 199 lb-ft (combined output: 323 hp, 369 lb-ft; 14.8-kWh [C/D est] lithium-ion battery pack; 7.2-kW onboard charger)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Suspension, F/R: control arms/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 13.7-in vented disc/13.8-in vented disc
Tires: Falken Ziex CT60A A/S
275/45R-21 110W M+S
Wheelbase: 122.8 in
Length: 200.8 in
Width: 78.5 in
Height: 68.2 in
Passenger Volume, F/M/R: 57/51/33 ft3
Cargo Volume, Behind F/M/R: 74/40/15 ft3
Curb Weight: 5236 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.9 sec
100 mph: 15.4 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.5 sec @ 97 mph
Results above omit 1-ft rollout of 0.3 sec.
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 6.3 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 2.7 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 4.4 sec
Top Speed (gov ltd): 118 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 166 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 26 MPGe
75-mph Highway Driving, EV/Hybrid Mode: 57 MPGe/28 mpg
75-mph Highway Range, EV/Hybrid mode: 26/510 mi
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/City/Highway: 25/24/27 mpg
Combined Gasoline + Electricity: 56 MPGe
EV Range: 26 mi
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED
Deputy Editor, Reviews and Features
Joe Lorio has been obsessed with cars since his Matchbox days, and he got his first subscription to Car and Driver at age 11. Joe started his career at Automobile Magazine under David E. Davis Jr., and his work has also appeared on websites including Amazon Autos, Autoblog, AutoTrader, Hagerty, Hemmings, KBB, and TrueCar.