If you were an engineer looking to build a premium SUV, you’d have a list of wants. You’d want to start with a new architecture for better handling balance, and you’d add all-wheel drive for all-weather grip. You might want a V-8, but a turbocharged inline-6 would be a great option for its inherent smoothness and ability to create plenty of power. You’d go with a double-wishbone front suspension for better front grip than MacPherson struts and a double-wishbone or multi-link independent rear suspension for a smooth ride.

Minus the V-8, Mazda engineers got all of that for the 2024 CX-90 three-row crossover. It’s a formula followed by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Land Rover, and it elevates the CX-90 to a step above the mainstream competition.

It’s also part of a concerted effort by Mazda to move upscale.

“Globally, we’re trying to move Mazda into a more premium position because at our scale it makes much more sense as a business to have a higher profit margin per vehicle,” said Mazda Vehicle Dynamics Engineer Dave Coleman. “We were already at a position where our vehicle design, our dynamics, and our interior quality were kind of a step above everybody else, so it’s not that much of a reach to push ourselves into a real premium position.”

The CX-90 joins the front-wheel-drive-based CX-9 in Mazda’s lineup as a three-row crossover. It’s slightly larger and could replace the incumbent but will be sold alongside it for now. Mazda invited Motor Authority to test its new big crossover in and around San Francisco to experience its premium character in what turned out to be California rain.

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2024 Mazda CX-90: new platform, new targets

While the CX-90 aims upmarket with its platform, it doesn’t go all in. The luxury rivals with this type of layout wrangle all their weight and improve ride and handling with air springs and adaptive dampers. Buyers can often go further with rear-axle steering and active anti-roll bars.

The CX-90 sticks with coil springs and a single tune for the dampers. Mazda tunes its suspensions well, but the CX-90 won’t be mistaken for a sport sedan or even a sporty small SUV. With 8.1 inches of ground clearance and 4,700-5,200 pounds to tote around, the CX-90 leans into corners in a controlled manner, then takes a set and tracks truly.

Some suburban buyers won’t like the weighty steering, but others will find the weight adds stability through corners. Either way, the steering is direct and predictable.

Like the handling, power exceeds mainstream rivals, but isn’t as robust as luxury competitors. It starts out with a turbocharged 3.3-liter inline-6 that spins up 280 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque in 3.3 Turbo models. The 3.3 Turbo S increases output for the same engine to 340 hp and 369 lb-ft. Both use a 48-volt mild-hybrid system that can contribute 17 hp and 113 lb-ft. The electric motor is located in a new Mazda-built 8-speed automatic transmission in place of a torque converter, so the motor’s power is mostly used for torque fill off the line.

Mazda didn’t make the base powertrain available for testing, but I drove the 3.3 Turbo S. Power comes on smoothly and is accompanied by a subdued howl. The thrust remains strong, but not overwhelming, and there’s enough in reserve for confident highway passing. While Mazda isn’t quoting a 0-60 mph time, I’d estimate 6.5-7.0 seconds. The transmission delivers smooth shifts, and holds gears much longer to make power much more accessible in the Sport drive mode.

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The PHEV model uses a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that churns out 189 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque. It’s teamed with a much larger motor that spins up 173 hp and 199 lb-ft. Total output is 323 hp and 363 lb-ft, and a 17.8-kwh battery provides 26 miles of electric driving range. The PHEV can tow 3,500 pounds and most Turbo models can handle 5,000 pounds.

The PHEV feels almost as strong as the 3.3 Turbo S. It’s a little more coarse both in sound and feel, but it’s not loud and it’s likely no more than two or three tenths of a second slower to 60 mph.

A Charge mode for the PHEV uses the engine to charge up the battery while driving. Drivers can choose to charge it from 20-100%, though the latter will take some time and make the engine run less efficiently. During my test drive, about 30 miles of hard driving in Sport mode sapped about 75% of the battery charge, then another 20 miles in Charge mode added back about a third of the charge. Buyers can also charge it on a 30-amp, 240-volt home charger in 90 minutes. A 120-volt outlet will take 6 hours, 40 minutes.

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2024 Mazda CX-90: premium cabin trim, but just a little more space

Mazda’s move upscale extends to the cabin. The places you’re likely to touch or rest your elbows—the dash, door panels, and center console—all have soft-touch surfaces, and the dash gets a wide swath of cloth or synthetic leather, the latter of which also serves as the base upholstery. Leather comes standard in most models, and it’s complemented by contrast stitching that’s available with attractive stitching on the top models. Maple wood trim is available, and everything fits together well.

Mazda leans into technology with an available 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a center screen that comes in 10.3- and 12.3-inch sizes. The infotainment system keeps its rotary dial controller, which has frustrated us in Mazdas for years, but flatter menus mean less scrolling and clicking.

The new architecture gives the CX-90 a longer nose, a shorter front overhang, and a cabin that’s set back compared to the CX-9. The CX-90 rides a wheelbase that’s 7.5 inches longer, and that results in more room in the second and third rows, but the CX-90 has only marginally more overall interior space.

Mazda offers the CX-90 with seating for six, seven, or eight. Seating for eight comes standard with three-passenger second- and third-row benches, but second-row captain’s chairs are available, and so is a two-passenger third-row bench.

Front seat occupants have good space and sit on comfortable seats with modest bolstering. The second row seats have good legroom and headroom, but low, short seat bottoms mean they won’t be ideal for long-trip comfort. The CX-90 is wide enough to fit three adults across the second row, though.

Fold and push the second-row seats via top-mounted handles and you can access the third row. While Mazda offers a three-passenger version, the middle position is entirely useless. Provided the second-row occupants give up some legroom, two adults can fit back there, though they’ll sit knees up and complain after a few miles.

The CX-90 has a modest 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row, and that expands to a very useful 75.2 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded down. While that’s slightly more than the CX-90, it trails the Honda Pilot, which offers more room behind all rows and has at least 87.0 cubic feet behind the first row.

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2024 Mazda CX-90: premium features at a premium price

Mazda prices the CX-90 above the CX-9 and other mainstream three-row crossovers, but below luxury rivals like the Lincoln Aviator and Acura MDX. The 3.3 Turbo model starts at $40,970 3.3 Turbo (including $1,375 for destination) and comes standard with synthetic leather upholstery, an eight-way power-adjustable driver seat, a 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster, a 10.3-inch center screen, keyless entry, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a power tailgate, LED headlights and taillights, and 19-inch wheels.

The base model also comes standard with a full suite of safety features, including automatic emergency braking, active lane control, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane-departure warnings, and vehicle exit warnings. Buyers can also get front and rear parking sensors, active blind-spot monitors, front cross-traffic alerts with brake support to avoid turning into oncoming traffic, rear automatic braking, and a surround-view camera system.

Pricing reaches $61,325 for the 3.3 Turbo S Premium Plus model, which comes packed with such features as quilted nappa leather upholstery, heated and cooled first- and second-row seats, a heated steering wheel, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a 12.3-inch center screen, navigation, a second-row center console, a panoramic sunroof, a hands-free power tailgate, a 12-speaker Bose audio system, and 21-inch wheels.

Mazda CX-90 buyers will get a vehicle that has earned its premium stripes. It has created a smooth, powerful, and controlled crossover with good comfort and safety features, and an attractive interior. It’s a smart move upmarket, and an appealing one.

Mazda paid for travel and lodging for Motor Authority to brave the Northern California rain, stay an extra night in an airport hotel, and bring you this firsthand report.

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