Road test: German SUV killer? The Mazda CX-90 Takami luxury car tested

As global regulators tighten their grip on cars with large gasoline engines, the vast majority of automakers are doing everything they can to cut costs and emissions. The idea of ​​creating an all-new big platform from scratch with a new 3.3-litre six-cylinder petrol engine in this climate would be extremely far-fetched.

Who could do such a thing?

Mazda seems willing to trade a slap on the wrist and a stern death stare from environmentally conscious customers for the chance to achieve something greater. The Japanese company has spent years trying to bolster the claim that it is a more premium car manufacturer than its counterparts in Asia. The mild-hybrid CX-90 and its smaller cousin, the CX-60, are Mazda’s most comprehensive stabs at the idea yet.

Mazda's goal is for the CX-90 to be taken seriously as a competitor to Europe's best cars, and that starts in the cabin.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

Mazda’s goal is for the CX-90 to be taken seriously as a competitor to Europe’s best cars, and that starts in the cabin.

The 60 and 90 are the first and second Mazdas to be built using the brand’s new large product portfolio architecture. Assembled almost entirely by hand by Mazda’s Takumi craftsmen and women, the new platform deliberately deviates far from typical tradition.

The focus on and refinement of rear-wheel drive bias is intended to make the platform and the panels it uses feel more luxurious and polished than the more affordable opposition. That’s the idea anyway.

The CX-90’s arrival was not without casualties. While the CX-60 will be sold alongside the similarly sized CX-5, the CX-90’s direct equivalent – the CX-9 – will meet its end when the year is out. The CX-9 variant is 25mm long and 25mm wide. It is also much more expensive. The $93,690 Takami shown here, the only CX-90 New Zealand gets, is $19,000 more than the equivalent CX-9 Takami.

The larger wheelbase means the third row is more accessible than the CX-8 or CX-9.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

The larger wheelbase means the third row is more accessible than the CX-8 or CX-9.

Comparing the CX-90 to the CX-9 is inevitable, but it’s also a bit unfair. The CX-9 may still be a nice car, it’s rather tall these days, and it’s equipped with a 2.5-litre turbo petrol engine with no hybrid assistance.

One of the biggest fundamental differences between the pair is the CX-90’s massive 280mm extra wheelbase. Not only does this ensure it has a roomier second row, but it also means a wider opening for those climbing into the seats in the back. Space there is well above par for three rowers, but the very shallow footwells mean it’s still ideal for just kids.

Artisan Red suits the CX-90's more mature aesthetic.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

Artisan Red suits the CX-90’s more mature aesthetic.

If the CX-9 is handsome, then maybe the CX-90 is something of a… erm… “Benedict Cumberbatch type.”

From some angles it looks great. Any angle at which light reaches the large S-curve in the doors, for example. The more mature grille and frame look less like a big Cheshire smile. More muscular rear arms and a steeper greenhouse emphasize the rear-drive nature of the 1990s.

I can’t shake the feeling that things didn’t go right in the ass. There’s a lot of bodywork and curvature at the top of the tailgate. It’s bloated, although if this is a deliberate ploy to expand boot space (an impressive 257 liters with the third row up, 607 liters down) or give the rear passengers more headroom, it would make sense.

The simple dashboard is filled with switches that feel good to use.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

The simple dashboard is filled with switches that feel good to use.

It ticks the box in terms of roominess, but does the CX-90’s interior tick the big box in terms of quality? Could this cabin fool your gullible car mates that you bought something German?

Well, yes, possibly. Nappa leather and contrast stitching are standard Mazda fare these days. What’s new are things like power steering column adjustment, power windows that barely make a sound when opened and closed, and the most efficient Bose sound system I’ve ever heard in a car.

All the switches feel and operate satisfactorily in hand, and Mazda clearly cares about dampening these things. All pieces that look like metal. It’s a wonderful thing to sit in, and it’s only made better by the excellent sound deadening feature.

Legroom in the third row is solid, although the shallow legroom is a bit of a letdown.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

Legroom in the third row is solid, although the shallow legroom is a bit of a letdown.

cons? Well, the height of the second row relative to the front row can make rearward viewing a chore. Although well presented, the infotainment system and menu layout are showing their age (the screen is still not touch-based). Unfortunately, locally sold CX-90s miss out on the interior textures and more interesting stitching details available in other markets – like the subtle “Kakenui” knot sequence.

I’m not sure the CX-90’s cabin is at the level where it could be considered a direct replacement for an Audi or Mercedes-Benz. But it’s certainly good enough to compete with the likes of Volkswagen and Skoda. In particular, it makes a compelling counterpoint to the $104,990 Volkswagen Touareg V6.

This “luxury car” look has nothing to do with the type of leather spread across the dashboard. The way the car feels while you’re driving it is also crucial. In the case of the CX-90, Mazda seeks to achieve a good balance between driving pleasure and comfort. Obviously, a 2.2-ton wagon isn’t going to ride like a light-footed hot hatch. However, Mazda has done a good job of balancing the fun factor with restraint.

The CX-90's rear end looks a little bulging from some angles.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

The CX-90’s rear end looks a little bulging from some angles.

While cruising around town, there’s no sign of six large cylinders under your right foot. It’s quiet and composed – even on those scary roads. Most of this is due to the 90s mute feature.

Its suspension, double wishbone front and multi-link rear) handles surface changes and scary potholes well despite the 21-inch wheels it has to manage. We saw best economy figures of 9.5L/100km from the 3.3L, which is precariously close to the manufacturer’s claims of 9.1L/100km. A strong result for a car of this size.

Put the big Mazda into Sport mode and hit the throttle, and that serenity is instantly replaced by the unmistakable wail of the inline-six.

Things

A closer look at Mazda’s newly updated HOVO plant, which produces the all-new CX-60, CX-90 and more.

Much of the sound is pumped out, but it’s hard not to smile a little when the noise comes out. It’s very quick for this six – the Mazda’s 6.1-second 0-62mph time may not be great on paper in this era of electric cars, but you certainly feel it from behind the wheel.

Thrown into a corner, the CX-90 holds on easily. It’s obviously a huge vehicle, but compared to a three-paddle electric vehicle like the Mercedes-Benz EQS SUV we tested for the first time this week, you can feel how lightweight it is.

Corners can be approached at a good pace thanks to the excellent steering rack and relatively minimal body roll. There’s less tendency to understeer, too, thanks to the platform’s rear focus and Mazda’s “Kinetic Attitude Control” torque vectoring. In short, this is perhaps the most fun and engaging seven-seater SUV to drive on the back road.

Great to drive and well furnished, the CX-90 keeps most of Mazda's promises.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

Great to drive and well furnished, the CX-90 keeps most of Mazda’s promises.

It’s not perfect. The CX-90’s 8-speed automatic transmission is sometimes undercooked. It works well on pace, but cruising at normal speeds, I found it quite crowded… especially when driving. Constantly changing gears can sometimes make a smooth stop awkward. Perhaps its basic logic can be modified through a software update in the future.

The CX-90 is an excellent experience with large, premium cars. Great to drive, fairly quick, and – for the most part – attractive, it’s an excellent addition to Mazda’s SUV fleet.

Bonus photos

The CX-90's cabin is a welcome mix of leather and metal.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

The CX-90’s cabin is a welcome mix of leather and metal.

Not only is legroom in the third row fairly good, but so is plenty of room there, even with the seats folded.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

Not only is legroom in the third row fairly good, but so is plenty of room there, even with the seats folded.

Our best economy figures are 9.5L/100km combined, which compares well with the Mazda's 9.1L/100km.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

Our best economy figures are 9.5L/100km combined, which compares well with the Mazda’s 9.1L/100km.

While the CX-9 will end later this year, Mazda will still offer the CX-8.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

While the CX-9 will end later this year, Mazda will still offer the CX-8.

There's no need for touchscreen trickery here, as all of the CX-90's air conditioning functions are paired with real physical buttons.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

There’s no need for touchscreen trickery here, as all of the CX-90’s air conditioning functions are paired with real physical buttons.

The switches on the CX-90's steering wheel will be familiar to all Mazda3 drivers.

Matthew Hansen/Stuff

The switches on the CX-90’s steering wheel will be familiar to all Mazda3 drivers.

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