By Feann Torr, carsales.com.au
Up until the late 1980s, Japanese car makers were all driving in the same direction with a collection of small, frugal, and affordable family cars. There were a few sports cars that deviated from the route, but by and large the major brands like Mazda, Nissan and Mitsubishi all followed the same plan and left the established Europeans to cater for the top end of town.
That was until Toyota caught them napping and stuck its neck out with the luxury-focused Lexus brand. Nissan then followed suit with Infiniti and Mazda had a crack with Eunos, but neither were strong enough to survive here in Australia.
Today, the landscape is different and consumer tastes have changed, swinging away from traditional luxury sedans to high-riding soft roaders. And Mazda reckons it has built-up enough cred over the last decade, both as a brand and with a range of popular SUVs, to move upmarket on its own and challenge the Europeans head-on with its new flagship, the CX-90.
It’s the biggest, most powerful, and most expensive family car yet from the Japanese car maker, which it says is the ultimate expression of its desire to become a premium brand and claims its loyal customers are ready to upgrade to something fancier with a six-figure price tag.
So, let’s see if Mazda is right, and if the CX-90 is good enough to lure buyers away from the established players in the luxury segment.
Big shoes to fill
The 2023 Mazda CX-90 not only has a huge task ahead of it to attract buyers from other brands but also has some big shoes to fill within the Mazda line-up.
While company brass like to say it is an all-new vehicle in a new segment of the market, it arrives in showrooms to effectively replace the popular and critically acclaimed CX-9 seven-seat family soft roader that won the carsales Car of the Year when it was introduced in 2016.
The CX-9 is still officially on-sale with a sub $50k sticker price for base-grade models, but it is starting to show its age and is in the twilight of its lifecycle. The CX-9 is due to be axed by the end of 2023, leaving the CX-8 to soldier on as the company’s entry-level large SUV and the CX-90 at the top of the range.
The latter is available in three model grades, each with a standard eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive but the choice of new-generation petrol or diesel six-cylinder turbo charged engines.
Opening the range is the CX-90 Touring priced at $73,800 plus on-road costs with a petrol engine (diesel adds $2000), followed by the mid-spec CX-90 GT that starts at $84,555 for the petrol. The diesel option adds just $245 on the GT, which is expected to account for the lion’s share of CX-90 sales in Australia.
Perched at the top of family tree is the CX-90 Azami that flips the price premium between engine options. It costs $92,540 (plus ORCs) for the diesel, while the petrol version is $93,655 (plus ORCs).
Some of those prices are fractionally lower than when Mazda first announced local specifications for the CX-90 back in March, thanks to luxury car tax adjustments that kicked in on July 1.
Nonetheless, the Azami petrol’s $93,655 ‘ceiling’ – which equates to a drive-away price of more than $102,000 – makes the new CX-90 the most expensive mainstream Mazda car ever sold in Australia, eclipsed only by the limited-run, locally-tuned Mazda RX-7 SP rear-drive sports car, which sold for $101,600 when introduced in 1995.
We drove most model grades during the national launch event but got to know the CX-90 Azami petrol with the Takumi package ($6500) and Artisan Red metallic paint ($995) the best.
Those options take the as-tested price to $101,150 plus ORCs. According to the Mazda website, the drive-away price for this vehicle is just over $112,000 in Victoria. Wow!
That positions the flagship against a myriad of rivals. Based on its size and the performance from its six-cylinder engine, it lines-up against the likes of the BMW X7 and Mercedes-Benz GLS – both of which start upwards of $170k. On price alone, the seven-seat alternatives are more varied and include top-self variants of the Hyundai Palisade, Jeep Grand Cherokee L, Audi Q7, Land Rover Discovery and Volvo XC90. Or, for the more adventurous, you could choose a dedicated off-roader such as the Toyota LandCruiser or Nissan Patrol for around the same outlay.
The CX-90 is covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, with service intervals set at 12 months or 15,000km for the petrol and 12 months/10,000km for the diesel.
Over the first five years, capped-price servicing will set owners back $3360 for the G50e petrol models and $3217 for the D50e diesel variants.
The 2023 Mazda CX-90 justifies its ‘most expensive Mazda SUV ever’ tag with a generous list of standard equipment that hits the target. Mostly.
The range-topping Azami model is pretty swish and features power adjustable front seats with heating and ventilation, Nappa leather trim, tri-zone climate control, a panoramic twin-pane glass sunroof, ambient interior lighting and twin 12.3-inch digital displays (one at the dash and one being the instrument cluster) with the infotainment screen incorporating sat nav, DAB+ digital radio, smartphone mirroring and a 12-speaker Bose audio system.
On the outside, the Azami rides on two-tone 21-inch alloy wheels, has body-coloured wheel arches, adaptive LED headlight, LED taillights and a smattering of chrome trim highlights.
Our test vehicle was also equipped with the optional ($6500) Takumi package that replaces the bench seat in the second row with two heated and cooled captain’s chairs, switches the black leather for white and adds white maple wood trim and unique Japanese Kakenui stitching across the textured cloth dashboard inserts.
Eight colour options are available, with Sonic Silver, Jet Black, Deep Crystal Blue, and Platinum Quartz no-cost options, but you’ll pay an extra $995 for Rhodium White, Machine Grey, Soul Red, and Artisan Red.
Despite the generous equipment list there’s a few missing features offered by Asian rivals, such as massaging front seats, Matrix LED headlights, a fully functioning touchscreen, and power-operated second-row captain’s chairs.
At the time of publication, the 2023 Mazda CX-90 had yet to undergo a testing program by the independent Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).
Given it packs most of the features required for a solid ANCAP safety rating, it is expected to receive a full five-star score, thanks in part to standard fitment across the range of 10 airbags covering all three seat rows and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with cyclist and pedestrian detection.
There’s also blind spot monitoring with safe exit warning, active cruise control with traffic support, intelligent speed assist and traffic sign recognition, active lane keep assist, rear cross traffic alert and forward collision alert with junction assist.
New tech includes smart brake support with front crossing and intersection support that can now detect cyclists and pedestrians, pumping the brakes even if the driver doesn’t see them. The emergency lane keeping system also detects oncoming vehicles and will guide the car back into its lane as required.
All CX-90 models are equipped with front and rear parking sensors, a 360-degree camera (with see-through view on top-spec Azami models), tyre pressure monitoring and childproof rear door locks, while only GT and Azami models get adaptive LED headlights.
Two ISOFIX child seat anchorage points are provided in the second row and top tether points on all second- and third-row seats, whether it’s the six-seat or seven-seat layout.
Mazda hasn’t just focused on the quality of the CX-90’s cabin, but also filled it with the latest in high-tech toys, including the introduction of an innovative way different drivers can personalise the vehicle.
It works by, firstly, inputting your height and then, using iPhone-like facial recognition technology, the system will then automatically adjust the seating and steering wheel to the optimum driving position and remember specific preferences for audio, ambient lighting, and climate control settings.
Once the facial recognition information is recorded, it’s quite an effective system and a neat point of difference.
In front of the driver, there’s a large and very clear head-up display on the windscreen that shows the vehicle’s current speed, the posted speed limit and navigation directions.
The twin 12.3-inch digital screens in front of the driver and on the centre of the dash look great but feel underutilised. The digital driver’s display doesn’t display some key information on the trip computer and there’s virtually no options for customisation. Sure, the dials turn red when you engage Sport mode but it’s piecemeal stuff and feels like an opportunity missed. Mazda could’ve added some extra visual sizzle here.
The central widescreen display features a simple but intuitive operating system with average scope and depth. The main functions are controlled exclusively by a rotary dial but if you use wireless Android Auto or Apple CarPlay the touchscreen is enabled. Strange.
Why Mazda doesn’t offer touchscreen access across all user interface systems to allow front seat occupants to choose how they navigate or control the choice of music is baffling. But it’s better than nothing, and all models get a large wireless phone charger.
The question as to whether Mazda can craft a genuine luxury car is answered the moment you open the door and slide into any one of its seven (or six) seats.
The Japanese brand has done a fantastic job in creating a cabin that is spacious, practical, and totally lavish – especially in this high-end Azami model grade with the optional Takumi package.
All the touchy-feely bits are beautifully tactile, and the plush leather upholstery on the seats, steering wheel, door inserts, dashboard and ergonomic gear shifter heighten the experience, as do the twin 12.3-inch digital screens and neatly integrated air vents.
Does it feel like a contender? Well, yes and no, because that depends on which model you choose.
There’s certainly more of a challenger vibe about it, with heated, cooled and power-operated front seats that are wide and welcoming, the power-operated steering wheel and sunroof are lovely, and all the concealed storage lids are smoothly damped and pleasant to operate.
The overall cabin design is rather classy, while build quality and fit and finish feels very good.
The $6500 Takumi package adds white maple woodgrain accents on the doors and centre console, not to mention a lovely, stitched cloth finish on the central dash. Overall, it adds a level of polish and detail that will raise eyebrows.
But lesser models, like the GT and Touring, have fewer cabin highlights and average plastic finishes while their fake metallic and faux wood accents look and feel a bit cheap.
The second-row bench offers ample room for adult passengers, a third climate zone, twin USB-C ports, and window shades. But the twin captain’s chair configuration that comes standard with the Takumi or SP packs, along with additional storage and spring-loaded cupholders, makes it feel pretty special with a limo-like ambience.
Folding and sliding the manually operated second-row seats grants access to twin third-row seats, which are tight on foot space but generous for headroom and shoulder room. USB-C ports, air vents and cup holders are also located in the third-row seats, making this a genuine six- or seven-seat hauler.
The power-operated tailgate features a hands-free, kick-to-open feature that I just couldn’t master, and cargo space is decent. With all three seating rows in place, the boot’s 257 litres isn’t much more than you’ll find in small hatchback like a Toyota Corolla hatchback with enough room for a couple of mid-sized suitcases or the weekly grocery shop.
Flip the third row down, however, and you open up 608 litres (including underfloor storage), which is more than enough for a short camping trip or a couple of weeks away with the family.
Fold all seats (even the captain’s chairs fold flat) and you get 2025 litres of space, with enough room for a six-foot adult to stretch out and sleep in. Trust me, I tried it. Dad life makes you tired.
The boot also features a 220V household-style power point and a circular 12-volt socket. A temporary spare wheel is fitted, not a full sizer.
Six of the best
While most of what you see in the CX-90 isn’t new – just higher quality – it’s what’s under the bonnet that Mazda has re-invented from the ground up.
All 2023 CX-90 model variants are powered by an all-new 3.3-litre turbo charged inline six-cylinder engine, using either diesel for the D50e or premium unleaded for the G50e.
Mazda claims that, even as the path to electric vehicles becomes more evident, there’s still demand for conventional internal combustion engines, especially in large SUVs that are often used by families for regular weekly runabouts and long-distance holidays.
The majority of Australian buyers in urban environments are expected to choose the petrol engine, which produces 254kW of power and 500Nm of torque, while those in rural areas will likely opt for the diesel that generates 187kW and 550Nm.
Both engines are teamed to a new eight-speed automatic transmission that swaps out a torque converter for a wet-clutch arrangement.
Because of the CX-90’s American-centric development, the petrol engine features more robust cooling systems and can tow 2500kg (braked) versus the diesel’s 2000kg, despite the latter having more torque.
Based on Mazda’s new Large Product platform architecture (which also underpins the Mazda CX-60 and its stretched cousin, the upcoming CX-80), the CX-90’s new i-Activ four-wheel drive system sends the majority of torque to the rear wheels, aimed at improving its driving dynamics.
The claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption for the 2023 Mazda CX-90 is 8.2L/100km with the G50e petrol engine and a highly respectable 5.4L/100km for the D50e diesel.
Most of our (admittedly very enthusiastic) driving was on open country roads around the Hunter Valley in NSW, with only a few small towns seeing speeds drop below 80km/h.
For what it’s worth, we achieved 10.4L/100km in the petrol CX-90 and 7.6L/100km in the diesel.
Both models have a 74-litre fuel tank which means the diesel CX-90 could theoretically cover almost 1400km from a full tank, with the petrol tapping out at around 1000km.
Each engine ticks over at around at a leisurely 1500rpm in eighth gear at 100km/h on the freeway, which is when they’re at their most efficient. Both feature a 48-volt mild-hybrid system designed to reduce fuel consumption, allowing the engine to ‘coast’ when cruising, effectively turning the combustion engine off under light throttle applications and while decelerating.
They also come with ‘i-stop’ or engine start/stop that uses the 48V mild-hybrid system’s integrated starter-generator to awaken the engine smoothly and promptly after an extended wait at a T-intersection, for example.
Mazda has forged a strong (and justified) reputation for creating a consistent dynamic character across its entire line-up of vehicles.
Some, like the MX-5 convertible, are obviously sportier than others. But all offer a delicate balance between comfort and cornering that make them enjoyable to drive and relaxing to be driven around in.
The CX-90 clearly prioritises comfort more than anything else, but it is still a satisfying and surefooted machine to twirl along a twisty stretch of tarmac.
From the driver’s seat, there is a commanding view of the road ahead and decent all-round vision to the side and out the back, and the steering is direct and precise.
The lusty six-cylinder engine is a real highlight and imparts a convincingly upmarket feel in being smooth, quiet, and linear in its power delivery.
The CX-90 has a firm suspension tune, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s something Mazda makes no apologies for. The Japanese brand’s objective was to create a dynamic seven-seat family SUV with a distinctly European flavour. Box ticked!
When driven enthusiastically, the chassis generates loads of grip from its big 21-inch wheel-and-tyre package, the suitably wide 275/45R21 tyres biting into the road surface with impressive resolve, and the double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension maintaining pretty good body control so you can carve your way through corners with confidence.
The rear-biased AWD system helps rotate the vehicle into corners better than a front-drive SUV and there’s a sense of glee that creeps in when turning up the tempo in the CX-90.
But the large SUV’s sporty persona does compromise its plushness over rough surfaces. Over smaller, sharper, repeated cracks, baby potholes and ragged road surfaces – especially at lower speeds – the CX-90 feels fidgety and sometimes jittery, with big hits occasionally reverberating through the vehicle’s body. It’s almost as though the tyres are over-inflated.
These traits are muted slightly in the entry-level CX-90 Touring models, which are equipped with smaller-diameter 19-inch alloy wheels with taller, more compliant tyre sidewalls (265/55R19). But it doesn’t completely eradicate the firmness and skittishness on choppy surfaces.
I can see what the Japanese brand is aiming for here and it’s admirable. But we know from the CX-90’s rivals that driving dynamics and ride comfort aren’t mutually exclusive.
Why a vehicle of this size, price and predisposition doesn’t have adaptive dampers is perplexing, because they would allow the CX-90 to switch between ‘softer’ and ‘stiffer’ damping tunes in an instant.
Instead, the shock absorbers struggle to smooth out road ructions with any finesse… unless you’re really having a crack.
Indeed, at higher speeds the suspension is better settled, and the Mazda isn’t overly flummoxed by mid-corner stipples and ripples. Unless you drive the CX-90 everywhere at warp speed you’re going to be intimately familiar with all the pockmarks on your local roadways.
We asked one of Mazda’s senior engineers and the CX-90 vehicle manager, Mitsuru Wakiie, whether suspension updates (and adaptive dampers) could be made to the CX-90. He said if customer complaints were persistent, recalibrations of the current settings could be undertaken “quickly” but cautioned that all-new dampers or suspension hardware would be “difficult” and take more time.
There was no suburban driving involved during the CX-90 launch, so we’ll reserve judgement for its around-town abilities. But for what it’s worth, the 10.8m turning circle is pretty good for a big SUV that measures 5120mm in overall length.
Where Mazda nails the luxury vehicle brief is in the powertrain department, the turbo-petrol 3.3-litre G50e donk being a real standout. Like most inline six-cylinder engines it’s a sonorous, smooth, and sophisticated number.
The SUV’s bulk is apparent at lower speeds as the engine works hard to get that 2.2-tonne mass moving (the 6.9sec 0-100km/h claim seems optimistic), but the CX-90 never feels doughy or slow. At higher revs it’s an absolute pearler, humming along beautifully and eagerly overtaking.
Hopping into a CX-90 GT model with the diesel D50e engine reveals an even more muscular powerplant with better low-end torque and quicker acceleration from standstill. I prefer the diesel to the petrol engine in most respects – it even sounds a bit gruntier and revs almost as eagerly, which makes manually blasting through gears with the steering wheel paddle shifters way more entertaining than anticipated.
Speaking of the gearbox, Mazda’s new eight-speed automatic cog-swapper has pros and cons. The good bits? It’s a relatively quick-shifting unit and generally chooses the right gear for the job at hand.
The not-so-good bits? We noticed the odd thunk and clunk when dropping the hammer on a couple of occasions, with full-throttle take-offs bamboozling the gearbox’s brain momentarily. There was also a little shunting during one roundabout approach.
Off the beaten path
There are three drive modes available on all 2023 Mazda CX-90 models – Normal, Sport and Off-Road – while a fourth mode, Towing, is added when Mazda’s genuine towing kit is added.
The CX-90 also features a hill descent control system, but if you’re rolling on the 21-inch tyres anything beyond an ungraded gravel road might prove problematic.
There’s a lot to like about the all-new 2023 Mazda CX-90, not least of which is the halo it shines onto the rest of the brand’s line-up and the potential to attract new buyers to showrooms that might have previously dismissed the Japanese car maker.
That aside, it both lives up to the promise of being a genuine luxury car alternative and misses the mark on a few key areas.
For starters, it is generously equipped with the latest in digital and safety technologies, it has a finely finished interior that is spacious, convenient, and comfortable for Aussie families and it is powered by stirring, and respectably efficient, six-cylinder powerplants. It’s an impressive vehicle to drive and will make owners feel special.
That said, the dynamic character could be better polished, there’s a couple of annoying cabin quirks and the price tag will make even the most loyal Mazda buyer flinch.
But these aren’t complete deal breakers, and a few tweaks here and there could make the CX-90 a very competitive entrant in the luxury family SUV class.
2023 Mazda CX-90 Azami G50e at a glance:
Editor’s Rating: 7.5/10
$93,655 (plus on-road costs)
8.2L/100km (ADR Combined)
3.3-litre six-cylinder turbo-petrol
189g/km (ADR Combined)
Disclaimer: Images supplied by Mazda Australia.
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