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Mazda CX-90 2023 review: 3.3-litre petrol prototype

Daniel Gardner

Mazda’s new family flagship takes a huge step up with beautiful interior quality and magnificent drivetrain, with a similar leap in price

Good points

  • High-quality fit and finish
  • Delicious six-cylinder
  • Excellent ride quality
  • Sweet automatic transmission
  • Spacious boot and third row

Needs work

  • Big price step over CX-9
  • Infotainment graphics a little dated
  • Fixed rear centre console
  • PHEV timing not confirmed
  • Unclear spare wheel situation

At a time when many manufacturers are channelling vast resources into the electrification of transport, it’s unusual to see a particular brand release a ‘new’ combustion engine that’s little more than an evolution of an existing unit. As found in the new Mazda CX-90.

However, Mazda, in somewhat typical powertrain-innovating style, has not only launched a completely new family of engines, but they’re big and brawny inline six-cylinder units in both diesel and petrol varieties.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 rear 3/4

As if that’s not making enough of a splash in the automotive pool, the Japanese manufacturer is introducing this pair of straight-sixes under the bonnet of its all-new flagship large SUV.

In anticipation of the CX-90’s arrival in Australia in August 2023, Mazda flew in a pre-production example of the newest family member for a sneak preview on a private test track.

When it arrives later this year, the CX-90 will be available in three grades, starting with the entry Touring, with a GT looking after the middle of the range and an Azami that will represent the most premium option.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 front 3/4

There will be a choice of two engines from launch, while a choice of SP and Takumi packages will be available to add on top of the flagship variant for even more premium touches.

The version Mazda brought to Australia is one of the US market pre-production CX-90s, so it’s left-hand drive and not an exact match for any Australian example.

However, it’s not far off a local car dressed up in the range-topping Azami trim, optioned with the SP pack and powered by the petrol engine of the pack.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 interior

Our first experience of the newest Mazda model is therefore with the most premium version and the initial impression is very positive. But before we get into exactly why, any praise must be prefaced by a mention of the price.

When it appears in showrooms later in the year, the CX-90 range will launch from $74,385 before on-road costs, which makes the entry level about the same price as the current CX-9 range-topper.

But go for the CX-90 Azami and throw in one of the $5000 optional packs and it’ll set you back $100,185.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 engine

That’s the second-most expensive Mazda ever sold in Australia – the 1995 FD RX-7 SP holds the title as priciest – but after a first steer, the new SUV is shaping up to be pretty decent value.

For a start, there’s that engine. Famed for their smoothness coupled with balanced torque and power characteristics, Mazda’s interpretation of the inline six-cylinder is no exception.

With 254kW and 500Nm on tap, the 3.3-litre turbocharged unit is deliciously silken and produces almost diesel-like torque, yet is happy to rev out like a highly-tuned petrol.

And rev it you will because not only is the performance impressive, the sound it produces is just as addictive.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 badge

With a fresh new inline-six in its ranks, Mazda is the latest manufacturer to revisit the configuration, following Mercedes-Benz, Genesis and Jaguar/Land Rover, rejoining told-you-so BMW, who has been at the straight-six game for decades.

Technically, the engine will also roll out in parallel with the smaller CX-60 – albeit a few weeks before the CX-90 – which will also be available as a plug-in hybrid, an option which is expected to come to the larger sibling at a later date.

Six-cylinder versions are equipped with a very mild 48-volt hybrid sub-system, which is virtually imperceptible in its operation aside from a grabby brake at low speed. That said, Mazda claims the real benefit is at the fuel bowser thanks to an average economy figure of 8.2L/100km.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 driving rear

If possible, that’s pretty impressive for a large SUV that’ll get to 100km/h from standstill in less than 7.0 seconds. It’s amusing to think that in a drag race, Mazda’s largest model would be on the tail of its MX-5 sportscar, the carmaker’s the smallest and lightest.

Paired nicely with the excellent straight-line performance is the equally surprising dynamic capability. The CX-90 is rolling on the company’s new Large Product Architecture that has brought a new level of handling and responsiveness to the biggest Mazdas.

It seems crazy to suggest a big SUV might exhibit some of the characteristics of a rear-wheel-drive coupe or sports model, but it does.

There’s enough roll in corners to help with weight transfer and excellent traction at each corner, but its manner when exiting corners is particularly good as the tail squats under six-cylinder torque and the nose tightens.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 driving front

Like the aforementioned MX-5, the CX-90 also gets the clever Kinematic Posture Control, which subtly pinches the inside rear brake during fast cornering to flatten the body and stabilise the vehicle.

With a larger mass and higher centre of gravity than the little two-seater, the effect is more obvious and even more welcome.

With countless manufacturers using gearbox authority ZF to supply automatic transmissions, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the obvious match for Mazda’s silky six.

However, the Japanese manufacturer went its own way here too and the result is a beautiful pairing.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 shifter

The eight-speed torque-converter unit is capable of swapping cogs aggressively and quickly when required, but for the most part it’s delightfully smooth.

It can be a little reluctant to downshift when cruising in normal drive mode, but its intuitive programming soon recognises a hoon at the wheel.

There are just three driving modes at the driver’s disposal. We’ll have to wait for a reunion post-launch to test the off-road mode but our time did offer a chance to explore the difference between normal and sport.

Unlike some other brands’ modes, which can feel a bit like a gesture, the CX-90 sport mode has a transformative effect.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 driving rear close

Extra weight added to the already sweet steering feels as though the geometry has been redesigned with the flick of the switch and the lovely engine holds lower gears with a sharper throttle response.

Of course, this model is unlikely to spend too much time being hustled around a closed track and its cruising nature is of more relevance.

Despite the largest 21-inch wheels, road noise on varying surfaces was impressively low, while notes of the CX-9’s occasionally choppy ride on undulating and damaged roads are completely absent.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 wheel

There’s also the latest version of Mazda’s adaptive cruise control, which lacks many of the frustrating aspects found in rival systems such as abrupt changes in speed when other vehicles accelerate or decelerate.

Its lane-departure and lane-keep system is also one of the smoothest and least intrusive in the class.

While some tug at the wheel long before an unplanned excursion is imminent, the Mazda system only intervenes when a wheel touches a lane marking and, even then, manages to steer the CX-90 back on course without aggressive inputs.

Completing the premium package is an interior that goes above and beyond and the CX-90’s cabin takes another big step into luxury vehicle territory.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 driving hill

Of course, it must be repeated that this is the flagship of the flagship and a certain air of prestige is expected, though Mazda seems to have wasted no opportunity to integrate an extra luxury touch here or technological enhancement there.

In the front row, the nappa-wrapped seats are firm but comfortable and even manage a sporty appeal with supportive bolsters and attractive design.

The same tan leather was also applied to the steering wheel of our test car for an almost Genesis/Bentley/Rolls-Royce appeal.

A notable lack of switch blanks indicated little if any options had been left off this particular CX-90, though the elegant dashboard is not cluttered with switches and dials.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 front seats
Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 digital dash

In the top-spec version, both the central display and driver’s instrument cluster take the form of 12.3-inch digital displays.

There are plenty of features supported by the widescreen display but, rather than a new approach, the graphics appear to be a version of older Mazda systems stretched to fit the larger screen.

As this CX-90 had been treated to the SP pack, the three-seat second-row had been swapped for a pair of so-called ‘captain’s chairs’ for an elevated sense of opulence and almost the same level of comfort as offered by the front row seating.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 rear seats

We loved the heating and ventilation offered in the second row and the 90-degree-opening rear doors would make loading kids and things a breeze. But unfortunately it’s not possible to remove the dividing centre console, which would make the next feature even more appealing.

The CX-90’s exterior hump-back profile design is not quite as pretty as some large SUVs but the shape has allowed maximum headroom for the model’s third-row seating. While some models offer the accommodation as a bit of a gesture, the Mazda’s rear seats are a genuine proposition.

Headroom is impressive and a reasonable proposition for two (friendly) adults with deal-sweeteners of two cup holders each, one USB-C each and even one air vent per side.
Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 third row seats

Part of the spacious secret is thanks to the CX-90’s massive boot that measures 606 litres even with the third row in place and a whopping 2025L with the second and third rows folded.

So while the CX-90 might be the most expensive Mazda in decades, that’s not the only large number to its name. It’s also the biggest model yet, the most powerful and, at the pointy end of the range, nothing else has ever packed more kit.

It won’t be such an easy sell to the rusted-on rival-brand loyal, but for those customers that are happy to float between marques the CX-90 will certainly turn a few heads away from the Audi Q7, Toyota Kluger, Hyundai Palisade and perhaps even Mercedes-Benz GLS to name only a handful.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 badge 2

With an early glimpse of the CX-90, it’s clear that the new addition to Mazda’s family will continue the company’s push further into premium territory that was initiated by the Mazda 3.

But rather than a veneer of nice quality materials and posh styling, Mazda’s luxury approach is holistic.

With a delightful six-cylinder engine that’s both refined and muscular, excellent build quality and finishes throughout, and a generous inclusion of technology, the CX-90 is yet another Mazda that truly deserves its place in the premium segment.

Mazda CX-90 prototype 2023 front driving

It also comes with a price that suits the luxury arena, too, but there’s a lot of truth in the adage that something is only too expensive if nobody buys it. Answering this final part of the CX-90 equation will have to wait until August.

Mazda’s biggest challenge will not be convincing potential CX-90 customers that a $100,000 model variant is worth the cash, it’ll be getting them to consider it in the first place.

Approximate on‑road price Including registration and government charges

Key specs (as tested)

3283 cc
254kW at 5000rpm
500Nm at 2000rpm
Power to weight ratio
Fuel type
Fuel capacity
74 litres
8.2L/100km (claimed)
Average Range
902km (claimed)
All Wheel Drive
5100 mm
1994 mm
1745 mm
Unoccupied weight
2220 kg

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