Before it can be considered a threat to the Germans, the CX-90 must first face one of the best three-row crossovers in the game.
In a previous test drive of the Kia Telluride, we referred to it as the three-row SUV king simply because it ticks so many boxes for larger families. Perhaps not as fun to drive as the Mazda CX-9, the Telluride was still a more complete package than the Japanese crossover. But now Mazda has revealed the new CX-90 and significantly elevated its three-row SUV game. Although the Mazda CX-90 has a premium polish to it that could see it tempt buyers who would otherwise go knocking on the doors of Acura or even the Germans, the new Mazda must first show that it can fend off the cheaper and more mainstream Telluride. Its new inline-six engine and sophisticated design will help it do that, but is it enough to topple the Kia? Let's find out.
The new Mazda CX-90 is a very attractive three-row crossover, appearing a bit more muscular and less rounded than the CX-9. A variety of chrome embellishments and available 21-inch diamond-cut wheels give it a sophisticated air, but nothing has been overdone. We also appreciate that Mazda hasn't tried to imbue the design with cheap-looking plastic panels to appear more rugged, a tacit acknowledgment that almost nobody is going to be taking one of these off-road. A gorgeous Artisan Red paint option is available for the CX-90.
Kia's Telluride has been around for a few years now, but it's still a confident-looking crossover with a wide stance and recently updated styling. The new grille and vertical headlights aren't as elegant as the Mazda's, but it's appealing in its own way. To get close to the CX-90's estimated starting price, we'll use the higher-spec Telluride SX trim as a means of comparison. This model comes with stylish 20-inch alloys and dual sunroofs. There are also X-Line versions of the Telluride that look much more adventure-ready than the elegant Mazda.
Tastes will obviously differ, but for now, the CX-90 is our choice as the better-looking vehicle.
Two electrified powertrains will be available for the new Mazda CX-90. The one that most will be excited about is a 3.3-liter turbocharged inline-six delivering 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. It uses a mild-hybrid system known as M-Hybrid Boost, and this sees a small electric motor positioned between the engine and the eight-speed automatic transmission. The motor mitigates turbo lag and also enables smoother getaways. A rear-biased all-wheel-drive system and this sort of power should deliver a 0-60 mph time of under six seconds.
The plug-in hybrid CX-90 with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor makes 323 hp and 369 lb-ft. Based on the CX-60 PHEV sold overseas with the same powertrain, we estimate a 0-60 time of around 6.5 seconds. It will also be able to cruise in silence on electric power alone. As with the mild-hybrid model, the eight-speed auto doesn't use a torque converter but an integrated electric motor, multi-plate clutches, and planetary gears. This saves space and allows the longitudinally-mounted engine to be moved further back.
The less sporty inclinations of the Kia Telluride are immediately obvious as it comes with front-wheel drive as standard and a transversely-mounted V6 that is outgunned by the CX-90's inline-six. The naturally-aspirated 3.8-liter engine in the Telluride makes 291 hp and 262 lb-ft (over 100 lb-ft less than the Mazda), and will propel the Telluride to 60 in around 6.8 seconds. AWD is available optionally, and the Telluride also uses an eight-speed auto. In X-Line guise, the Telluride seems like it may have the edge in off-roading scenarios, but that only matters to those who regularly take their three-row SUV adventuring off the beaten path.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Kia's V6, but it's an SUV that's clearly going to be slower than the CX-90, and the lack of any kind of hybrid alternative is another point in favor of the Japanese vehicle.
Mazda may be gunning for more premium brands, but it hasn't tried to emulate them in the CX-90's cabin, and we mean that as a compliment. Inspired by Japanese design techniques, the CX-90 has a clean, simplistic interior layout. Three seating rows, including available second-row captain's chairs, should all offer excellent comfort. Materials like Nappa leather and hanging stitching on the dashboard look and feel special. And, although there is a central infotainment screen and a digital driver's display, the technology doesn't overwhelm you as there are still clearly labeled buttons and switches for commonly used features.
The Telluride's interior is also a classy affair, and even passengers in the third row get an acceptable 31.4 inches of legroom. We suspect that the Mazda's cargo space might be slightly smaller than the 46 cubic feet you'll fine behind the Telluride's second row, but this is unconfirmed until the CX-90's final specs are published. In SX guise, the Telluride is loaded with features like a power-adjustable driver's seat with memory, heated/ventilated front seats, and a 12.3-inch touchscreen interface.
Until we get to spend more time with the Mazda, the two vehicles seem fairly closely matched in this area, especially in terms of the higher-spec Tellurides.
We estimated that the Mazda CX-90 will begin at around $45,000. However, because of the way Mazda has positioned the CX-90, we expect even the base model to be equipped to a very high standard. The base Telluride LX looks like a bargain at $35,890, but this trim doesn't feel as posh as the CX-90. In SX guise, though, the Telluride costs $45,690 for an almost fully loaded trim.
Although higher-spec Tellurides are unlikely to be significantly outclassed by the Mazda in terms of features and practicality, it's the Mazda's underpinnings and powertrain that will set it apart. An inline-six (or powerful PHEV), a rear-biased AWD system, Mazda's chassis expertise, and a lot more power all suggest that it will be far more enjoyable to drive than the Telluride.
While the Telluride can't be beaten as a value proposition, our early take is that at around the $45,000 mark - assuming the Mazda starts at this point - the CX-90 feels a cut above.
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