Düsseldorf, Germany - It's not often a automaker invites automotive journalists to test drive a vehicle that will never be part of the brand's lineup in North America. But, as the saying goes, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Mazda is currently looking to reinvigorate its image by tackling a slightly more upscale segment and the CX-60 is exactly the type of vehicle the brand needs right now.
The Japanese manufacturer already has a few utility vehicles, and some of them come out of the factory with a quality of execution that is quite astonishing for a generalist brand, but to reach a more demanding clientele, Mazda must also review its goals, surpass its limits, and even get off the beaten track to change its image.
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That's what this new mid-size crossover offensive is all about. Mazda already has the CX-9, a vehicle that competes with models like the Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder, but it will be replaced by the CX-90, a model that we're guessing may just outperform its predecessor. Mazda is also planning for North America a new CX-70, an SUV that could change the game in the two-row midsize segment.
But for now, Mazda has only unveiled part of this new approach in the form of the CX-60, a slightly smaller cousin of the upcoming CX-70 - at least, that's what we'Re guessing -, but this new CX is not destined for North American roads.
That's why we headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Mazda Europe's headquarters in Düsseldorf, where the 2023 CX-60 PHEV was waiting for us. But what's the point of testing a vehicle that won't be part of the Canadian strategy?
It's true that at first glance, this exercise may seem pointless, but fact is the CX-70 will be based on the same Large platform as the CX-60 or the other two, the CX-80 and CX-90, for that matter. As for the fact that these vehicles will all use some variation of this plug-in hybrid powertrain, let's just say that the similarities point more and more towards an enlightening test.
At first glance, the CX-60 mimics other Mazda crossovers with pinched back windows, rounded wheel arches that don't use the usual black plastic (this is new!), and the obligatory well-sized wheels. Even the rear marker lights are reminiscent of the CX-5 - or CX-50, for that matter - while the front lights seem to be integrated into the grille supported by that lower chrome strip. However, if you take the time to walk around the vehicle, you'll quickly notice that the CX-60's hood is longer than usual and that the cabin is set back as far as possible, a recipe used in recent years by Ford with the Explorer or even its luxury variant the Lincoln Aviator.
Mazda is clearly targeting a clientele that values a sportier-than-average driving experience, even if comfort is also a concern in this segment.
A first look at the new electrified powertrains
For this first drive of the new “premium” SUVs from Mazda, the plug-in hybrid option was the only one available for a road test. So, the turbocharged inline 6-cylinder engine variant would have to wait... probably until the CX-90 is unveiled in a few months.
With 327 hp and 378 ft-lb of torque, the crossover's PHEV powertrain becomes the most powerful in the brand's history. The powertrain is based on the familiar 2.5L naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine with a 129-kW (or 173-hp) electric motor-generator and a 17.8-kWh lithium-ion battery. A clutch connects the combustion engine and the electric motor, allowing the gasoline engine to be "disconnected" when the situation allows it... to drive electric.
The manufacturer is also introducing a new designed in-house eight-speed automatic transmission with this new crossover. Obviously, one of the goals of this new component is to save a few bucks at the pump. There is no torque converter, as the engineers preferred a multi-plate clutch, which has the advantage of offering gear changes like those of a manual transmission.
The powertrain is bolted longitudinally to maximize driving fun, with a rear-wheel drive biased setup. But don't worry, the two future CXs destined for our continent will come with the brand's all-wheel drive system, also known as i-Activ.
Behind the wheel
As is very often the case with a plug-in hybrid, the CX-60 PHEV makes no sound when you start it up, as the vehicle uses its electric power at first. Once the gearshift is in the "D" position, however, the vehicle emits an unusual sound for an electrified vehicle, a sound that is not artificial, unlike many EVs on the market.
Not surprisingly, the SUV also offers four driving modes and a pure electric one that change the steering, transmission, and engine power delivery settings. For example, in Sport mode, the 4-cylinder engine is always on, while in EV or Eco mode, the engine prioritizes electric driving.
On the beautiful roads surrounding the Düsseldorf area, the CX-60 PHEV proved to be very agile, the utility vehicle that remains well planted whether in a demanding curve or on the highway at 180 km/h. As for the 4-cylinder engine, it sounds interesting, but we’re not sure if current drivers of German products will be pleased by this mechanical option. Perhaps the turbocharged inline 6-cylinder engine with a mild hybrid system will be the one chosen by drivers who are more sensitive to their vehicle's behavior.
The crossover also showed the qualities and shortcomings of the new gearbox. In both normal and sporty driving, the unit felt seamless, without hiding gear changes, something driving enthusiasts want to keep. On the other hand, we did experience some "jerking" at times, with the transmission hesitating between gears. When asked about this, Mazda Motor Europe engineer Joachim Kunz explained that adjustments would be made to the North American vehicles. We can expect a smoother gearbox and maybe even the elimination of that electric noise heard when the vehicle is running in pure electric mode. We'll have to wait for the CX-70/CX-90 to see if the necessary adjustments were performed.
This first drive also highlighted the CX-60's slightly elevated driving position, a detail that is typical of SUVs, but in a Mazda vehicle, this position seems unusual. For the rest, however, the vehicle's interior is very well put together, while the steering wheel is as pleasant to hold as ever. The dashboard is probably too simple for fans of huge screens, but in this case, it works.
In the end, the CX-60 PHEV proved to be a very well-balanced crossover, capable of high-speed runs and comfortable enough for a small family. Yes, it’s not coming to our shores, but it gives us a better idea of what will come in North America in a few months. And yes, it looks promising!
The handling is closer to that of German vehicles
The new eight-speed automatic transmission
Quality is still up
We like less
The sound in electric mode
Premium sound with the 4-cylinder?
Cargo space similar to that of a CX-5, will North American CXs do better?