Both posh three-row plug-in hybrids have their own strengths, but which is the smart buy?

Dan Carney, Senior Editor

February 20, 2024

6 Min Read
Mazda CX-90 (top) and Volvo XC90 (bottom).
2024 Mazda CX-90 (top) and 2024 Volvo XC90 (bottom).MAZDA and VOLVO CARS

At a Glance

  • Turbo vs. naturally aspirated I-4
  • 17.8-kWh battery pack vs. 18.8-kWh
  • 8-speed automatics: clutch or torque converter?

The 2024 Mazda CX-90 and 2024 Volvo XC90 Recharge are alike in more ways than their names. This pair of three-row family-hauling crossover SUVs are both powered by a 2.something-liter four-cylinder combustion engine and technically unusual 8-speed automatic transmission backed by a plug-in hybrid electric drivetrain that provides gas-free around-town commuting.

The Mazda is about five inches longer in overall length and in wheelbase, but that 2.5 percent difference is not visually apparent, so they look very much alike. Both leather-swaddled cabins seat seven passengers in three rows, bathed in the light of the panoramic sunroof or shaded by the rear-door sunshades and tinted windows.

Despite the 21-inch wheels and corresponding low-profile tires, both vehicles provide the kind of cushy ride that passengers want in large SUVs like these, thanks to their sophisticated suspension systems. The Volvo boasted an optional $1,800 Active Chassis with Air Suspension system, while the Mazda employed what the company terms “Kinematic Posture Control.” Both cars feature front double-wishbone and multi-link rear suspension systems.

Under the hood, the difference between the Volvo and the Mazda is that the Volvo’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is turbocharged, while the Mazda’s 2.5-liter is a naturally aspirated engine employing the company’s high-compression SkyActiv combustion technology. The result is that the Volvo’s engine is more powerful than the Mazda’s

Related:2024 Mazda CX-90 SUV Packs Engineering Innovation

The Volvo’s engine produces 310 horsepower. That combines with the car’s electric motor for a total of 455 hp and 523 lb.-ft. The Mazda’s naturally aspirated 2.5-liter produces 189 hp and combines with the car’s electric motor to create 323 hp and 369 lb.-ft. These numbers for the Mazda are plenty respectable, but the Volvo does hold an advantage here.

It is a bit of a draw in the area of the electric drivetrain. Volvo’s electric motor contributes 145 hp and 228 lb.-ft., while the Mazda’s is rated at 173 hp and 199 lb.-ft. On the road, driving in EV mode, the vehicles felt similarly quick and responsive, both in terms of acceleration and handling. With the combustion engines running, the Volvo is obviously quicker, but the Mazda does have a 3,500-lb. towing capacity, so its combined powertrain is plenty stout too.

The vehicles appear to be equally matched in terms of battery capacity, as the Volvo’s battery is an 18.8-kilowatt-hour pack while the Mazda’s is a 17.8-kWh battery. But in terms of EV driving range, there is a surprisingly big difference. The Mazda is rated at 25 miles of EV range by the EPA and the government says the Volvo is good for 33 miles.

Related:Volvo EX30 Is the Bargain EV Buyers Have Demanded

In highway driving with the cruise control set at 65 mph, the Mazda’s battery lasted a paltry 18 miles, while the Volvo went 30. This is a disappointment because surveys show that few plug-in hybrid vehicle owners bother to plug them in. With a longer range, like the 50-mile Land Rover PHEV, there is plenty of incentive for them to make the effort. The Volvo’s 30-something is also worthwhile. But at less than 20 miles of driving in cold winter weather, it is easy to imagine CX-90 drivers wondering whether they should bother to plug it in.

When the gas engines are in action, they are both smooth and quiet. This is probably both because their engineers have done a good job minimizing and isolating their noise and vibration and because, as hybrids, they can use their electric motors at low speeds and to quickly and smoothly start the gas engines, so the coarse idle and low-speed driving characteristics of the four-cylinder engines are avoided entirely.

An area of divergence for the two vehicles comes in their transmissions. Superficially, they appear similar, as 8-speed automatics. But they are opposites in how they work. The Mazda has a traditional planetary automatic transmission but uses a computer-controlled clutch in place of the usual torque converter to manage power flow from the combustion engine.

Related:Mazda Teaches Old Hardware New Tricks

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The Volvo’s Geartronic, on the other hand, is more like a conventional manual transmission, but with the kind of torque converter normally seen matched to planetary automatic transmissions. Surely, there is no reason these can’t both deliver equally good driving experiences. But in practice, the calibration of the Mazda’s clutch at low speeds leaves room for improvement, as the car clunks clumsy shifts and lurches from time to time. The Volvo’s transmission was consistently slick and smooth.

Inside, both vehicles feature sleek, minimalist design and opulent leather upholstery. Neither infotainment system is as intuitive or easy to use as either manufacturer surely believes it is, as too many frequent activities require too much non-obvious action.

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They both, at least, have physical volume knobs, with Volvo’s centrally located beneath the infotainment screen where it is an easy reach. Mazda hides its volume knob on the right side of the center console, where it is not easy to reach without looking away from the road. Both vehicles obviously have steering wheel volume controls that are squeezed in among many other controls on the steering wheel, making it harder to use those than for vehicles with thumb rollers for example, or back-of-the-wheel buttons that are right at the driver’s fingertips.

Mazda’s designers wisely included a row of physical buttons beneath the infotainment display for frequently used functions like seat and steering wheel heat as well as for climate control. The Volvo forces drivers to use the touch screen for these functions, so it presents a constant low-grade annoyance that isn’t a deal-breaker but that won’t win any awards.

With so much back and forth, it is genuinely challenging to name a clear winner between these near-twins. The Mazda’s unforced error of its transmission calibration could be corrected with an update for smoother shifts, but its short EV range isn’t going to change.

The Volvo’s irritating user interface could also be improved via a software update, but realistically, it probably won’t, as we’ve seen with Rivian’s refusal to provide a convenient way to open its vehicles’ frunk and hatch.

Then we come to the bottom lines. Both vehicles were fully loaded with all their options, and the Mazda’s total came to $58,950. The Volvo, on the other hand, totaled an eye-watering $87,495. That’s a nearly $30,000 difference for two vehicles that are nearly indistinguishable in so many ways. I’d still love to see Mazda get more mileage from its battery pack for an unequivocal win, but even with the short range it is the obvious choice.

About the Author(s)

Dan Carney

Senior Editor, Design News

Dan’s coverage of the auto industry over three decades has taken him to the racetracks, automotive engineering centers, vehicle simulators, wind tunnels, and crash-test labs of the world.

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