► All-new platform, all-new approach
► Rear-wheel drive basis for AWD SUV
► Plug-in hybrid CX-60 first to arrive
Is there any genre of car more confusing than the ‘roughly 300bhp AWD plug-in hybrid’? Family-focused, tall, usually based on a front-wheel drive platform, and claiming immense grip and furious 0-60mph times, the reality is rarely as exciting as the numbers suggest.
There’s now a new entrant in this competitive field – the Maxda CX-60 E-Skyactiv PHEV. It’s got a chunky 39 mile electric range, a 2.5-litre petrol engine plus electric motor for 323bhp, and all-wheel drive. It’s up against some strong rivals, from the Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4 and related Stellantis siblings, to the Toyota RAV4 Plug-in Hybrid, the Mercedes GLC 300 e 4Matic, and the Audi Q5 TFSI e, to name but a handful.
Given the only full-hybrid Mazda you can buy currently is a rebadged Toyota, the natural assumption from 2.5-litres, plug-in and AWD is that the CX-60 will offer more of the same recipe. But you’d be wrong.
So what’s different about the Mazda CX-60?
When most manufacturers are dropping diesel and downsizing petrol, the CX-60 range will offer a 3.3-litre diesel or 3.0-litre petrol, straight-six, mild-hybrid power – in addition to the plug-in hybrid tested here in pre-production form.
It has a completely new, bespoke platform that isn’t shared with any other model.
Did you get just a spark of excitement at the mention of straight-six engines? It’s justified, as the CX-60 is rear-wheel drive (though the majority well be all-wheel drive).
The CX-60 plug-in hybrid: common sense prevails
Car enthusiasts might love the idea of the straight-six without hesitation, but taxation and real world running costs would challenge Mazda’s aspirations for volume – at least in the UK. As such, the first CX-60 to arrive is this 33g/km hybrid.
Storing up charge for that crucial low-emissions capability, 17.8kWh of batteries sit under the floor between the axles, leaving practicality uncompromised and the centre of gravity optimised to complement the rear-wheel drive layout. Blending the power from the 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol and 173bhp electric motor ahead of the eight-speed gearbox, this is Mazda’s most powerful production car yet, with 369lb ft of torque and 323bhp in total. It’s also one of its heaviest, at just over two tonnes, but that’s not unusual for this class of car.
What is unusual is the in-line configuration. Dual wishbone front suspension makes full use of the narrower engine bay, allowing geometry designed for precise handling and consistent feedback. It results in a slightly compromised package for a 4.8m long car; in real terms, the CX-60 isn’t that much more practical than the CX-5, but it’s a very different experience behind the wheel.
Unusual as the engineering is, the CX-60 itself looks subtle. It’s imposing, but not gauche; depending on colour it can even look a little bland front the outside. Inside, the signature Takumi trim looks like it will be an essential to get a truly premium feel.
The Namura model we drove is more uniformly charcoal, and while it’s very well put together, and impressively soft (even the upper door trim in shiny plastic has some give, unlike the brittle items you often find even in premium cars), it doesn’t have the wow factor of nappa leather, maple and kimono fabric. Fortunately even that most luxurious Takumi spec is under £50,000.
Mazda’s dual-screen dashboard and infotainment is crisp, clear and easy to use, retaining the wheel and buttons on the console and actual, physical heater controls as well. The standard windscreen-projected head up display is colourful and reasonably large, too.
How does the CX-60 drive, then?
Unlike anything else in this class. From the start it feels driver-centric, as it uses facial recognition to store driver profiles, starting by offering the optimum driving position and head-up display based on your height and eyeline. It didn’t quite get it right, but it’s working from good foundations when you make your own adjustments; Mazda highlights the benefit of a narrow transmission tunnel for better pedal placement and it works.
However, it’s the direct, precise steering that sets the tone, light, free of any drag as you pull away and very well-weighted as speed builds. It is a big car, and feels it in town with flat, tall sides almost reminiscent of a scaled-down Bentayga, but it isn’t unwieldy. This car is fitted with 360-degree camera which helps.
It responds smoothly, the full torque of the electric motor allowing very quick, responsive driving away from junctions where other systems might display lag.
Most hybrids have plenty of advanced engineering going on, but Mazda’s developed the CX-60 around the driving experience, so it’s relevant here. Rather than splitting front and rear drive between multiple motors, the CX-60’s motor in hybrid form, whether plugged in or mild, takes the place of the torque convertor in an otherwise conventional automatic layout.
That means you’re always driving a predictable set of wheels from one power source, via a mechanical path; even the AWD models take the old-school route of a torque-splitting transfer box. The floor is high in the cabin, so the batteries and driveshafts don’t intrude.
The gearbox is a traditional eight-speed automatic rather than the CVT so often found in hybrids, but with a wet clutch setup for efficiency. It’s seamless in operation, with paddles for manual override. Aside from Mazda’s unusual drive selector, you really don’t notice it at all.
Where the CX-60 comes alive, and stands out from rivals, is on the open and winding road. It’s precise and easy to place, turning in with alacrity and little fuss as you let your speed build up for each successive curve. Body roll is well controlled and of course, there’s plenty of grip – rivals can deliver those attributes as well, and the distinction is that the CX-60 is fun to drive this way.
Can you tell it’s related to the MX-5?
There are elements of MX-5 engineering here, and it shows in the way the CX-60 communicates. It doesn’t shrink around you, or hide its weight, it just works with those aspects of its design, so everything you do feels natural.
Braking and final tune of refinement is yet to be completed, but even in this pre-production model you can feel that the bones of the CX-60 are right. An occasional unusual noise when transitioning from electric to ICE power is all that gives away the unfinished nature.
Less impressive at this stage is the engine refinement. Again, there may be work to do here, but where we expected harder acceleration to reach 3000rpm (the point at which motor and ICE combine for full power and torque), it felt and sounded like it was working much harder. Judgement should be reserved until the production version.
What about the ride and handling?
Designing the suspension layout for the CX-60 Mazda took the approach of putting dynamics over packaging, and you can feel the difference in behaviour most when mid-corner bumps are encountered; the dual-wishbone suspension rides over them, with no deflection, and as well as delivering a better experience for fast bends and fun roads, it’s also less tiring when cruising as you rarely have to correct the line.
The rear suspension is also configured in an unusual way, to avoid the tendency of heavy, tall cars to see-saw around the centre of the wheelbase. The result is different, but more mobile, with a vertical float over ruts and bumps that can get a little bouncy.
Crucially, the driver experiences this more than say, the rear passengers, so it’s a good rule to consider ‘if you’re uncomfortable, so are they’. A lot of sportier SUVs focus on the driver’s comfort, and rear passengers bear the brunt of body movement. It also rolls less than you would expect given the overall ride quality.
On fast, swift mountain corners it’s not magic-carpet clever, but for the price? You’re unlikely to find anything as competent and rewarding in this class of vehicle.
Sounds excellent, what’s the compromise?
Of course there’s a compromise – if this was the perfect way of making a family SUV for everyone, every manufacturer would be doing it. In this case, it’s a big car outside, but it has a relatively small boot and quite a lot of wasted space under the bonnet too (a side effect of the six-cylinder models).
It offers 477 litres of boot space with the seats up (570, if you count the underfloor space), expanding to 1726 litres with the seats down, and loaded up to the roofline. Big, yes, but the CX-60 feels like it’s a class above most rivals in exterior dimensions. It also feels a class above in interior space, with ample room for three across the rear bench and wide, comfortable front seats with big footwells.
Most of the packaging inefficiency is around the nose, where the 2.5-litre looks lost in a long, deep engine bay. It sits behind the front axle, improving weight distribution and leaving the space needed for the six-cylinder models.
There is an upside to this. The CX-60’s ‘traditional’ layout provides exceptional access for maintenance. This is going to be a delight for servicing, and should ensure this Mazda has a long useful life – arguably one of the most important environmental benefits any car can offer.
Verdict: Should you buy a CX-60?
The question is more ‘should you wait for the CX-60’ at this stage – it’s likely to show up around September 2022, in time for 72-plate registrations in the UK. This preview shows a lot of promise in handling, quality, and value for money.
If you’re considering a plug-in hybrid because you’re tempted by the large power outputs claimed, then yes; the CX-60 is one of the first to make that power enjoyable for the whole drive, rather than just the incongruity of a two-tonne family SUV doing a straight-line sprint faster than an ‘80s Ferrari.
From a more practical perspective, if you’re looking at the likes of 3008s, RAV4s and GLCs the CX-60 appreciably bigger to park. It is better value, but it’s a bigger package, and the warranty isn’t close to a RAV4’s offering.