The Mazda CX-9 remains one of the better models in its class.
Mazda doesn’t get the attention some of the bigger automakers receive unless it’s the MX-5 Miata roadster. That’s a shame as this Japanese manufacturer has long been the styling leader in a sea of nondescript models. Even as its competitors catch up in all things appearance, there’s something special about the Mazda look that gives it a premium vibe. The midsize, three-row CX-9 SUV is the largest Mazda model and was a recent visitor for our evaluation.
2021 Mazda CX-9 Review
Mazda offers the 2021 CX-9 in Sport ($34,160), Touring ($35,950), Carbon Edition ($41,280), Grand Touring ($42,140), and Signature ($46,805) trims. Add $1,175 for the destination charge. The CX-9 comes with standard front-wheel drive and available all-wheel drive with seating for up to seven.
CX-9 Exterior Highlights
The current-generation Mazda CX-9 is in its sixth year and it hardly seems that long for this model. When it rolled out in 2016, we were gob-smacked by its relatively large footprint, making this the largest Mazda model ever. Further, this utility vehicle’s stance and near-luxury appearance had us recommending the CX-9 to budget-minded luxury vehicle shoppers. We still do.
Light changes through the years have kept the CX-9 close to its original look and that’s not a bad thing. It has lost a bit of its edge in the segment with rivals such as the Hyundai Palisade and Ford Explorer also delivering polished packages. Yet, this Mazda has lost none of its appeal, as long as you weigh its deficiencies with what we like best about it.
One of the more intriguing things about the CX-9’s appearance is how Mazda applied its “soul of motion” or KODO design language to this model. Like every other Mazda vehicle, this one is dominated by a gaping grille, wraparound headlamps, and a narrow lower grille opening.
Along the sides, the CX-9 offers generous amounts of body sculpting, character lines, and fashionable wheel wells. The beltline gently rises, then arcs upward to meet the roofline. Lower body chrome trim dresses the higher-end trims along with stylish chrome wheel choices. From the rear, the teardrop-shaped lights also wrap around and are separated by a chrome bar. A liftgate spoiler, dual exhaust tips, and available chrome trim along the bottom of the rear bumper complete the look.
The CX-9’s premium vibe is apparent, even with the base Sport trim. Indeed, with standard automatic LED headlamps, LED daytime running lights, and LED taillights, it makes a good start in ushering in premium touches. A brightwork grille, rain-sensing wipers, 18-inch alloy wheels, heated and power-controlled side mirrors with turn signal indicators, and the dual chrome exhaust tips round out the standard features.
Moving up through the trim range brings forth a number of sought-after features, including LED fog lights, a power sliding glass moonroof with sunshade, 20-inch aluminum wheels, aluminum roof rails, a hands-free power liftgate, automatic power-folding side mirrors, and even retractable roof rails. Certainly, some of the features, including the emerging rails, are unexpected in this mainstream class.
Shopping the Signature trim brings in a unique grille, LED signature lighting, special wheels, and larger dual exhaust pipes. Special “Signature” badging is also included, which also dressed our test model.
CX-9 Interior Highlights
When the CX-9 rolled out, we took note of the interior, not just the high-quality materials used. With seating for as many as seven, it’s in the heart of the segment. Yet, overall the interior is on the small size with room for five the ideal. Notably, the third row is simply too small except, perhaps, for youngsters. Other models do it better, including the Volkswagen Atlas.
We’re impressed with the lovely interior that dresses every trim. Of course, it flows better as you move up the trim range, but the quality of the materials along with an excellent fit and finish are hard to ignore. We’ve seen comparisons made to the Volvo XC-90 and that’s a compliment worthy of this model. And for Volvo too.
To wit, the list of standard features includes keyless entry with push-button start, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, tri-zone climate control, a 6-way power driver’s seat, and cloth seats. Add in full power accessories and a tilt-and-telescopic steering column, and the base model is strong out of the gate.
Move up through the trim ranges and leather-trimmed seats appear at the Touring level. Other available features include a 6-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, dual illuminated side mirrors, and a second-row tilt-and-slide bench seat. We think, however, upgrading to the center row captain’s chairs is the best plan as you will come away with more comfortable seats as well as ease of access and egress to the third row.
Mazda pulls out all the stops beginning with the Carbon Edition, adding a heated steering wheel, red-trimmed leather seats, ventilated front seats, an 8-way power driver’s seat, and second-row retractable sunshades. But there is more to follow at the top trim, including authentic rosewood interior inlays, aluminum trim, and quilted seats.
Cue the music because the 2021 CX-9 holds top crash honors from not one, but two testing authorities. Both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) bestowed their respective best ratings – Top Safety Pick+ and 5-star – a double achievement that is never a slam dunk and always quite the accomplishment.
The list of standard features includes automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and full adaptive cruise control with stop and go. Also available is a traffic sign recognition system, driver attention alert, smart city brake support-reverse, and a surround-view monitor with front and rear parking sensors.
This year, every CX-9 features a 10.25-inch color display. That’s essentially the new size standard for today’s automobiles. It’s wider than it is taller with an easy-to-read screen.
What hasn’t changed is this model’s principal inadequacy – the dreadful central control knob. It doesn’t control the full screen – that’s what touch is all about – but it does utilize a cursor to manage pages. Just forget about it and use the screen or the surrounding buttons to manage music, navigation, home, and more.
Beyond the forgettable knob, there are some wins in the CX-9’s arsenal. We’ll get to those shortly. In the meantime, Mazda supplies a standard 6-speaker audio system, two USB ports, Bluetooth, and smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Also, HD Radio and connected services.
Move up through the trim range and features such as satellite radio, a 7-inch LCD instrument panel screen, a 12-speaker Bose audio system, and navigation roll out. A wireless phone charger, which seems so common (and welcome) these days is available along with much-desired third-row USB charging ports.
We like Mazda’s turbocharged four-cylinder engine and recommend running it on regular-grade gasoline unless you absolutely want the extra 23 horsepower it delivers. Indeed, that’s the extra boost you get when you choose premium fuel, but if you’re like me, the extra 50 cents per gallon isn’t worth it. Especially in these days of elevated gas prices.
What you do get is 310 pound-feet of torque (320 with premium fuel) and that’s the number you want to focus on when pulling a trailer or passing traffic. The CX-9’s horsepower numbers aren’t impressive, but torque is what matters the most, especially for highway driving.
The Mazda powertrain, though, is also comprised of a 6-speed automatic transmission. In these days where 8-, 9-, and 10-speed transmissions are the norm, the additional cogs would be useful, especially for improving fuel economy. As it stands, the all-wheel-drive model earns 20/26/23 mpg city/highway/combined, although that number is in line with the Ford Explorer’s 2.3-liter turbocharged engine and a 10-speed automatic.
We don’t think that many customers will care about the number of cogs anyway as the step-off power and hard acceleration response are matters of concern to most. The CX-9 moves away steadily from a dead stop and responds with modest lag when pressing the pedal to the metal. Our personal preference is a naturally aspirated V6 to get this done (such as in the Hyundai Palisade), but Mazda operates a four-cylinder-only fleet and must work its magic with what it does. Happily, it succeeds.
The CX-9 offers decent steering and laudable handling with an average turning radius. It rides smoothly and quietly and has strong brakes. It projects a more polished or nuanced ride overall and that says much for this ultra-competitive class.
The three-row midsize utility vehicle segment is a big seller for manufacturers, consequently, nearly every player has at least one model for the choosing. Most come with standard front-wheel drive and available all-wheel drive, although models such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee L, Dodge Durango, and Ford Explorer send power to the rear wheels with all-wheel drive available.
Other models to compare include the Volkswagen Atlas, Toyota Highlander, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Palisade, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Kia Telluride, and the Subaru Ascent. Of this group, the Subaru comes with standard all-wheel drive.
With five trims to choose from, we typically recommend shoppers consider the middle trims. In this case, eliminate the Sport and Signature trims to find your best value.
We’re impressed with all the features of the Touring edition as it includes most of the amenities customers want. If you choose to add all-wheel drive, you’ll pay an additional $1,900 (AWD is standard with the Signature trim). At this price point, you’ll stay below $40,000, including with destination, tags, and taxes. And that’s a deal we like even before discounts are taken.
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2021 Mazda CX-9 photos copyright Auto Trends Magazine. All rights reserved.