WHAT IT IS: The CX-9 is Mazda’s answer to cars like the Toyota Highlander, Kia Telluride or Honda Pilot. It received a new revised exterior design and infotainment system for 2021, which Mazda hopes to spur some additional sales for the model that received a full update back in 2016. The CX-9’s main selling point is that it is not boring. The driving experience certainly doesn’t feel like a three-row crossover, and part of that is the peppy, turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque. The steering wheel provides plenty of feedback to the driver and it responds well to being pushed into corners.
If you were presented with both the smaller (and award-winning) CX-5 and the CX-9 sitting next to each other, it is remarkable how similar they look. The CX-9 is longer, which allows Mazda to squeeze in that third row of seats and some extra cargo capacity, but the interior dimensions for occupants in the first and second rows are nearly identical. It is very comfortable for full-sized adults in those rows, but the third row is designed only for children and will be spending most of its life folded flat for the extra cargo space. The CX-9 is a $8,690 price premium over the CX-5, so you really have to need the third row or cargo space to make the jump up.
My test model was a top-of-the-line Signature trim, which starts at $46,605 and only comes with AWD. All CX-9s come with the great turbocharged four-cylinder, so all of that option money goes toward tech, luxury and AWD. I was certainly struck with how nice the interior was. The Signature trim comes with Nappa leather seats with quilting and piping (in either walnut or parchment colors), and they are quite stunning. Genuine rosewood dash inlays, 20-inch wheels, LED grille accent lighting, plenty of modern safety tech, and just about anything else you could want is included. Second row captain’s chairs were also equipped, which is a great no-cost option.
I should also mention that I think Mazda has some of the best paint colors available from any auto manufacturer, and my test model came with the optional ($395) Snowflake White Pearl, which gave it a very luxurious vibe. The best choice though, and I will never be convinced otherwise, is Soul Red Crystal Metallic ($595), which truly looks electric when underneath the sun.
MPG: 20 city/26 highway/23 combined
Price: $33,960 base price. $48,100 as-tested
Upsides: Refined and fun to drive.
Downsides: Top-tier models start losing the value proposition. Some buyers may prefer a V6 instead of a turbocharged four-cylinder.
Wrap-up: I think the CX-9 is great, I’m just wavering on how much it cost. I reviewed the new Highlander about a month ago, and it is very difficult to recommend anything besides that in this price range. The CX-9 is more fun to drive, but many of the other crossovers are easier to live with on a day-to-day basis. I think buying the CX-5 is a no-brainer at its much lower price point, especially considering you can get it with the same great turbocharged 2.5-liter engine starting at about $31 thousand. So again, if having a third row is 100% necessary and you also want something fun and interesting to drive, then yes, buy a CX-9, but outside of those requirements, you should probably look elsewhere.