Mazda CX-9 — At the top of its class

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mazda introduced its second-generation three-row CX-9 crossover at just the right time in 2016 as the SUV market was exploding, and over the past four years it has performed quite well holding its own against the increasingly more sophisticated competition. Mazda's remake of the CX-9 in 2016 was startlingly good pushing the three-row crossover to the top of its class in terms of most things a buyer wants — three useable rows of seats, a healthy and fuel-efficient engine, a high-quality interior loaded with technology, the latest in safety equipment, an engaging driving experience, and styling that will turn heads.

Over the past few years Mazda has given the CX-9 continual updates and for 2020 the CX-9 has made Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity available, retuned the suspension for a smoother ride, and added a new surround-view parking camera system.

As more and more buyers are opting for well-equipped top-of-the-line models, Mazda has answered with its Signature trim level pushing into luxury territory with new Signature trim level badging, predictive i-ACTIV all-wheel drive, Nappa leather seating surfaces, updated Santos Rosewood interior trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with unique stitching, and a LED grille lighting accent.

The Signature comes standard with such things as a power liftgate, eight-inch infotainment display, universal garage door opener, adaptive cruise control, sunroof, navigation, 12-speaker Bose premium audio system, heated second-row seats, a digital gauge cluster and a host of safety features. This upper level CX-9 is priced around 46 grand including destination charge.

The CX-9 also comes in three lesser trim levels — Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring — and many of the Signature features can be added as options. The CX-9 starts at $33,275 for the Sport trim with such standard features as 18-inch alloy wheels, tri-zone climate control, 50/50 split-folding third-row seats, two USB ports, and — we think very important — blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert. All-wheel drive can be added for $1,800.

Probably the best bang for the buck is the Touring even though it's a big step up in price — about $3,000 — from the base Sport. The Touring includes amenities such as leather seats, power-adjustable heated front seats, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, keyless entry, and push-button start.

Under the hood the CX-9 has discarded a V-6 in favor of a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with a smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission. On paper, it would seem this engine would be lacking the
necessary punch for confident passing and merging, but we found power and performance ample for all driving conditions measured at 7.3 seconds from 0-to-60, average for the segment. And the towing capacity is competitive in the segment at 3,500 pounds.

One of the big benefits of the turbocharged 4-cylinder is its decent gas mileage rated at 22-mpg city and 28 highway in front-wheel drive and 20/26/23 with AWD. Mazda says either regular gas or 93-octane premium can be safely used in the engine. What differs is performance. Using 87-octane, the engine makes 227 horsepower while on premium it churns out 250 horses.

Normally you would be happy — perhaps even thrilled — if you could find a large SUV that had all the ingredients for carrying seven passengers and cargo in reasonable comfort, and had a decent tow rating. But the CX-9, while displaying all these traits, is just darn right fun to drive, too. That's a big bonus in this segment. The electrically assisted power steering is light and accurate and the CX-9 is devoid of the ponderous feel offered by many competitors. The suspension is turned toward the firm side for satisfying back-road driving, yet supple enough to provide the kind of luxury ride sensitive backsides expect.

There are always downsides and perhaps the biggest drawback of the CX-9 especially if you need a three-row family hauler with exceptional cargo space (capacity behind the third-row seat measures 14.4 cubic feet and cargo capacity is 71.2 cubic feet with all seatbacks folded) is a tight third-row seating area. Also, there is no second-row captain's chair option. While the front seats are well sculpted and comfortable some have complained about compromised legroom because of the narrow cockpit and awkward power seat adjustments that left the bottom cushion angle uncomfortable.

Although our Signature test vehicle had a high level of standard equipment, it still carried a couple of options including the $1,995 rear entertainment system bringing the bottom line to $49,230.

Base price: $33,275; as driven, $49,230
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 227 @ 5,000 rpm
Torque: 310 foot-pounds @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 115.3 inches
Length: 199.4 inches
Curb weight: 4,383 pounds
Turning circle: 38.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 71.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 20 city, 26 highway, 23 combined
0-60: 7.3 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer

The Good
• Premium interior
• Sporty handling
• Updated technology

The bad
• Average fuel economy

The Ugly
• Tight rear-seat quarters