Mazda CX-9 Vs. Toyota HighlanderEnlarge Photo
Under the hood, the Mazda CX-9 gets a 3.7-liter V-6, good for 273 horsepower and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Buyers get to choose between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, but that’s it as far as powertrain options go. Toyota Highlander shoppers, on the other hand, have a choice of three engines, including four-cylinder and six-cylinder versions (a hybrid is expected to return soon). For comparison purposes, the Highlander with the 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is probably the closest to the CX-9.
On the road, the advantage goes to the Mazda CX-9. We’d stop short of calling the three-row crossover “sporty,” but it does provide a level of driver involvement and feedback that’s absent from the Toyota Highlander. The CX-9’s suspension is noticeably firmer, but never objectionably so; if anything, its the suspension tuning that makes the Mazda feel more like a sedan than an SUV, which may well boost your confidence behind the wheel. The Highlander handles better after its recent redesign, with better tuning for the front-strut and independent-rear suspension, but it still has a higher center of gravity, so you’ve got a family hauler best suited to traversing long stretches of interstate, not winding its way though mountain passes.
Inside, the Toyota Highlander gets a lot more fashionable for 2014, but the interior package hasn't changes all that much. It offers up a bit more room for adults in the first two rows, though five adults can still sit comfortably in the CX-9. The third row of both vehicles is best reserved for children, or at least adults under five feet in height. Of the two, the Highlander gives slightly better access to the third row, thanks in part to its more level roofline. If the Highlander gets the nod for access, we’d give the nod to the CX-9 for interior design, since the inside of the Mazda is just a nicer place to spend time than the interior of the Toyota. If you’ve got the budget and the desire, both can be equipped with amenities like leather seating, navigation and premium audio systems.
While both vehicles have good safety records, only the Highlander is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, and a federal five-star performer. The Mazda scores well in all regards except for roof strength testing, where it achieves a score of “marginal” instead of the “good” required to earn a Top Safety Pick award. Both vehicles come with a full complement of safety features such as airbags and electronic stability control, and the Mazda can even be equipped with a blind spot monitoring system and back up camera. But with its excellent ratings, the Highlander's definitely on top.
The comparison is a lot closer than it used to be. But even with the Highlander's redesign for 2015, we give the Mazda CX-9 the win in this battle. Its design is more dated, but it’s more engaging to drive and carries itself with a bit more style than the Highlander, which is just enough to squeak out a narrow victory in this competition. You’ll want to drive both before making a purchase decision, but the choice for us is clear enough.
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