2015 Toyota HighlanderEnlarge Photo
Choices abound for car shoppers looking at three-row, seven-seat crossovers or SUVs. And while you're likely to include one of the best-sellers in that group, the Toyota Highlander, it's worth considering another model that offers a relatively sedan-like driving experience: the Mazda CX-9.
How do the two models stack up? Although both are likely to prove themselves as safe and reliable family vehicles, only one comes out on top in our comparison. While these two models were serious rivals a couple of model years back, the CX-9 has become a bit outclassed as it's fallen behind on safety and interior fit and finish; but It’s worth noting that the victory is hardly a decisive one, and it really does come down more to personality as the deciding factor.
The Mazda CX-9 can trace its family tree to the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX (and the previous Mazda 6), but it doesn’t look a thing like either one. Mazda’s distinctive styling is part of the CX-9’s appeal, since it really doesn’t look like anything else on the road. The Mazda's design hasn't changed significantly in many years, but that's not a bad thing. The Toyota Highlander was redesigned last year, with an even more truck-like appearance than before on the outside. It wears a little more jewelry than before, so it escapes being called "plain" as the outgoing model was. And if you want a vehicle that appears more like a traditional SUV, you'll probably prefer the Toyota.
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 more fashionable in its latest guise, 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 advantage to the CX-9 for interior design. In both of these models, in their more affordable trim levels, there's quite a bit of hard plastic, and there are many other models that can show them up on the finer details. Yet 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 decent safety records, only the Highlander is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, and a federal five-star performer. It's by far the winner in the safety category, as the Mazda has some inexcusably low ratings for roof strength as well as small overlap frontal impact—a harsh contrast to Mazda's more recently updated models, like the smaller CX-5 crossover. 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.
With the Highlander's recent redesign, and the CX-9's more pronounced safety disadvantage, we have to give the overall win to the Highlander. The Mazda is more engaging to drive and carries itself with a bit more style than the Highlander, but if you have your priorities in your family's comfort and safety rather than the driver's seat, the Highlander is your better bet.
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