While shopping for a three-row, seven-seat crossover or SUV, you're likely to include one of the best-sellers in that group: the Toyota Highlander. But it's also worth considering another model offering a relatively sporty driving experience: the Mazda CX-9.
We like them both, but for very different reasons. The Mazda excels for its fun-to-drive nature and its detail-oriented interior, but it's the Highlander that ultimately makes feels like the better family-oriented vehicle thanks to its more flexible interior. We've rated the Highlander a 7.2 out of 10 using our new scale, but we're still waiting to grade the CX-9 using the same metrics. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
How do the two models stack up? Both are likely to be safe and reliable, but they have very different personalities. The CX-9 was redesigned for 2016 from the ground up, and while it kind of looks like a revamped version of its dated predecessor, all the two really share is a badge and a general outlook on life.
Under its hood, the CX-9 utilizes a downsized, turbocharged inline-4 that replaces a heavier V-6. With up to 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque coming on boost early, the CX-9 has strong acceleration subdued behind lots of sound deadening and thick glass. Regardless of trim level, the CX-9 features a buttoned-down suspension and the most communicative steering we've ever seen in a three-row crossover.
The Highlander takes a more conventional approach, but that's by no means a bad thing. Most 2017 Highlander models are powered by a revised, direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6, which produces 295 hp, up 25 horses this year. These models also get a new 8-speed automatic transmission that has an expanded torque-converter lockup range and what Toyota describes as a more direct driving feel.This new powertrain improves both pep and fuel economy. The V-6 tops out at 21 mpg city, 27 highway.
The base Highlander utilizes a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder that, frankly, is unlikely to return better real-world fuel economy since it's a little low on power for this large vehicle. There's also a Highlander Hybrid that delivers 306 net hp thanks to a supplemental electric motor, and it allows for impressive 30/28 mpg figures. That said, the Highlander Hybrid's price tag puts it in dedicated luxury territory.
On the road, the CX-9 is certainly the more enjoyable to drive, its suspension straddling the line between sporty and comfortable in ways we typically only see from high-end crossovers from the likes of Porsche and Audi. Its steering is direct and remarkably communicative, two accolades we don't levy on crossovers very often. That said, there's no real reason to fault the Highlander's road manners. Its suspension is compliant and comfortable, smothering out even the roughest of bumps with ease, albeit without the Mazda's verve.
But, let's be honest here, you're probably buying a three-row crossover for its passenger-hauling capability. To that end, the Highlander delivers terrific first and second row room and above average accommodations out back. Its second row moves out the way easily for access to the third row which folds flat when called upon for more passengers. And there's good space behind its third row when it's up. By contrast, the Mazda feels tighter in every seat, even though it's not. But if more than four passengers is relatively rare in your household, you'll be perfectly fine with the CX-9.
Both models offer good infotainment systems, although we ding the CX-9 for relying on a control knob rather than a proper touchscreen. The Highlander's system is less flashy, but it's very functional and it works really well.
Safety sells when it comes to family-oriented crossovers and both of these vehicles are at the top of their game. The Highlander receives the best available marks from the IIHS and, crucially, it comes standard for 2017 with automatic emergency braking that can detect pedestrians, as well as lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beam headlamps. It receives a surprising four stars for frontal collision from the NHTSA, but it's still rated at five stars overall.
The CX-9 hasn't yet been tested by either agency, and while new safety technology is fitted on more expensive models, the features are unavailable on the base Sport model. Mid-range versions get blind-spot monitors, while the top trims add a bundle of safety technology that includes adaptive cruise control (good for operating at up to 90 mph), lane-keep assist, lane-departure warnings, and forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking.
Which one is better for you? If you're a fan of sporty driving, the CX-9 channels enough of its inner Miata to be entertaining. But the Highlander's broader lineup may make it a better fit for you.