The 2021 Mazda CX-9 defies conventional judgement. Sure, it's a three-row, seven-seat crossover like a Honda Pilot or a Ford Explorer, but with its tailored outfit and its other luxury trappings, it doesn't have much time to worry about fitting kids in its skimpy third-row seat, and it doesn't place much of a premium on fuel economy like a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Nor does it indulge the touchscreen convenience found in just about every other new car sold in the U.S. It lives to flout the rules.
So what good is the CX-9, then? It’s well above average, with a TCC Rating of 6.5 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.) It's pretty. It steers well. It's lavishly upholstered and fitted. But it's also smaller and more stiff-jointed than almost every crossover SUV of its kind, though just as pricey.
After driving an AWD Signature edition for a thousand-mile jaunt up the Eastern seaboard, we're less convinced that Mazda's "premium" pitch works in its biggest vehicle. Here's where the premium price paid off—and where it costs this crossover.
Hit: So, so pretty. A few years into its current model cycle, we’re still smitten with the CX-9’s looks. It’s pretty from nearly every angle, with a slim front end, a reasonably sized and shaped grille (ahem) and sleek curves that belie its actual size. The cabin’s neatly split by a metallic band of trim that gives it a roomy look—and in Signature versions it’s trimmed out with lovely luxury-grade wood and leather.
Miss: The turbo-4's just okay. Mazda taps a 2.5-liter turbo-4 for power. The CX-9 sends its 227 horsepower to either the front or all four wheels through a 6-speed automatic, which is fewer gears than you’ll find in a teensy Jeep Renegade. (But more than, say, a Tesla Model S.) With some turbo lag off the line and middling power for such a large vehicle, the CX-9 could swap in a transmission with more gears for a noticeable performance boost. Maybe they could tame the graunchy acceleration sounds, too.
Hit: Non-SUV handling. Average in acceleration, the CX-9 tunes its ride and handling for the SUV version of Mensa. The steering's a revelation for anyone who's driven one of the three-row South Korean SUVs. It snips apexes like Fiskars. In its middle versions, it's reasonably absorbent too, thanks to reasonably sized 18-inch wheels.
Miss: Stiff ride. The 20-inch wheels standard on Signature models contribute to an occasionally harsh ride. The springs and dampers stamp it with enthusiasm on purer pavement, but curse it on the rougher patches. We like a little joie de vivre as much as anyone, but here it's a little too spunky for the mission at hand.
Hit: Excellent front seats. Even with the base cloth seats, the CX-9's shapely front seats turn nine-hour jaunts on I-95 into piecework. They're better when robed in the Signature's nappa leather upholstery, and when they're heated and cooled.
Miss: Third-row seat space. Why even offer the third row? The CX-9 has a more tidy footprint than many of its competitors, and it shows. With the third row in place, its 14 cubic feet of cargo space holds a roll-on or two, barely. The third row itself can't hold a medium-sized passenger in comfort. It's better off as a five-seater—or as a four-seater, with plump captain's chairs and a center console in the second row.
Miss: Cursed infotainment. The CX-9 has a click-wheel interface, and not only does it bar touch input on its digital, it limits what can be done when driving through the rotary controller. Try to spin the CX-9 from Apple CarPlay's podcast function to a frequently used map destination, and you'll embark on a journey of a dozen little spins and clicks that draws eyes off the road for too long. Mazda's heart is in the right place, but the execution flails.
We can admire the CX-9's driving brio and its high-minded cabin. Adaptive dampers, a quieter and stronger powertrain, and about three inches more third-row seat space could cure its flaws. But the price would balloon even more, we fear: while the base $35,060 CX-9 Sport is a value, and so is the better-equipped Touring trim, the AWD Signature edition costs $47,980, perilously close to BMW's X3 and X4.
2021 Mazda CX-9 AWD Signature
Base price: $47,980, including $1,175 destination
Price as tested: $48,475, including $495 of Machine Gray Metallic paint
Drivetrain: 227-hp 2.5-liter turbo-4, 6-speed automatic transmission, AWD
EPA fuel economy: 20/26/23 mpg
The hits: The seats, the shape, the steering
The misses: Stiff ride, stiff price