Wary of hulking, brutish 3rd-row crossovers? Mazda has an alternative in the refined and athletic CX-9. We explore all that makes the CX-9 a uniquely exciting option.
Crossovers have always conceded an aesthetic deficit to the sedans they’ve displaced. While they might be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as “tougher” than station wagons and minivans, they’ve never been accused of being all that much better looking. As a company, Mazda has always had something of a contrarian streak, whether that’s wanton use of rotary engines, making sports cars that don’t need a ton of power to be fun, or, the case of the 2020 Mazda CX-9, producing three-row crossovers that refuse to compromise on looks or drivability.
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When it comes to looks, the list of competitors with the Mazda CX-9 is conspicuously short. Maybe the Kia Telluride or Hyundai Palisade? Perhaps the new Highlander, depending on your taste? Even these are merely good, while the CX-9 flirts with great. Is it just that long hood, those swooping lines, or the jocular and slightly mischievous curl to the mouth of the grille? Who knows? But once combined, in Voltron-like fashion, you’ve finally got a crossover that looks as good as the sedan you’re replacing it with.
And this doesn’t even address the real story with the CX-9, which is this: it’s the best handling 3rd-row crossover you’ll find for under $50,000. Full stop. Things this big don’t have any business being this planted around corners or feeling this torquey. To be able to say a crossover like the CX-9 is actually a pleasure to drive is a nice change of pace.
The spec sheet on the Mazda CX-9 is rather short, and that’s because there’s only one engine option and one transmission. The lack of options doesn’t end up mattering because what Mazda gives you is a well-tuned powertrain that delivers where it needs to and then offers a bit more for good measure.
This starts with a turbocharged 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine paired with a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic. The output depends on the type of gas you choose to pump, with regular unleaded producing 227hp and 310lb.-ft. of torque and premium unleaded granting slightly higher numbers with 250hp and 320lb.-ft. That torque number that should jump out to you. That’s where the CX-9 gets that added punch that other crossovers lack. It’s also good for a 0-60 run in 7.2 seconds.
The CX-9 doesn’t give up a lot in efficiency for this extra power, either. Instead, it gets pretty close to the segment average at 22 city and 28 highway when equipped with FWD, dropping to 20/26 with AWD. It’s actually towing where the CX-9 ends up lackluster with just 3,500lbs. at maximum, whereas many comparable crossovers can tow up to 5,000lbs.
As good as the Mazda CX-9 looks, and it looks razor sharp, the reason to buy one is you just can’t stomach buying a large crossover and conceding to a perennially boring commute. And while finding a new podcast might be cheaper, it won’t match the enjoyment you’ll squeeze from the CX-9. You really do have to look a level up the food chain to luxury crossovers to get the same on-road dynamics you’ll find here.
Despite the single engine option, the turbo-4 does a great job of propelling the CX-9 down the road, and the 6-speed automatic is the perfect antidote to your CVT blues, shifts here are smooth and responsive.
The handling and steering are the real highlights. Absent is the steering numbness found in other crossovers. Instead, you get a decent amount of road feel and communication from the wheels. And, compared to just about any AWD crossover, the CX-9’s cornering is excellent; it feels planted, with minimal body roll. The CX-9 drives much smaller than it is.
The CX-9, along with the rest of Mazda’s current lineup, provides arguably the nicest interior you can find in its segment. Materials are of a high quality no matter where you look. Metal, gloss black, soft touch plastic, leather, and even real wood accenting all combine to have the CX-9’s interior abutting luxury levels of swank.
As we mentioned in the intro, the CX-9 has a long hood we think contributes to its distinctive and elegant good looks, but unfortunately this comes at the price of interior space. While the CX-9 has a similar footprint to other third row crossovers it is notably more cramped inside than its rivals. Its 110.1 inches of combined leg room is on par with the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander but behind leaders like the Kia Telluride and its 117.9 inches.
As with most third-row crossovers, the CX-9’s way way back seats are not really suitable for adult passengers. But unlike some competitors, Mazda doesn’t pretend you can fit three in the back seat, instead it’s designed for two. For a seven-seat configuration you’ll have to forgo the optional 2nd-row captain’s chairs. But, if six seats is enough, those captain’s chairs come with a large center console in between them.
Another strong suit of the CX-9 is the healthy array of standard features on tap. Mazda’s i-Activesense safety suite includes adaptive cruise control (a feature often reserved for upper trims), blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alerts, pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, and lane keep assist.
The infotainment system in the CX-9 isn’t the latest version you’ll find in the Mazda3 or CX-30, but it’s still intuitive and responsive. The auxiliary knob controls become the sole navigation element once you’re out of park, but here too, they system is simple and easy to use.
There were however a couple glaring misfires on the features front for the CX-9, namely the lack of a panoramic moonroof (we only get a small “standard” size moonroof in the CX-9) and poor resolution in the backup camera (which looks about 2 generations back from the current industry standard).
Conversely, a highlight are the CX-9’s seats. They are available with heating and ventilation up front and heat in the back. The driver’s seat gets two-way lumbar adjustment, ten-way position adjustment, along with two position memory. The seats in general are comfortable even for longer trips and the final 3rd row (while still not spacious) offers more padding than the average.
18” wheels, keyless entry, heated side mirrors, LED headlights and taillights, power heated driver’s seat, leather steering wheel, 7” infotainment system.
Power liftgate, 9” infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, power passenger seat, leather seats.
Moonroof, 20” wheels, 360° camera, heated rear seats, Bose stereo system, navigation, front and rear parking sensors, memory driver’s seat, heated steering wheel.
LED accent lighting (including grille!), Nappa leather seats.
Most crossovers aren’t as rugged as their marketing would suggest, and still more are grossly over-equipped for the trips to the mall and jaunts to grandma’s house that will comprise the near totality of their lifetime mileage. The 2020 Mazda CX-9 doesn’t pretend, and it demands you stop pretending too.
Are you okay sacrificing ride quality for off-road handling? No, you’re not, stop kidding yourself. Are you fine getting smashed at a green light by a Prius? An emphatic no! Are shoddy, plastic-laden interiors just the price you have to pay to feel tough? Let’s get real.
The 2020 Mazda CX-9 minces no words. It knows what you really need in a 3rd-row crossover. Something that doesn’t sacrifice drivability in the name of utilitarianism. Something not just livable but comfortable, and, dare we ask, stylish. There is the Kia Telluride/Hyundai Palisade for additional refinement and size, and there’s the Ford Explorer ST for additional driving excitement. But clearly the CX-9 deserves to be in the conversation with the best 3rd-row crossovers on the market.
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