Although Mazda is one of the smaller Japanese brands, it responded rapidly to the American market shift to SUVs. Mazda's SUV lineup now consists of the subcompact CX-3, compact CX-30, compact CX-5 and midsize CX-9. Five versions of the 2021 CX-9 are available: Sport ($34,160), Touring ($35,950), Carbon Edition ($41,280), Grand Touring ($42,140), and Signature ($46,805). Front-wheel drive is standard on all models (all-wheel drive is optional), except the Signature (AWD only). Midsize alternatives to the Mazda include the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, GMC Acadia, among others.
We tested the top AWD Signature model ($46,805) painted in Soul Red Crystal Metallic ($595). The total including the $1,175 destination fee added up to $48,575. Significant standard equipment included Nappa leather seats, power front seats (8-way driver & 6-way front passenger adjustability), LED headlights, foglights and grille lighting, adaptive front lights, rosewood veneer trim, 20-in. alloy wheels, moonroof, 2nd row captain's chairs, power liftgate, power folding exterior mirrors, 9-in. infotainment display, heated/ventilated front and heated second-row seats, heated steering wheel, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and a 12-speaker Bose audio system. Some of the standard active safety technologies include a 360-deg. view monitor, dynamic stability control, radar cruise control, collision warning, lane departure warning, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
All CX-9 models are driven by the all-aluminum Skyactiv-G 2.5T powerplant coupled to a 6-speed automatic driving the front or all four wheels. Turbocharging and direct-injection enable the DOHC inline-4 to deliver 227-hp @ 5,000 RPM and 310 lb.-ft. @ 2,000 RPM when fueled by 87-octane gasoline. Switching to 93-octane fuel boosts peak power to 250-hp and torque to 320 lb.-ft. Mazda's i-ACTIV AWD system dynamically directs up to 50% of available power to the rear wheels based on road and driving conditions. The CX-9's transmission has fifth (0.707:1) and sixth (0.600:1) overdrive ratios mated to a 4.411:1 axle ratio. Fuel consumption is rated at 22/28 MPG (city/hwy.) for the FWD powertrain or 20/26 MPG (city/hwy.) with AWD. We averaged around 20 MPG in the AWD Signature for mostly urban driving, matching the EPA estimates.
Like other midsize SUVs, the CX-9 front suspension consists of MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar. At the rear is a multi-link design with coil springs, dampers, and a stabilizer bar. Brakes are all-disc: 12.6-in. dia. vented rotors (front) and 12.8-in. dia. solid rotors (rear). An electrically power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system is geared for 3.1 turns lock-to-lock. AWD models weigh in at 4,409 lbs. or 4,236 lbs. for FWD. Towing capacity is rated at 3,500 lbs.
As expected from the highest trim level in the lineup, interior materials and build quality are exceptional. Most interior touch points are padded surfaces. Mazda's designers used matte textured aluminum accents on the dash, steering wheels and doors. Dark rosewood veneer surrounds the center console and the door armrests. Overall, the interior design theme reinforces the impression of quality and luxury befitting a premium SUV.
Mazda's driver-oriented focus is apparent from the uncluttered gauge cluster: analog tachometer, speedometer, and dual meters for coolant temperature and fuel level. The leather-wrapped steering wheel integrates controls for audio, cruise, and mobile phone. A head-up display projects vehicle speed directly ahead of the driver. Instead of the typical touchscreen, the dash-mounted infotainment display is controlled via knobs and buttons on the center console. Dual-zone climate controls are conveniently located on the center stack, along with the heated/ventilated seats and heated steering wheel settings. Power ports include a 12V power outlet on the center console; dual USB ports are hidden in the center console bin. A slot under the climate controls has a wireless phone charging pad.
Opt for the top Signature model and Mazda upgrades the seats to supple Nappa leather (leather seats are available in other CX-9 models). Despite the 8-way power adjustments, the excessively firm front seat padding and minimal lateral thigh support were disappointing. Front headroom is adequate for occupants up to 6 ft. tall. The no-cost second-row captain's chairs are more supportive and comfortable than the typical bench seat; headroom is acceptable for 6 ft. tall passengers, along with decent legroom. Sitting in the third-row is best left for children and shorter adults due to the shallow footwell, but headroom is sufficient for occupants up to 5 ft.-9 in. tall. A USB port for each seat lets each rear passenger power portable devices. Both second and third-row seats fold down to a flat load floor for cargo.
Mazda's mission for the CX-9 is comfort and luxury, so the suspension tuning is oriented to deliver a compliant ride but with reasonable damping to control ride motions. The CX-9's moderate understeer around curves, accompanied by significant body roll was expected and typical for its segment. The electrically-assisted steering transmits road surface textures effectively, but the relatively slow gearing reinforces the impression that the CX-9 is a relaxed cruiser. Despite a curb weight exceeding 2 tons, braking performance is above average, with progressive actuation and a firm brake pedal.
Mazda's six-speed automatic makes effective use of the engine torque curve, but with fewer gear ratios than most of its competition, the CX-9 gives up 1-2 MPG in highway fuel consumption. For a more engaging driving experience, we occasionally slipped the center console-mounted transmission gear lever into manual shift mode. Alternately, a toggle switch next to the lever enables Sport mode for higher RPM shift points without resorting to manual shifting. We generally preferred the convenient steering wheel-mounted paddles for shifting on demand.
Most midsize SUVs are available with inline-4 and/or V-6, but Mazda's choice of a turbo four to power the CX-9 is logical, especially since only a single powertrain is offered. In most urban driving scenarios low-RPM and midrange torque is more relevant than peak horsepower, so the Mazda tuned the 2.5L turbo accordingly. The substantial 320 lb.-ft. of peak torque launches the CX-9 rapidly from a stoplight, and midrange throttle response for quick passing at highway speeds is reassuring. A mild twinge of momentary torque steer occurs on a full throttle launch, before the AWD system transfers power to the rear axle. Above 6,000 RPM engine thrust levels off, but due to the ample low and midrange torque, revving to the redline is unnecessary. At 80+ MPH highway cruising the CX-9 feels solid and stable; wind, engine and tire noise are subdued, making this SUV an excellent choice for extended road trips.
In the spectrum of midsize SUVs, the Mazda CX-9 resembles and drives like station wagon. This is no coincidence or criticism: the immediate benefits of superior ride and handling, accompanied by the added visibility of a higher (but not too high) seating position are compelling. Although the flagship CX-9 Signature is nearly $49K, the midrange Grand Touring and Touring models deliver most essential equipment and comforts at a substantially lower price. As a versatile all-purpose family vehicle, the CX-9 is one of the top contenders in its class.