2021 Mazda CX-9 review: High-style with tradeoffs

Mazda’s CX-9 is still a spectator.

Jon Wong / Roadshow

Believe it or not, the second generation Mazda CX-9 is already six years old. But it still looks clean and fresh, and its driving dynamics continue to deliver too. Even so, six years is a long time in the automotive world, which is why Mazda has given the CX-9 some styling and technology updates for 2021 to keep it relevant.

I do not like

  • Coarse engine
  • So-so infotainment
  • Less cargo space than the competition

Pinch and tuck

In the case of my flagship CX-9 Signature test car, 2021 brings a trio of exterior changes. The grille is now finished in Titanium Gray Metallic, there are larger exhaust outlets to the rear, and the whole package spins on new 20-inch Brilliant Silver wheels. None of the changes are shocking, particularly the bland 10-spoke wheels, but the design of the CX-9 remains beautiful overall.

You slip into the Signature booth and are greeted with an attractive, straightforward dash built from some really beautiful materials. The dashboard and door panel toppers are soft to the touch, the hard plastics on the undersides are beautifully finished and the Santos rosewood trim makes the whole interior look premium. In addition, the first and second row Nappa leather seats feature new diamond-quilted upholstery and contrast piping, while the real aluminum upholstery now sports a patterned finish.

These upgrades join the CX-9 Signature’s other premium fixings, such as three-stage heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row captain’s chairs, and a soft, leather-wrapped, heated steering wheel. There’s also a full-sized moonroof, which will disappoint fans of gigantic panoramic glass tops, as Mazda doesn’t offer one of those.

Front space is generous with comfortable and supportive front buckets, large door panel compartments and a sizeable center armrest. The center row captain’s chairs are on the flat side with enough room for adults, but the rearmost seats are incredibly comfortable. Head and leg room for anyone over 5 feet 6 inches tall is practically non-existent, but at least there are cup holders and a couple of USB ports for all the kids you take with you.

In the cargo space category, the CX-9 falls behind the competition. With all seats unfolded, there are 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row, which grows to 71.2 cubic feet when both rear rows are folded. By comparison, behind the rearmost seats, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander offer 16 cubic feet of storage space, while the Kia Telluride has a whopping 21 cubic feet. With the rear two rows down, the Honda (82.1 cubic feet), Kia (87 cubic feet) and Toyota (84.3 cubic feet) make the Mazda pale.

The build quality and interior materials of the CX-9 are truly impressive.

Jon Wong / Roadshow

Big screen technology

The most noteworthy upgrade to Mazda’s larger crossover is the addition of a 10.3-inch center infotainment screen. The large display comes standard on all CX-9 models, offering crisp resolution and passable graphics, but this isn’t a touchscreen yet, so you’ll have to tinker with the center console controller to enter destinations into the Signature’s standard navigation system.

Even without touchscreen capabilities, Mazda Connect is a fairly intuitive interface, running a 12-speaker Bose audio setup, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi hotspot. If you fear Mazda’s tech, and some Roadshow staff members do, you can choose to hand the infotainment controls to both of you Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

The CX-9 certainly has no shortage of power outlets, with a wireless charging pad located at the base of the center console, USB charging ports within easy reach of all three rows of seats, and 12-volt sockets in the front and of the trunk.

A 10.3-inch infotainment screen is now standard on every CX-9.

Jon Wong / Roadshow

On the driver assistance technology front, every CX-9 features adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assistance and blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic warning. The My Signature tester’s safety technology menu is further enhanced with front and rear parking sensors, a head-up display, traffic sign recognition and a 360-degree camera system with respectable image quality.

The class athlete

Each CX-9 is motivated by a turbocharged 2.5-liter I4. When using 93-octane fuel, the big-block quattro delivers up to 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque, with the latter in-line at 2,500 rpm. Regular 87 octane gas can also be run, but horsepower drops to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft. Either way, the CX-9 feels decidedly lively in Sport mode as it accelerates away from stops and continues to pull hard mid-rev range, making it easier for slower traffic to pass and blending smoothly onto freeways.

Working with the CX-9’s engine is a six-speed automatic transmission, which is archaic by today’s standards given the proliferation of eight-, nine- and 10-speed gearboxes. In operation, however, there’s not much to complain about with the six-speed, as it offers smooth and timely gear changes and helps return competitive EPA-estimated fuel economy figures of 20 mpg in the city and 26 class. mpg on the highway.

The turbo quattro offers plenty of low-end torque, but it sounds hoarse.

Jon Wong / Roadshow

The Mazda’s transmission, however, is on the coarser side of the sonic spectrum, and slight vibrations are detectable when loading things towards the engine’s 6,300-rpm red line. The CX-9 also forgoes towing over its V6 rivals, with a 3,500-pound capacity. The all-wheel drive rider, Telluride and Highlander can all pull 5,000 pounds.

Along the way, the ride of the CX-9 is buttoned up, with the suspension reducing small to medium impacts, and the cabin remains remarkably quiet from annoying road and wind noises. Throw this crossover into a corner and its body movements are always kept in check, with the slightest dip under braking and leaning into corners before crouching and racing through corners. Bridgestone Ecopia H / L 422 Plus 20-inch tires offer excellent grip. Add responsive, well-thought-out steering along with sturdy, easy-to-modulate brakes and you’ve got a three-row crossover that delivers the sportiest reflexes in its class.

Large wheels and 20-inch tires contribute to the confident driveability of the CX-9.

Jon Wong / Roadshow

How would I specify it

The Signature version of the CX-9 pictured here is an expensive type, with stickers for $ 48,575 as tested. Mind you, it’s chock-full of standard all-wheel drive, sleek Nappa leather interior, and all the driver assistance technology you could possibly want, but I’d be willing to forgo a few goodies for a softer hit to the bank account.

For my build, I’d start with an all-wheel drive Touring model starting at $ 39,025, including $ 1,175 for the destination. This upholstery comes standard with 18-inch wheels, a leather interior and heated front seats, and must-have features like blind spot monitoring and LED headlights are equipped on all CX-9s. So I threw myself down for the $ 395 Snowflake White Pearl Mica paint job and $ 2,060 for the Touring Premium package, mainly for the Bose sound system, satellite radio, front and rear parking sensors, and wireless phone charger . All in all, my ideal Mazda sounds for a more reasonable $ 41,480.

This CX-9 signature will cost you $ 48,575.

Jon Wong / Roadshow

Form and performance beyond function

The 2021 Mazda CX-9 starts at $ 35,335 including front-wheel drive destination, putting it on the same playing field as Honda, Kia and Toyota. The upgrade to all-wheel drive tacks on an additional $ 1,900. While the CX-9 doesn’t offer as many features as its rivals, Mazda packs a healthy dose of style, a truly premium interior, and tighter handling cuts than the others. If those emotional traits are enough to look past the cramped third row and cargo space, I wouldn’t blame you. But if that’s not enough to overcome the practical shortcomings, I wouldn’t even blame you for looking elsewhere.