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2021 Mazda CX-9 Test Drive Review
Though flawed, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 delivers a compelling blend of style, performance, technology, and safety in a premium package.
Translated, the Japanese concept of jinba ittai refers to a horse and rider as one. Mazda has adopted it as a guiding philosophy for all of its products, and among them, the 2021 CX-9 midsize SUV possesses the least of it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a compelling choice in its segment, and changes for the 2021 model year make the CX-9 better than ever.
Look and Feel
Among the many changes to the 2021 Mazda CX-9, a new Carbon Edition version debuts smack dab in the middle of the lineup. Not only is it remarkably affordable at $41,080 MSRP, it also has a custom look and feel thanks to Polymetal Gray paint, cranberry red leather upholstery, second-row captain’s chairs, and dark-finish 20-inch wheels.
Below the new CX-9 Carbon Edition, you’ll find Sport and Touring trim levels, each fitted with 18-inch wheels. Above it, the more luxurious CX-9 Grand Touring and Signature offer more standard features. Pricing ranges between $33,960 and $46,605, plus mandatory destination charges. Our test vehicle was not the new Carbon Edition. Rather, we examined the CX-9 Signature decked out with extra-cost Snowflake White Pearl Mica paint, priced at $48,100 with the $1,100 destination charge.
In addition to the Carbon Edition, changes for 2021 include a next-generation Mazda Connect infotainment system with a 10.25-inch static display, new safety features in the form of a driver monitoring system and automatic reverse braking, and new high-definition cameras for the surround-view monitor camera system. Signature-trim enhancements including a restyled grille, a fresh wheel design, patterned aluminum cabin accents, and quilted leather with contrast piping.
The CX-9 Signature’s new grille and wheels add presence to the upscale SUV, helping to distinguish it as Mazda’s flagship vehicle. This is an attractive vehicle, but excessive front and rear overhangs forced by the rather stubby wheelbase make it look out of proportion when viewed in profile.
Luxury-level materials define the CX-9 Signature’s cabin. Premium Nappa leather that looks, feels, and smells terrific combines with genuine Santos Rosewood inlays and real aluminum accents to present a plush environment. Instrumentation is a model of perfection, and at night all of the controls are brightly and clearly lit in white, making them easy to find and use.
In pursuit of jinba ittai, though, Mazda commits user-experience offenses through unwise applications of minimalism. For example, because Mazda Connect does not offer a touch-sensing display screen or a useful voice recognition system, the driver is forced to use other methods to interact with the technology while driving. Though rooted in the admirable goal of promoting greater driver focus, these alternative solutions are frequently more distracting than if Mazda had simply equipped the CX-9 with tried-and-true solutions.
Every 2021 Mazda CX-9 has a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission, with a Sport mode and available manual shift control. Paddle shifters are available on most CX-9 trim levels. All versions are front-wheel drive (FWD) except for the Signature, which includes the CX-9’s available all-wheel-drive (AWD) system as standard equipment.
Depending on the type of gasoline you pump into the CX-9’s tank, it makes 227 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 310 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm (87 octane regular) or 250 hp at 5,000 rpm and 320 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm (93 octane premium). Given the robust torque and generally low-rpm power peaks, we’re not convinced paying extra for premium is necessary.
According to the EPA, the hefty 4,409-pound CX-9 Signature is supposed to get 23 mpg combined. This is wishful thinking. The only way you’ll do that is if you rarely dip into the turbo engine’s well of torque. We averaged 20.1 mpg on the standard testing route.
The Mazda CX-9 sits on a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension tuned to provide a compliant ride and controlled handling. To that end, Mazda employs variable-assist steering and its effective brake-based G-Vectoring Control Plus (GVC-Plus) technology, which aims to smooth or eliminate unnecessary body motions for a more pleasurable journey. Mazda reports 8.8 inches of ground clearance for the CX-9—a generous figure.
For a family-sized SUV that isn’t trying to be fun, the CX-9 provides good driving dynamics. The engine’s not a revver, delivering peak power at relatively low engine rpm, and the prodigious torque supplies a strong sensation of power when accelerating. As revs and speed climb, though, the turbocharged four-cylinder engine can seem winded. The six-speed automatic behaves flawlessly and choosing Sport mode quickens the SUV’s pulse.
Thanks in large part to the subtle interventions of GVC-Plus, the Mazda CX-9 rides and handles in an exceptionally smooth fashion. There is nothing sharp or abrupt about how the SUV responds to driver inputs or the road surface. Still, there is no hiding the CX-9’s portly curb weight and high center of gravity. As a driving enthusiast, I can’t help but wish the CX-9 was actually a turbocharged Mazda6 station wagon with AWD. But since Americans don’t buy vehicles like that, my wish for one shall go unfulfilled.
On the freeway, the CX-9 is remarkably quiet, its fairly soft yet still communicative suspension tuning paying dividends in ride quality. In urban situations and heavy commuter traffic, the CX-9 proves nimble and easy to drive, with a perfectly calibrated brake pedal contributing to the SUV’s effortlessly smooth character.
Mazda continually hones its products, making small changes and tweaks to achieve incremental dynamic improvements. It certainly seems as though the latest CX-9 is a beneficiary of this attention to detail; I like driving it more than ever. But for me, the driving position remains an issue.
Form and Function
Equipped with three rows of seats and seven-passenger capacity, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 competes with midsize crossover SUVs like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. It measures on the smaller end of the segment, though, in terms of third-row passenger room and cargo space.
Every CX-9 has a six-way or eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and all versions but the Sport trim include a six-way power-adjustable front passenger’s seat. Heated front seats are standard, and leather replaces cloth upholstery starting with Touring trim level. Upgrade to the Carbon Edition, Grand Touring, or Signature, and the CX-9 includes a heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats, and heated rear seats.
If you prefer to sit high to maximize outward visibility, the CX-9 provides a driving position not unlike that of a dining room chair. However, in this position, the driver's relationship to the controls is awkward. It’s almost as though Mazda arranged the cabin more for a low-slung sports sedan rather than a high-riding SUV. The wide center console also limits legroom, creating a narrow space between the console and the door panel.
The Signature trim includes second-row captain’s chairs divided by an exclusive center console. The captain’s chairs are also available on all trim levels except the CX-9 Sport, and, starting with Carbon Edition trim, second-row window sunshades are standard.
My kids loved the second-row seating in this vehicle. With heated rear seats, separate controls and air vents for the triple-zone automatic climate control system, and a huge center console storage space with a split-armrest lid, they found the CX-9 Signature to be both comfy and cozy. Adults will find plenty of legroom and support in these throne-like chairs, and they slide forward and back as is necessary to create added third-row seat space.
If the CX-9 Signature’s second-row captain’s chairs are exceptionally accommodating, the third-row seat is not. To test this space, I slid the left rear captain’s chair forward to a position where I could still fit behind the driver’s seat and then attempted to squeeze myself into the left third-row seating position. Foot room proved almost non-existent, forcing me to keep my size-13 feet angled, twisting both my foot and ankle into an uncomfortable position. Plus, my head was right up against the rear headliner, and both entry and exit are terrible.
It’s too bad Mazda couldn’t find more room for the third-row seat, because the seat itself is unexpectedly comfortable and supportive, a rarity in the segment.
Interior storage space for the driver and front passenger is adequate, as is the cargo room. Open the power liftgate, which offers hands-free functionality on most trim levels, and the trunk measures a paltry 14.4 cubic feet. Fold the third-row seat down to create a useful 38.2 cubic feet of volume. The CX-9’s maximum cargo space measures 71.2 cubic feet—less than a Honda CR-V.
New for 2021, the Mazda CX-9 gets an infotainment system upgrade. The latest version of Mazda Connect is standard, and it comes with a 10.25-inch static display showcasing higher-resolution graphics and an improved user experience, as far as on-screen functionality is concerned.
Additionally, all CX-9s have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, text messaging support, integrated access to Pandora internet radio, and a 9-1-1 automatic emergency notification feature. The company’s new Mazda Connect services technology is also standard, and it includes a free three-year trial period with a separate three-month/2GB trial to WiFi hotspot service.
This new version of Mazda Connect is an improvement, but it still isn’t ideal. In addition to its lack of a touchscreen, the voice recognition technology is terrible. I asked the navigation system to find the nearest hospital, and it gave me a list of Costco locations. Using the recommended voice prompts, I discovered nearby coffee shops by speaking caveman: “Find Starbucks.” You can almost imagine the grunt afterward.
Mazda’s position is that people will likely run Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, in turn relying on the superior natural-language voice assistants associated with those platforms. Luddites like me who prefer SiriusXM satellite radio or (gasp) terrestrial radio are, evidently, out of luck.
Starting with Carbon Edition trim, satellite radio is standard with a free three-month subscription. I’ve got my favorite stations on SiriusXM, and I programmed them into Mazda Connect using the Favorites function, which is remarkably easy. But changing between these stations using the Mazda Connect control knob on the center console is a ridiculously complex six-step process requiring visual confirmation of each one.
Maybe I’m missing something obvious here, but if that’s how using Favorites works, it is definitely not less distracting than if Mazda simply added a volume knob, a tuning knob, and a row of pre-set buttons on the dashboard. And no, I didn’t find success using the voice recognition system to request specific stations, which would’ve solved the problem.
The Carbon Edition also adds a 12-speaker Bose Centerpoint 2 surround sound system with engine noise-canceling AudioPilot technology, a wireless phone charger, and a head-up display (HUD). The Bose components sound good, and the HUD is useful. One of the best things about it is how it shows when another vehicle is in the CX-9’s blind spots.
Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are standard on the 2021 Mazda CX-9, along with adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, rain-sensing wipers, and a slew of other driver-assist tech.
Moving up the trim-level ladder, the Carbon Edition represents the next big upgrade in terms of safety technology. It equips the SUV with adaptive front lighting that helps a driver to see around curves, a windshield wiper de-icer system, a driver-attention monitor, and front and rear parking sensors. Mazda’s new Smart City Brake Support Reverse—a low-speed reverse automatic emergency braking system—is also standard on the Carbon Edition. Grand Touring trim adds a surround-view camera system.
Mazda’s position on driver-assist tech is that it serves as a safety net, not a replacement for an attentive driver. For example, the lane-departure warning system provides a choice between an audible alert and a vibration in the steering wheel, and the lane-keep assist system is subtle about taking corrective action. Lane-centering assistance is unavailable.
While using the adaptive cruise control, the stop-and-go function makes driving in commuter traffic easier. At higher speeds, however, the system struggles to smoothly maintain the desired following distance. Note that if the forward-collision warning system identifies danger, it flashes a bright BRAKE! warning on the HUD. After dark, the adaptive headlights are fantastic.
If a collision occurs, rest easy knowing that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the CX-9 a “Top Safety Pick+” for the 2020 calendar year. Ratings for 2021 were unavailable as this review was published.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is equally bullish on the CX-9’s crashworthiness, giving the SUV a five-star overall rating. Individual four-star frontal-impact test results for the driver and front passenger are less encouraging.
Mazda is intent on moving its brand upscale into premium territory, where Acura, Alfa Romeo, Buick, Infiniti, and MINI provide bridges between mainstream and luxury brands. To do so with credibility, the automaker appears to understand that design, quality, and substance must come before marketing. Without the right product, moving higher within the automotive hierarchy is impossible.
At the same time, Mazda appears to recognize the CX-9’s current shortcomings when it comes to interior space. Perhaps this prompts the company to offer a little more for a little less when compared to other midsize three-row SUVs.
Within this context, the high-quality and comprehensively-equipped 2021 Mazda CX-9 is a bargain, and that’s true regardless of trim level. But, this SUV is thirsty, cargo space is quite small for the class, Mazda Connect is a regular source of irritation, and the CX-9 is still priced in direct competition with class standouts such as the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride.
That leaves the CX-9 as the fringe player it’s always been, serving fans of the Mazda brand and drawing new customers on the considerable strength of its styling, quality, and luxury fittings at a mainstream price.
What's your take on the 2021 Mazda CX-9?
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