In this day and age, automakers can’t have any weak points. Cars are better than ever and a single weak spot will have a buyer looking at another vehicle. Why compromise when you can have it all? Plus, with car prices being what they are these days, no one’s looking to compromise.
In the midsize SUV segment, the Mazda CX-9 involves one too many compromises. It looks great, is surprisingly enjoyable to drive, has a punchy engine, and feels upscale, but comes with a lackluster infotainment system, a tight third row, and below-average cargo capacity. Against the near-perfection that is the Kia Telluride, the CX-9 represents one compromise too many.
Good news! The 2021 Mazda CX-9 sees major improvements to its weak spots. The result is a far better SUV that requires less compromise.
The largest and most pressing change for the 2021 model year is a new infotainment system. Last year’s tiny 7-inch touchscreen has been replaced with a 10.25-inch unit. Additionally, the touchscreen is running Mazda’s latest infotainment system. People seem to be split on Mazda’s infotainment system, but I’m a fan of it. It’s a touchscreen that can also be controlled via a rotary dial and buttons near the gear shifter. The buttons are easy to use and well within reach, while the infotainment system’s graphics are sharp and modern. It’s not the best infotainment system on the market — that might belong to Stellantis, Hyundai, or Volvo — but it’s far better than the outgoing system.
The range-topping Signature trim we tested also comes with a newly standard charging pad, a new grille, and partially quilted leather upholstery. Elsewhere, the Signature comes with an improved camera system, new paddle shifters, and more advanced safety features. Beyond the updates to the Signature trim, there’s a new Carbon Edition trim that comes with special exterior paint and red leather upholstery.
There are other minor changes to features throughout the rest of the lineup, but these are the major ones. For the CX-9, which Mazda introduced for its second generation in 2016, the alterations keep it fresh in the growing segment.
Against its boxy rivals, the CX-9 looks like a sports car. Its curves and sweeping lines are almost exotic compared to the squared-off lines of rivals. The front grille, which is new for 2021 on the Signature, is a statement piece, with these intricate horizontal bars. It’s hard to call an SUV pretty, but that’s what the CX-9 is. It looks like an oversized version of the old Mazda3 in the best ways possible.
With so many SUVs on the road, finding one that stands out is difficult. The CX-9 manages to do just that in a fresh breath of air. It straddles the line of having an upscale design, while being sporty. Unless you go with something that’s from a true luxury brand, this is as nice as midsize SUVs get.
Unsurprisingly, the CX-9’s cabin is just as nice as its exterior. The Signature trim’s semi-quilted Nappa leather upholstery is a nice upgrade, while the genuine rosewood trim feels special. The dashboard continues to have the same attractive design with curves, prominent cutouts, and a straightforward center console. All of the materials you look at and interact with feel good, like the real aluminum accent trim, contrasting piping, and knurling on the dials.
The front two rows of seats are comfortable, but that’s to be expected. Where the CX-9 continues to drag its feet is when it comes to the third row. The exterior design eats into the available space, making the third row a cramped affair. Additionally, you’re only getting up to 71.2 cubic feet of cargo space, which is well below competitors.
Still, if you don’t use the third row regularly or have small children that won’t take up a lot of space, the CX-9’s third row is plenty usable. The available captain’s chairs can slide and recline to make access to the third row easier. The interior also remains relatively quiet at highway speeds, aiding in its upscale feel. Some compromises are worth it.
I can tell you how enjoyable the CX-9 is to drive, but you probably already know that by now. The SUV is seriously one of the best in the business at what it does, shrinking around the driver to feel like something much smaller. Body roll is kept to a minimum and the standard Bridgestone tires offer a surprising amount of grip. The best part of the CX-9, though, is the steering that’s actually responsive and well-weighted.
While the majority of midsize SUVs come with a V6 engine, the CX-9 continues to be offered with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. On 93-octane, the engine offers up to 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. Lower gas lowers power to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Regardless of what fuel you use, the CX-9 feels peppy in everyday situations. The 6-speed automatic transmission does its job well enough to go unnoticed, which is exactly what you want from a transmission in an SUV.
More and more people these days are buying SUVs because they’re fun and powerful. The CX-9 may not be the newest option on the market or the most powerful, but it continues to be one of the best, especially at this price point.
The 2021 Mazda CX-9 is better than ever thanks to a few meaningful updates. It doesn’t compete all that well when compared to the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, or Jeep Grand Cherokee L, because those options have roomier cabins. But for consumers that want something that’s fun to drive and high-end, the CX-9 is basically on its own in the midsize, three-row class.
For what it’s worth, if I were to purchase an SUV in the segment, it would either be the Kia Telluride or the Mazda CX-9. Thanks to the changes made for the 2021 model year, the decision is harder than before.