When you drive a variety of different cars on a regular basis, like we do, it’s easy to get a bit jaded. Not to humblebrag, but this 2020 Mazda CX-9 press loaner sat next to the gorgeous new Lexus LC 500 Convertible for a week. Still, when they came to pick up Mazda’s latest three-row, I was sad to see it go.
Why? It does it all better than most vehicles I have driven.
The Mazda CX-9 lineage and lineup
Like most alphanumeric lineups (except BMW), Mazda’s roster of cars and SUVs is pretty intuitive and easy to understand. The midsize CX-9 sits atop the “CX” SUV lineup, above the smaller CX-3, CX-30 and CX-5. The CX-9 dates back to 2007, it was created during the Ford era, and it was designed by Moray Callum, (Ian’s brother) who is now the head of design for Ford.
Based on the Ford CD3 platform, the first-generation CX-9 soldiered on all the way up to the 2015 model year. Mercifully, in 2016, we finally got the second generation and my first thought was “wow, that’s pretty.”
That’s not something you typically say when talking about a mainstream, midsize SUV from a non-luxury automaker.
The seven-passenger 2020 CX-9 comes in four trim levels, Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and Signature. The base Sport model starts at a reasonable $33,890, which still gets you a ton of standard stuff like three-zone automatic climate control, radar cruise control, blind spot monitoring, LED lighting all around and a ton more. Some items like Android Auto/Apple CarPlay and a power liftgate aren’t available until you bump up to the Touring, which starts at $35,710.
While the $41,550 Grand Touring ups the ante on luxury and convenience, it’s the Signature that might make your neighbors jealous. My Mercedes-driving wife’s first comment upon sitting on the heated and ventilated Nappa leather seats was “hmm, this is a lot nicer than I expected.”
Big and practical
Mazda built its reputation on small and nimble sedans, hatchbacks and roadsters. So a midsize three-row SUV might seem a bit outside of its comfort zone. Thankfully, the automaker has had a decade plus to build a useable space inside the CX-9, and it shows.
The Signature has standard second-row captains chairs, which have their own center console. That makes for a useful pass through for larger objects — although the center console negates some of the utility of captains chairs (specifically kids or passengers easily moving to and from the third row).
The CX-9 won’t be confused with the largest in the segment. At 71.2 cubic feet of cargo space (seats down) and an EPA passenger volume of 149.5 cubic feet, it’s a bit smaller than key competitors like the latest Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.
Of note, it’s significantly smaller from a passenger and cargo perspective when compared to the new Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade.
As I said, it’s a balancing act, and the CX-9 was big and versatile enough for my various projects. The third-row seats don’t go up and down with electric assist, but they are still easy to raise and lower manually.
But not too big
Striking the right balance between size, weight and driving dynamics is a tricky proposition. It’s an epic duel between engineering and marketing that is as old as time. Go too big and heavy, and you’ll end up lumbering down the road scaring small children. Small and light makes for nimble handling but reduces space for people and cargo.
Mazda has struck a fantastic balance between space and speed with the CX-9, and it’s darn near enjoyable to drive.
All CX-9s come equipped with a 250 horsepower 2.5-liter turbo 4-cylinder. Well, that’s the rating with 93 octane fuel, you’ll drop to 227 horsepower with 87 octane fuel, but at least they give you the option. Sixty mph comes in 7.2 seconds, which would have been pretty quick back in my 1990s sport compact days but is fairly normal across the segment for 2020. It’s also got an impressive amount of torque, 310 pound-feet on 87 octane and 320 pound-feet on 93 octane, which helps shuffle the CX-9 to highway speed.
Unfortunately, sport mode makes the CX-9 a bit “revvy” without a noticeable improvement in performance, and the 6-speed automatic can be a little clunky at times. But those gripes are minor.
Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD system is standard in the Signature trim and optional on all other levels.
The CX-9 is fairly light for a midsizer, weighing in at 4,388 pounds. That helps it stay light on its feet in the bends, and it doesn’t hurt at the pump either. With front-wheel drive, you’ll get 22/28 MPG city/highway, which drops a bit to 20/26 with AWD.
What also regularly impressed me was the ride quality, some midsize SUVs feel too light and absorb bumps that larger SUVs float over. Mazda once again managed to strike a great balance with the suspension (MacPherson strut in the front, multilink in the rear, both with stabilizers) and delivered nimble handling without a punishing ride.
Luxury level up
The Signature is pretty baller, and I know I’m likely too old to say that. Insert whatever the kids are saying these days. Regardless, the upscale trim makes a great first impression, and I found myself doing the “Obama not bad” face as soon as I sat down.
The materials feel really solid and well screwed together, plus there are a good mix of contrasting colors across the interior.
The infotainment screen works well, and it remains one of my favorites based on it’s intuitive design and easy layout.
Interestingly, it’s only a touchscreen when you are stopped, all other times you need to use the rotary knob to control it! Sadly, Mazda has gone the way of many of the German manufacturers and tacked the screen onto the top of the dash. It looks like it should disappear with the push of a button.
From a tech perspective, the CX-9 also has an array of cameras. It’s helpful, but they stay on for awhile as you begin your drive. I’m sure that’s a setting you can change, but I found myself searching for the “cancel camera” button since I needed to use Waze.
The bottom line on the Mazda CX-9
The Mazda CX-9 strikes a near-perfect balance between speed, style and practicality. The Signature trim isn’t cheap, starting at $46,215, but it comes with a ton of stuff. Our test car only had $100 in floor mats and $300 for the “machine grey” paint added to the window sticker, for a total of $46,515. That’s pretty competitive when compared to the top trim levels of the competition,
And the CX-9 is one of the best-looking midsize SUVs in my opinion.
OK, the “snout” on the front end is a little odd if I’m honest, but that depends on the angle.
But that’s one of the very few issues I could come up with during my week with the 2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD. If you are in the market for a $30,000 – $40,000 midsize SUV, you should definitely check it out.