But in part because of its emphasis on agility and stylish features, key areas like utility and tech take a back seat in the cramped third row. This is a charming vehicle for the enthusiast that’s surrendered his sports car to haul the kids to and fro, but taken just as a crossover, it lacks some of the intangibles that make this segment so popular among families.
Mazda, yet again, nails crossover styling with its largest offering. This is the best-looking vehicle in its class. Mazda's signature “Kodo” design cues are obvious on the CX-9, and extend from the triangular grille and slim headlights up front to the narrow taillights and sloping roofline out back. The Mazda CX-9 is an attractive alternative to other boxier, inelegant options.
The inside of the CX-9 is just as pretty as the outside. All the finishes feel very upscale. There's ample high-quality leather on the door panels and dash, and soft plastics elsewhere. Color patterns like the two-tone black and tan in this tester make the premium cabin look more appealing, even from the outside looking in. Mazda doesn't call itself a “luxury manufacturer,” but especially on its Signature trim vehicles, it shouldn’t be so modest.
Three rows and a hefty 4,300-pound curb weight don't hamper the CX-9's dynamics as much as you might think. There's still plenty of “Zoom-Zoom.” Power from the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine arrives abruptly; the 250 horses and 310 pound-feet of torque move the CX-9 with purpose. With all-wheel drive, the CX-9 is grippy in the corners, and Mazda estimates a 0-60 miles-per-hour time of about 7.2 seconds.
The rakish styling of the rear three-quarter and the dramatically sloped windshield do hinder the Mazda CX-9 in one vital area: space. Sure, it looks good, but the CX-9 doesn’t have as much room as some of its competitors. The 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row and 71.2 cubic feet with the third row folded flat are wimpy, comparatively. Total passenger volume is a mere 135.1 cubic feet (20 cubic feet down from the Subaru Ascent [153.3 cubic feet]), and third-row legroom is a lousy 29.7 inches (nearly three inches worse than the Ascent [31.7 inches]).
Mazda's infotainment system was merely acceptable when new – now it's outdated. While the rest of the CX-9 feels fresh, it's time for an update here. The muddled layout and hard-to-use rotary dial – or, "Multi-Function Command Controller" – detract from the experience of this otherwise exceptional SUV. The eight-inch screen feels small and isn’t unusable at speeds over five miles per hour. To make matters worse, there's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
The occasional weekend voyage to the lake or cross-country road trip may require a three-row SUV with better towing, depending on what you need to haul. The Mazda CX-9's maximum 3,500-pound tow rating is among the lowest in class. For reference, both the Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas can tow up to 5,000 pounds. And if you can live with its truck-based underpinnings and V8-only engine lineup, the Chevrolet Tahoe can move up to 8,000 pounds.