Mazda makes some gosh-darned good looking cars, if you’ll excuse my language. The 2021 CX-9 presents a challenge, like all three-row SUVs: the most practical shape for maximizing cabin space would be a big box on wheels, but then you’ve made a minivan and people accuse you of being boring. Even with the demands for passenger and cargo space, though, the CX-9 manages to squeeze in some curves – and some fun when the road curves, too.
The Soul Red paint doesn’t hurt – familiar but still mesmerizing in its deep, saturated crimson – and the chrome work on the outside falls on the tasteful side of sparkling. The upright grille and narrow headlamps with their circular DRLs are a particular joy, while the plastic cladding around the wheel arches somehow manages to strike a balance both of style and practicality. It looks a lot like a magnified CX-5, and that’s no bad thing.
Pricing kicks off at a competitive $34,160 (plus $1,175 destination) for the Sport trim, with the $35,950 Touring adding leather, a sliding second-row bench, and a power lift gate. My CX-9 Signature AWD, meanwhile, topped out the line-up at $47,980.
Regardless of trim, you get a 2.5-liter turbo-four with 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque assuming you’re willing to pump premium gas. Mazda pairs it with a six-speed automatic transmission and, as standard, front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is a $1,900 option on all but the Signature, which has it as standard.
In FWD form, the EPA rates the CX-9 as good for 22 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg combined. The AWD version drops 2 mpg on the city and highway numbers, for a 23 mpg combined figure. In my own, mixed driving I saw more like 20 mpg, though I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly driving sedately a lot of the time.
That’s because, a rarity in the three-row SUV category, the CX-9 is actually surprising fun to drive. It seems smaller than the exterior dimensions would suggest, with precise steering that, though a little on the light side, still feels more engaging than that of its rivals. Mazda tunes the suspension on the firm side, sacrificing a little of the comfort other such SUVs promise in return for flatter cornering and a general sense of enthusiasm that’s sorely absent in most of this segment.
Push the Sport mode switch and things get more urgent, albeit at the cost of a some refinement. The CX-9 doesn’t have fancy adaptive suspension, and the six-speed transmission is down a few ratios on what some of the more modern competition offer. The result is that things get louder and the automatic tries to hold lower gears longer, but the core charms are relatively unchanged. I found myself preferring the normal drive mode, which doesn’t temper the decent low-end torque on offer.
In the cabin, the 2021 model year brings some upgraded infotainment tech across the range. All CX-9 get a 10.3-inch display atop the dashboard running new software, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, tri-zone climate control, blind-spot warnings with rear cross-traffic alerts, and adaptive cruise control. The Signature trim has second row captain’s chairs, a hands-free power lift gate, LED lighting front and rear with adaptive front lights, a power sliding glass moonroof, and both real wood and aluminum inlays.
The metal and wood feel great, and the Signature’s quilted leather is positively luxurious, though that does only serve to draw attention to the fact that not quite all the switchgear lives up to their good impression. Some of the buttons feel a little plasticky, like the drive mode switch and the rotary/joystick controller for the infotainment system. They look the part, but some of the allure is dampened when your fingers actually get involved.
I’ve not been the biggest fan of Mazda’s infotainment systems, but this 2021 refresh tightens things up. The new graphics are simplistic but a huge step forward over the clunky old UI, and it’s easy to navigate, while the Mazda Connected Services suite offers app-access to things like remote locking and remote start. An IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating is impressive, too.
When it comes to space, though, rivals have Mazda beat. Slotting the full contingent of family and luggage into a Kia Telluride or Ford Explorer, for example, only ends up emphasizing the CX-9’s decision to go with style over practicality. There’s 14.4 cu-ft of trunk space with all seats up, 38.2 cu-ft if you drop the easily-lowered third row down, and 71.2 cu-ft maximum. The boxier Telluride bests all of those easily.
The same goes for rear passenger space, particularly in the third row, where 29.7 inches of legroom and 35.4 inches of headroom also fall short of less design-minded alternatives. Smaller kids should be fine, but anybody larger is going to complain.
2021 Mazda CX-9 Verdict
Perhaps, though, their grumbling won’t reach the driver. Even if it does, there’s a fair chance the person at the wheel will be too busy enjoying themselves with the Mazda’s eager on-road enthusiasm to pay too much attention to what’s going on in the peanut gallery.
It’s a criticism you could perhaps level at most of Mazda’s range: that the automaker is simply too devoted to keeping driving fun in mainstream vehicles to maximize their practicality. That’s a hard stance to dislike, even if the rational shopper has probably already moved on to other dealerships. The CX-9 isn’t the most frugal, or the most usable, but if you have to drive a three-row SUV then why not opt for one that’s actually interesting?
In the end, if you just want to move around as many people, and as much of their stuff, as possible, there are plenty of big, earnest SUVs out there. If you’d like some fun, though, and you’re willing to sacrifice a little on the more mundane considerations to get it, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 deserves your consideration.