2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD by Ben Lewis

If you’ve been thinking about a 3-row SUV, but you’re not sure, you’re not alone. It seems like the automakers can’t make up their minds either. A few years ago, we saw a bunch of new models feature available third row seats. And while they initially took a bite out of the minivan segment, a lot of them have gone away, or made them low-volume models.

Mazda’s CX-9 is one of those. But we wouldn’t weep about limited availability of a 3rd row, because frankly, the largest Mazda SUV is a dynamite vehicle.

It’s a Looker

We’ve seen a nice resurgence in SUV style in the last few years, everything from a Hyundai Kona to a Kia Telluride has a sense of style, fun, and adventure. The CX-9 is one of the best-looking of the larger SUV’s, with a sleek, sporty style. There’s definitely a family resemblance here, to the smaller CX-3, the mid-size CX-5 and the flagship CX-9.

In the land of giant grilles that says “Premium” (see Lexus, Audi, etc.) the Mazda looks tastefully refined, and the slender LED headlights give a purposeful glare on either side. The profile is muscular and sporty – hey this is the Miata company after all – and our Signature looked the business with its unique dark-finish 20-inch alloy wheels.

It’s a Sanctuary

Inside is a treat. In the Signature it starts with rich luscious nappa leather that looks, feels and smells like the good life. New standard second-row captain’s chairs with their own center console make it equally nice for those in back, while the third-row seats are best for kids.

Soft-touch trim abounds, and in a world of faux this-and-that, the CX-9’s genuine rosewood is stunning, while the metal trim looks Bentley posh. The gauges are the new-design Mazda style we’ve seen filter all the way down to the Mazda 3 sedan, and they are simple, legible and beautiful. We also like 7” LCD meter display, which includes handy features including traffic sign recognition – nice for monitoring speed limits and the like.

Over in the center is a new 9” full-color touch screen display that’s crisp and clean, and features Mazda navigation, voice control, and the all-important Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The 12 speaker Bose Centerpoint audio system is excellent, filling the large cabin with quality sound.

You access most of the infotainment through Mazda’s familiar circular dial on the console, and in the CX-9 the large size gives excellent tactile heft, and it’s easy to dial up what you want. Hey Lexus – maybe you should take a look at this. Just sayin…

The rest of the controls are smartly laid-out, and while this is a large SUV, the driver does feel cocooned in a friendly environment that makes the CX feel smaller than it is.

It’s a 3-row Miata!

Handsome, luxurious, meet exhilarating. While Mazda has gone through a few marketing memes since then, we still love the “Zoom-Zoom” that really did capture the brand’s essence. And even though the CX-9 is their largest vehicle, it’s clear that people who love to drive designed it.

Under the hood is a powerful 2.5-liter turbo four cylinder. While some might expect a V6 in this segment, you won’t go wanting for performance. In fact, Mazda has given it a boost for 2020, now providing a healthy 320 lb.-ft of torque (up 10), along with 250 horsepower. This engine is showing up in other vehicles that we’ve tested, including the CX-5 and Mazda 6, but it seems m most at home here. In the others we were hoping for some sporty excitement, but they ended up feeling more luxurious rather than thrilling. Here, the sportiness comes through.

Another surprise is a 6-speed automatic when the 8-speed is becoming de rigueur. But it all works so well – the engine pulls hard, sounds throaty, and really if you didn’t know it was a 4-cylinder, you could easily be fooled into thinking it’s a 6. Fuel economy is good, we averaged low 20’s for a large vehicle that always feels powerful and responsive that’s quite good.

Our tester also featured i-Activ all-wheel drive, which for 2020 adds an all-new off-road traction assist feature, as well as Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control Plus that improves steering response. And the CX-9 is an excellent handler – the steering has excellent feel, and the feedback really lets you place the big beast with ease. It’s a sign of excellent chassis engineering – the CX feels much smaller on the road than it actually is. Think big Miata, and you won’t be wrong. This is a driver’s SUV.

It really was a revelation after testing the 2020 Land Cruiser, which felt massive, and a bit too big for the real world of narrow streets and small parking spaces. With the CX-9 you just zip around. And on twisty roads, it’s a delight. That’s not something we get to say about many 3-row SUV’s!

Big Fun, Big SUV, Big Price?

Mazda gives you a wide range of choices, starting with the front wheel drive CX-9 Sport at $33,890, including that powerful turbo motor, 3 rows of seats and a full array of safety gear, including Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Advanced Braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, and Mazda Radar Cruise Control with Stop & Go. For a 3-row family vehicle that a driver can still enjoy, that’s a bargain. Need AWD? That’s $1,900 more.

We’d probably spring at least for the CX-9 Touring, at $37,610, to get the leather seats, power liftgate, 9” touchscreen display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Mazda Keyless Entry and more.

The Grand Touring comes in at $43,450 , and is indeed grand, with 20” alloy wheels, power moonroof, power folding side mirrors, hands-free power liftgate, bright exterior trim, Bose Centerpoint Audio System, Navigation, 7” driver display with traffic sign recognition, ventilated and heated front seats, heated steering wheel and heated 2nd row seats, plus more.

Our Signature tester is the flagship of the fleet, and starts at $46,215 with AWD standard. We’ve spoken about all the goodies above, but our Machine Gray Metallic was an additional $300. The second-row captain’s chairs are a no cost option. Nice. Add in $1,100 for destination, and our tester carried a sticker of $47,615.

Competition would include the Lexus RX350L, but comparably equipped it came in at $58,415. We like the RX but not at 10 large more than the Mazda. A comparable Honda Pilot came in at $50,840. It’s less of a driver’s car, but quite nice as well. Still, it’s also $3,000 more. So, we’ll call the Mazda excellent value amongst its peers.

Gorgeous inside and out, wonderful to drive, and with added power and safety across the line for 2020, the Mazda CX-9 is our favorite three-row SUV.