In a world where many CUVs appear to have been crafted out of soulless toasters and dryers, the 2020 Mazda CX-9 has emerged as a very vibrant exception to the rule. The exterior styling looks like it was lifted from a sports car, and the interior blurs the line between mainstream and luxury. But in a segment where the pool is rapidly becoming a very crowded place, Mazda’s biggest utility offering needs to be sharper than ever. But does it succeed in drawing attention to itself? Or does it miss the mark in other regards?
Sultry Exterior Styling Makes CX-9 A Rare Breed
Some might wonder, does style really matter when it comes to buying any type of utility vehicle? Probably not; many will say fuel economy, cargo space, and functionality count. But as mentioned, the utility vehicle segment is rapidly becoming a very crowded place to spend time in, with automakers forced to put more effort into making their offerings leap out for attention. In Mazda’s case, it chose to focus on having a vibrant suit of clothes, and it does help it stand out to a noticeable degree.
Mazda offers four different flavors of CX-9 for buyers to choose from, with our Signature grade tester being the top of the range. The Soul Red Crystal Metallic paintwork on our model did a good job drawing plenty of stares, and it always managed to look just right, especially when the sunlight hits it at the right angle. The front fascia is very expressive, with a large chrome grille being complimented by aggressive-looking headlights. The side profile features a prominent design-line and a roofline that features a sporty taper as it heads to the rear.
Once you make your way back there, you’ll discover that, like other utility offerings, it’s the weakest link in the presentation, but that doesn’t mean it’s awful. The taillights are very sporty looking and are unified by a chrome bar that runs along the liftgate’s center. The rear bumper houses two chrome exhaust tips, and the black coloring serves as a welcome contrast to the red paint adorning the rest of the body. The CX-9 faces renewed pressure from Hyundai and Kia with the Telluride and the Palisade trying to steal a page or two from Mazda’s playbook. If we had to choose between the three, we would still go for the Mazda though the Palisade in range-topping Calligraphy trim is a formidable challenge to the Signature.
Luxury Focused Interior Looks The Part But Lacks Usability
A key trump card for many Mazda models lately has been found in the cabin where the company has gone above and beyond to make the space stand out to family buyers. As expected, Signature models arrive with a healthy suite of standard equipment and luxury features. They include Nappa Leather accents, splashes of aluminum trim, and a few pieces of Santos Rosewood trim. This potent trio helped our tester’s cabin crossover into luxury car territory, and there were times where we felt like we were in a luxury car that was double the price. The front seats offer impressive amounts of comfort, and they were welcome refuge during a stretch of cold Michigan weather.
.The second-row captain’s chairs get their own heat settings, and a 12-speaker Bose premium audio system is enough to satiate all but the pickiest of audiophiles. A 7-inch screen mounted on the dash is the standard choice, but Touring and higher models get a 9-inch screen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come along for the ride, and we’re glad that’s the case because the rest of the infotainment system is a flaming hot dumpster fire of bad decisions.
It all starts with the control scheme, which takes a few of its vibes from BMW’s I-Drive system with a large control knob/wheel being used to help get you where you need to go. But unlike the silky smooth BMW system, Mazda’s version is clunky and forces you to go through far too many steps to access various menus. Not helping matters is the screen interface which is confusing and has a bit of a learning curve. Hyundai’s UVO system and Ford’s SYNC unit are two of the best in the business, and Mazda’s unit definitely has some catching up to do before it can even be considered in the same league as those offerings.
Like other recent utility offerings on the market, the third row is best left for children with adults over 6ft tall, having virtually no headroom and legroom. The seats also play a role in constraining the amount of cargo space on hand, with our tester having 14.4 cubic feet with them up. Fold them down, and space expands to 71.2 feet of space. The problem is that these figures are far below some of its competition. The Volkswagen Atlas, for example, is about as exciting to look at as a grey brick, but its 96.8 cubic feet of maximum cargo space is roughly double what you get in the Mazda, and the 20.6 feet of room with the seats up is 6.2 cubes more than the Mazda’s. It’s good to focus on hitting the mark in terms of aesthetics, but when ergonomics and practicality are sacrificed to achieve it, this causes things to go out of balance.
More Torque Helps Transform CX-9 Engine
With all the things that the interior brings to the table, Mazda engineers chose to keep things simple regarding performance, with all CX-9s getting their motivation from the company’s 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. The engine still retains its 250 horsepower rating, but Mazda engineers have tweaked the engine to produce more torque, with that figure rising to 320 lb-ft of torque when the CX-9 is given premium fuel to drink. Go for the more blue-collar 87 brand of swill, and the figures dip slightly to 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. The extra torque is a welcome addition, and it really allows the CX-9 to be more sure of itself when accelerating from a standstill.
This is mostly achieved with a restrictive exhaust system that helps increase the velocity of the gasses exiting the turbocharger, which helps spin it faster. As the RPMs climb, a secondary valve opens up to improve the amount of boost on hand. This helps create a very spirited engine, but in a segment where two or more engine choices rule the roost, the Mazda’s take it or leave it approach can seem a bit restrictive to some buyers.
Another interesting twist is the transmission, where the CX-9 bucks the trend towards eight nine or even ten-speed automatics. Instead, an old-school six-speed automatic is responsible for rowing through the gears. While being down a handful of cogs might seem like an immediate disadvantage (and it is when it comes to fuel economy), the CX-9 manages to make this retro approach work. Shifts here are very smooth, and the transmission does an excellent job working with the powerband.
This is proven when the CX-9 is being driven around town, with our tester being a commendable steed when tasked with various errands. The problem, though, is that the engine and the ride quality are on two separate planets. Go down an average stretch of city road, and the suspension does a good job soaking up bumps while the sound deadening measures in place help silence the bulk of wind noise. The engine, on the other hand, sounds very gritty and vibrates more than it should.
Pricing for the 2020 Mazda CX-9 lineup (2021 models have a slight bump across the board) starts at $33,890 for the base Sport model. Continue going up the trim ladder, and you’ll eventually find your way to the $35,710 Touring and $41,550 Grand Touring models. But for buyers that want to max out on luxury, the $46,215 Signature is the way to go.
Our tester came in at just under $48,000 when all was said and done, which is among the higher end of the SUV spectrum. It’s certainly less expensive than the Ford Explorer Platinum and the recently unveiled Explorer King Ranch and offers far superior interior details. But as mentioned, it takes more than a snazzy suit of clothes to win over family buyers, and when you factor in the high price with some of the ergonomic faults, the CX-9’s value quotient does take a hit.
While the 2020 Mazda CX-9 may come up just a bit short when trying to achieve family vehicle perfection, it does manage to still score a few hits, especially in interior design and performance. We hope that Mazda engineers will give the infotainment system and cargo space some much-needed attention to help it become a true all-rounder in the broader pool of SUV talent.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.