We recently tested the Toyota Sienna minivan, and found the “Swagger Wagon” to still be in effect, a great vehicle. But for many, the word minivan has too many negative connotations. And that’s why we’ve seen a huge upsurge of three-row SUV’s, from the large and princely Kia Telluride and Hyundai Pallisade, to smaller models, where that 3rd row is pretty much for occasional use.
And one of our favorites of the occasional 3rd row SUVs is the Mazda CX-9. It may give you bumped knees in row #3, but it gives you back so much more! Let’s take a look.
Sleek, not Trucky
One of the things that sets the CX-9 apart from the others is the sporty exterior design. Where some of the players like the Telluride really lean on the off-road, truck-like vibe, the CX keeps the sleek Mazda design language we’ve seen on the smaller CX-5 and CX-30 models, and it works here as well, on their largest SUV.
The size of the CX-9 works in its favor – it looks expensive and spacious. We got a lot of compliments from passersby wondering what it was.
The front is especially elegant, with a large grille that doesn’t overpower the front and circular LED lights that give create “eyes” that seem intent on staring you down. A tasteful lower fascia with chrome trim adds the luxury look.
The front may say upscale, but the profile is definitely Mazda’s sporty side. Tight, athletic lines flow into deep cut-ins into the doors, all enhanced by black moldings in the wheel arches, while massive 20-inch, blacked-out alloy wheels give a solid stance.
Our tester was the special Carbon Edition, and it is the designer’s choice with a rich Polymetal Gray – a creamy metal tone that’s all the rage these days – offset by black automatic power-folding door mirrors and chrome moldings below the doorline.
Like the front, the rear is simple with circular taillights echoing the headlight design, and a tasteful chrome molding spanning the width between the lights. Chrome trim on the lower fascia and dual exhaust pipes, give off more of that sport/luxury vibe.
First Class Cabin
Inside, the CX-9 remains one of the most elegant in its class. It is interesting though, the competition is catching up, the Hyundai Tucson immediately comes to mind.
Open the door, and the first thing that hits you are the Carbon Edition’s rich red leather seats, contrasted by real aluminum interior trim. Luxurious yes, but there’s also a strong sport motif running through the cabin, with a fat leather-wrapped wheel, stout looking shift lever in the center console, and large round gauges for a quick read.
You’ll find everything is laid out in a typical Mazda way, with clear simple controls. We love the large 10.25-inch info-tainment display but are only so-so with the access via the circular knob below the shifter.
It’s definitely better than the touchpad you’ll find on the latest Lexus, but a touchscreen would have made things easier – you end up twirling that knob a lot trying to find stuff. On the bright side, you have all the expected goodies, including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Wireless charging.
The Carbon Edition also ups the luxury with nice stuff like a heated steering wheel, LED illumination, black metallic accents, paddle shifters and seven-inch LCD multi-information display. It feels special.
The 2nd row seats are comfortable captain’s chairs, that slide and tilt for access to the third row, and also fold forward to create a flat cargo space. The 3rd row really is for kids, but it’s nice to have that capability when you need it. With those seats up cargo space is snug, but drop them and you have room for five and lots of gear. Folding the 2nd row creates a massive cargo hold and the hands-free, power liftgate makes loading a snap.
The Mazda Difference
While the above is nice, there are plenty of great SUV’s that offer similar stuff. But none of them drive like the CX-9.
It starts with the engine. Where a V6 is common fare, the CX-9 serves up a 2.5-liter, turbo four cylinder putting out a punchy 250 horsepower and 320-lb.-ft of torque. While you might lose a little velvety smoothness, you get a throaty engine note with excellent response that makes it fun to zip through the 6-speed automatic. We found a combined mpg in the mid-20’s, and you might do a little better if you can stay out of the turbo zone. That’s a big if.
That smaller four makes the nose feel lighter, and teams up with great steering response and feel. Helping the big SUV feel like an agile sportster are the available i-Activ all-wheel drive with G-Vectoring Control. The ride is firm, but not harsh – even with those big 20-inch alloys – and the payoff is not just a 3-row that can hustle around the turns, this one wants to go.
If you’ve driven other Mazda product, you’ll know this is how the company rolls – from Miata to Mazda 3 on up, they are all delightful driver’s cars. But if you’re coming from another brand, you might find it a revelation!
Big Fun Big Price?
This is a Mazda, so you get excellent value, too. The lineup starts with the Sport trim, and it has plenty of features, including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Radar Cruise Control with stop and go and more for $35,280. That’s a very tempting price for Mazda’s 3-row, flagship SUV.
Our Carbon Edition is about midstream in the line, and with all the exterior and interior goodies including standard all-wheel drive carries a price of $43,580. Add a navigation SD card ($450) and Destination ($1,225) and we rang the bell at $45,255.
One of the most popular 3-row SUV’s right now is the Kia Telluride similarly priced at $45,535. If you want more room and a traditional truck like appearance the Kia is great. But it lacks the driving dynamics of the CX-9. If you’re looking for upscale luxury the Lexus 350L is a fine choice, but you will pay for the privilege, coming in at $56,320.
Big, stylish, and beautifully built, the 2022 Mazda CX-9 serves up Miata-fun in a comfy 3-row SUV.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.