When the second-generation Mazda CX-9 went on sale in 2016, critics praised it for its relatively agile handling that set it apart from other three-row crossover SUVs. It didn't hurt that it looked really good, too. In spite of all that, its sales haven't been stellar, but perhaps Mazda's revisions to the CX-9 for the 2019 model year will help the family-hauler win more fans.
It's not going to be easy, however. The past few years have seen many newcomers like the Subaru Ascent and the Volkswagen Atlas entering the fray. On top of that, predictably compelling entries like the Ford Explorer, and are waiting in the wings.
Drives nicely, but no longer outstanding
The Mazda CX-9 is powered by a turbocharged, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 250 horsepower if you fill the gas tank with 93-octane fuel. If you want to save some of your hard-earned cash by filling up with good ol' 87, you'll have 227 horsepower to work with. Regardless of the octane you choose, the CX-9's engine is always at the ready with a stout 310 pound-feet of torque that's channeled through a smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic transmission. The three-row crossover comes standard with front-wheel drive, but you can upgrade to all-wheel drive for $1,800, as seen on my tester.
Stomp on the throttle, and the 4,400-pound SUV jumps forward with a nice sense of urgency, while the all-wheel drive keeps tire slip at bay. That translates to stress-free onramp merging, even when packed with kids and clutter. On the highway, acceleration remains strong and is complemented with quick downshifts. It's likewise effortless to bring the CX-9 down from speed, thanks to a well-modulated brake pedal that contributes to the crossover's overall confident stop-and-go performance.
Enter a set of turns, and you're met with quick steering that feels a little delicate to the touch, while also being light on feedback. The big seven-seater offers a nice handling and ride-comfort balance. For the 2019 model year, Mazda revised the CX-9's suspension to make it ride more smoothly. Body motions remain well controlled, but compared to how it felt in previous model years, the CX-9 no longer feels much sportier than something like the Honda Pilot. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, as the Pilot drives really nicely, but if you're looking for a sporty experience behind the wheel, the CX-9 no longer delivers as much as it used to.
When equipped with front-wheel drive, the CX-9 is EPA rated at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg highway. All-wheel drive CX-9s are estimated to get 20/26 city/highway mpg. That stacks up pretty well among the competition, but after a week racking up traffic-heavy city miles, I only saw 19.8 mpg.
Still looks outstanding
Even though the CX-9 has been sold in its current form since 2016, I still think it's the best-looking three-row crossover you can buy today. Its neat proportions and graceful lines remind me of a ballet dancer. The CX-9's interior is just as striking, with tastefully applied brightwork adorning a cabin that's trimmed with quality materials.
The cockpit is a pretty quiet place to be, too, although I was left wanting for more comfort. The driver's seat feels light on padding, unfortunately, but aside from that, the CX-9 offers a comfortable driving position, while offering just enough space for up to seven occupants throughout the cabin. The third row is fine for a couple of kids, and maybe even a pair of skinny adults for short distances. The second row of seats slides for easier entry into the third row, but you'll still likely have to step all over the second-row seatbacks during entry and exit.
Cargo space is rather poor. There's only 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row, 38.2 cubic feet behind the second row, and just 71.2 cubic feet behind the driver and front passenger. Those are some of the lowest numbers in the segment, looking pale in comparison with something like the Volkswagen Atlas. With 20.6 cubic feet behind the third row, 55.5 cubic feet behind the second row and 96.8 cubic feet behind the first row, the Atlas is one of the more capacious entries in the segment.
If you need to use the CX-9 for towing, there's a bit of bad news there, too. Compared with most three-row crossover SUVs that can tow 5,000 pounds or more, the best the CX-9 can muster is 3,500 pounds.
The latest tech, but not the greatest
The base CX-9 Sport at $33,325 (including $1,045 for destination) comes with a 7-inch touchscreen, HD radio and a six-speaker stereo. My $43,985 Grand Touring tester comes with an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, embedded navigation, a pleasing 12-speaker Bose , satellite radio and an attractive 7-inch TFT instrument cluster display that's bright, sharp, clear and easy to read.
Mazda's made an important stride this year by offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on the CX-9's higher trims. That's a major improvement, but Mazda's infotainment outside phone mirroring leaves a lot to be desired. I find the native menu structure distracting and overly complicated, which is only made worse by graphics that feel a generation behind.
Standard driver assistance features include collision-mitigation braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. My well-equipped example also features adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, traffic sign recognition, automatic high beams, rain-sensing wipers, plus front and rear parking sensors. My tester also includes a new-for-2019 360-degree camera, which is a nice addition in theory, but in practice, it's not well-rounded. Shift the CX-9 into reverse, and you're presented with an image that's too small and blurry. The surround-view imagery also has to battle the equally diminutive and fuzzy backup camera image that's also fighting for real estate on the center touchscreen.
No longer 'the one'
A top-of-the line Mazda CX-9 Signature can approach $47,000, but all that really gets you is some fancy interior and exterior accent lighting, as well as higher-quality leather and nicer interior trim compared with lower-priced CX-9 variants.
With perforated leather upholstery that's already high quality, as well as features like a sunroof, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, driver's seat memory, a power liftgate, adaptive LED headlights and 20-inch wheels, my CX-9 Grand Touring comes pretty close to the Signature's level of opulence, for around 3 grand less.
Overall, though, the Mazda CX-9 no longer feels like an absolute winner in its competitive set. It's not that comfortable, it lacks cargo space, it doesn't tow that much and even Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren't enough to mask its outdated infotainment tech. At this point in its life cycle, the 2019 Mazda CX-9 is beginning to have to rely on its lovely design and pleasing driving dynamics, but I no longer think that's enough for me to recommend it to most shoppers.