2021 Mazda CX-9 Review

Liz Kim, Independent Expert | Dec 11, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Mazda deals!

Aesthetically appealing, equipped with a beautifully tailored cabin, and infused with the driving dynamics for which the company’s cars and SUVs are known, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 is a 3-row midsize crossover SUV competing with segment stalwarts such as the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. And though it falls on the smaller side of the spectrum, the CX-9’s calling card is a premium look, feel, and driving experience without the premium price tag. 

However, the CX-9 is not the only game in town, and newcomers like the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride offer just as much swag combined with more functionality. 

To defend against relentless competition, Mazda has kept the CX-9 on a continuous improvement program since the current version debuted half a decade ago. For the 2021 model year, the highlight reel includes a new infotainment system, a new sporty Carbon Edition trim level, and luxurious upgrades to the top Signature trim.

The CX-9 Carbon Edition slots into the middle of the lineup, with Sport and Touring below and Grand Touring and Signature above. The price spread runs from $33,960 to $46,605, not including destination charges.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature White Front View

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated the top-of-the-line CX-9 Signature equipped with extra-cost paint. The price came to $48,100, including the $1,100 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Mazda deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Mazda CX-9, it is helpful to understand who buys this upper midsize SUV and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 61% of Mazda CX-9 owners are male (vs. 56% for the segment), and the median age of a CX-9 owner is 51 years (vs. 55).

Owners say their favorite things about the CX-9 are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, feeling of safety, interior design, and powertrain. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the upper midsize SUV segment:

  • Exterior styling
  • Quality of materials inside the vehicle
  • Audio system sound quality
  • Quietness of the cabin while driving
  • Effectiveness of headlights

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the CX-9 are (in descending order) the driving comfort, setting up and starting, getting in and out, infotainment, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the upper midsize SUV segment:

  • Getting in and out of the third row
  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Using voice assistance
  • Ability to hold personal items
  • Usefulness of other infotainment functions

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the CX-9 ranked 7th out of 13 upper midsize SUVs.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Mazda deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides her perceptions about how the 2021 Mazda CX-9 measures up in each of the ten categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Mazda CX-9 owners cite exterior styling as their favorite aspect of the SUV, and the reason is readily apparent. Unlike most of the shapeless crossovers that dot the nation’s highways, the CX-9 is memorably penned, starting with its sharp snout. The rakish windshield and smooth silhouette contrast nicely with the bold shoulder lines, while gray lower cladding defines the CX-9 as an SUV. 

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature White Rear View

This year, the Signature trim’s new grille and redesigned 20-inch wheels visually distinguish it from the rest of the lineup as the most luxurious version of the CX-9.

Interior

Mazda is a mainstream brand, but its intention to recast itself as a premium automaker is evident in the CX-9 Signature’s interior. 

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature Brown Leather Dashboard

Every inch the equivalent of what you’d find in a luxury vehicle, the cabin’s top-notch materials and a high-end design aesthetic provide the necessary credibility for the automaker’s coming move upmarket. This year, the Signature’s rich Nappa leather features a new quilted pattern and posh contrast piping. It’s available in Deep Chestnut, a brown so dark it’s nearly black, and Parchment, a light tan providing a high-contrast look to the cabin.

Minimalism rules, although at times, it sacrifices functionality. Since the infotainment system doesn’t offer a touchscreen display or a good voice recognition system, you must rely on the center console controls and the switchgear on the steering wheel.

Interior storage space could be better. The glove box, center console storage box, and door panel bins are smaller than expected, and the center console area has unused space begging for greater utilization.

Getting In and Out

One reason people buy midsize crossover SUVs is that they’re easy to get into and out of, and that’s true of the Mazda CX-9. You’ll want to be careful with the long, wide-opening rear doors, though, lest you ding the vehicle next to your CX-9.

People seeking a vehicle to carry more than five passengers regularly will need to think long and hard about buying a Mazda CX-9. This SUV’s third-row seat is small and uncomfortable, and entering and exiting this area requires contortionist skills. They qualify as an occasional-use, “just-in-case” feature.

With cargo capacity measuring 14.4 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, 38.2 cubic feet behind the second-row seat, and 71.2 cubic feet with both rear rows folded down, the Mazda CX-9 is among the smaller midsize SUVs on sale today. Nevertheless, it offers more practicality than any other Mazda.

Setting Up and Starting

Mazda purposely enhances the CX-9’s engine note to ensure the driver can hear it, and it generates an urgent-sounding rumble when you push the engine start button. It will either make you eager to drive or wonder why the SUV is so loud.

Before driving, you’ll want to set up the CX-9’s various functions and features to your preferences. Without a touchscreen or useful voice recognition technology, this can be trickier than in other vehicles. Still, you’ll ultimately figure out how to use the center console controls to change, select, and activate corresponding information on the display.

The driver information center located within the instrumentation also requires an acclimation period, ultimately resulting in success. 

Infotainment System

One of the most significant changes to the 2021 CX-9 is its next-generation Mazda Connect infotainment system. It uses a larger 10.25-inch high-resolution display mounted atop the dash like a tablet overlord, but unlike the previous iteration of the technology, it does not offer touchscreen operation when the vehicle is stopped.

Mazda claims it has enhanced the user experience over the previous version of Mazda Connect, which is easy to dispute. As previously mentioned, the voice recognition technology falls well behind what most competitors offer, which leaves drivers to use topographically indistinguishable steering wheel buttons or the controls on the center console that take up space that could be used for additional storage.

You can use the ones on the center console by touch and memory, your fingers orienting themselves around the large knob and raised Home button. But this design does not eliminate particular frustrations related to using the CX-9’s radio and reasonably impressive Bose premium sound system. For example, what should be the simple act of changing a radio station is unnecessarily complicated, and Mazda could resolve this unnecessary complexity with the simple addition of a tuning knob to go along with the volume knob on the center console control panel.

As part of the new Mazda Connect system, the CX-9 includes a free three-year subscription to Mazda Connected Services, along with three free months or 2GB of data of Wi-Fi hotspot service. You also get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and, starting with Carbon Edition trim, the CX-9 includes SiriusXM satellite radio and a wireless smartphone charging pad. 

Keeping You Safe

Mazda includes a comprehensive suite of safety technologies as standard equipment on every 2021 CX-9. Highlights include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, automatic emergency braking, and blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning. About the only feature missing that you might find on comparable SUVs is a lane-centering assistance feature. 

Moving up to the new CX-9 Carbon Edition adds curve-adaptive headlights and new-for-2021 features, including a driver monitoring system and Smart City Brake Support Reverse, which is a low-speed automatic braking system. 

The Grand Touring and Signature include a head-up display that is a model of helpfulness. In particular, I appreciated how it showed when a vehicle is in the CX-9’s blind spot. New for 2021, the CX-9 Grand Touring and Signature add a high-definition surround-view camera system. 

Crash-test ratings are impressive. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the virtually identical 2020 CX-9 a “Top Safety Pick+” rating, its highest accolade. The CX-9 also earns a 5-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Powertrain

A turbocharged 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine powers the hefty CX-9, delivering 250 horsepower when fed premium 93-octane gas. In Southern California, this is not an easy commodity to find: the closest station to my house that sells 93-octane fuel is about 20 miles away.

When running the CX-9 on regular 87-octane fuel, the engine generates 227 hp. That doesn’t sound like much, especially in the 4,409-pound CX-9 Signature, but with 320 lb.-ft. of torque (310 lb.-ft. using regular gas), this SUV offers good acceleration from a standstill and at lower city and suburban speeds.

Beyond the torque peak, the CX-9 feels like it’s out of breath when passing on two-lane roads or climbing a grade with a full load of family members aboard. Fortunately, the 6-speed automatic does an excellent job of managing and maximizing the power, especially when you switch to Sport mode. You can also manually shift using the available paddles on the steering wheel if that’s your preference.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA’s driving test, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature is rated to get 23 mpg in combined driving. We averaged 20.1 mpg on our mountainous test route, including a mix of city, suburban, freeway, and rural driving. This shortfall is typical of turbocharged vehicles; if you’re going to use the turbocharger, you will use more fuel.

The CX-9 has a 19.5-gallon fuel tank. Based on our results, you’ll enjoy about 392 miles of total driving range, with fuel stops every 350 miles or so.

Driving Comfort

My husband and I are differently sized, but neither of us found the CX-9’s driving position acceptable, which is surprising given Mazda’s focus on such things. For us, the relationship of the seat to the controls and center console seems unnatural. 

Considered separately from their positioning within the SUV, both of the CX-9’s power-adjustable front seats are comfortable and supportive, and the test vehicle’s heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and heated steering wheel were a nice touch. 

Second-row passengers will have few complaints. There is plenty of leg and foot room, and the CX-9 Signature includes second-row captain’s chairs separated by a large center console with cupholders and a large storage area. Starting with the Touring trim, two USB power ports are available.

My rear passengers appreciated the triple-zone climate control system. During previous test drives of the CX-9 at the height of summer, I’ve found this SUV’s air conditioning lacking in terms of effectiveness. This time around, examining the CX-9 during temperate November weather in the Los Angeles area, the system cooled the cabin without any issues. 

Driving Feel

Drive a Mazda, and it’s clear the company’s engineers spend a significant amount of time fine-tuning the driving dynamics. That applies just as much to a family hauler like the CX-9 as it does the company’s legendary sports car, the MX-5 Miata.

Here, this effort manifests itself in precise and direct steering response and a deftly tuned suspension that provides agility around corners while absorbing bumps and potholes in the city. Mazda’s brake-induced G-Vectoring Control Plus, something the driver and passengers feel even if they’re unaware of it, smoothes out the SUV’s ride and handling qualities through subtle weight transfer based on driving input and vehicle behavior.

However, it is fair to say that the CX-9 is a pudgy SUV, and its weight is evident in body wallow over undulating pavement. It’s quite tall, too, with a surprising 8.8 inches of ground clearance, so the higher center of gravity is harder to manage. Still, as midsize SUVs go, the CX-9 is a pleasure to drive.

Final Impressions - Find the best Mazda deals!

The Mazda CX-9 may not be as ubiquitous on American roads as some other mainstream midsize crossover SUVs. Still, its combination of good looks, interior quality and refinement, and safety features and ratings make it worthy of consideration for your family car. And, as expected of a Mazda, it’s enjoyable to drive. 

It does fall a bit short when it comes to functionality, and though Mazda Connect is better than before, it still isn’t what it should be. But the company’s clever execution in all other areas may put you in a forgiving mood.

Liz Kim has been writing about cars for two decades, involved in road testing, analyzing, marketing, and pondering all things automotive. But what she enjoys most is poking around the various corners of Southern California in different test vehicles with her family, the way cars are meant to be used.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power

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