Driven: CX-9 has 3 rows of fun for the family, and for the driver

Mazda CX-9 drives as though it’s smaller than it is

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Mazda CX-9
Mazda's CX-9 is a 3-row crossover utility that's still fun to drive | Larry Edsall photos

On my desk and beneath an old-style, 3-prong, chromed wheel spinner that I use as a paper weight, is a stack of work-related materials — collector-car auction results, printouts of interviews, hand-written to-do lists, Post-It notes, and Monroney spec and pricing sheets on cars I’ve recently test driven. 

As I was sitting down to write this story about my week with a 2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature All Wheel Drive model, I noticed that its as-tested price was $47,855, remarkably close to the vehicle I’d driven just the week before, a 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited AWD model with an as-tested price of $47,905.

I have to admit, I was surprised by those prices, even if both are 3-row crossover utility vehicles imported from Asian assembly plants.

From my perch behind the wheel, and even having had each vehicle in my driveway for a week, and a couple of times parked in my daughter’s driveway next to her Ford Expedition, I would have wagered that the Palisade was the larger vehicle — larger in dimensions, larger in weight and larger in the output of its engine.

And I would be wrong. While the CX-9 felt smaller and much-more nimble on a two-lane road that twists and climbs through slots in the mountains southwest of Las Vegas, it actually is larger — more than 3 inches longer and built on a wheelbase 1.1 inches longer as well. 

But the Palisade tips the scales at 4,387 pounds, a whopping 562 more than the CX-9. To move that mass, the Hyundai is equipped with a 3.8-liter V6 that pumps out 291 horsepower. The Mazda needs only a turbocharged 2.5 liter 4-banger, good for 227 horsepower. 

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But perhaps more significant is that the CX-9 benefits from 310 pound-feet of torque from its turbo 4 — starting at a mere 2,000 rpm — while the Palisade powerplant provides only 262 pound-feet of torque, and doesn’t deliver that figure until it revs beyond 5,000. 

I found the Palisade to be a sweet package for a growing family. The same might be said of the CX-9, but with the added benefit that it also is a much more enjoyable package should that family have a driver or two who actually like to drive.

Not that you’d mistake the CX-9 for a Miata, but if you’re stuck with a crossover, why not get one that at least can be fun to drive?

That fun grows for the 2020 model year with a boost in torque and with new off-road traction-assist technology. You’re not going rock-climbing with the 2020 CX-9, but you can venture away from pavement with more confidence than is typical for AWD vehicles.

“Replacing the traction-control button, this feature can potentially help the driver when adventuring on uneven terrain,” Mazda explains. “When the diagonal wheels lose traction, off-road traction assist will stop reducing the engine torque and increases the brake force on the wheels without traction. This transfers power to the wheels still on the ground to help allow the vehicle to regain traction and continue the drive.

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“G-Vectoring Control Plus is also standard for 2020 and further improves the steering response to help the driver and all occupants have a smooth, premium driving experience.”

And for the 2020 model year, the CX-9 becomes even more fun for those who aren’t driving. New for this model year are second-row captain’s chairs and a power rear tailgate.

That all comes standard in Signature trim, but even the entry-level CX-9 Sport now comes with heated front cloth seats with power lumbar support for the driver’s chair, as well as 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, heated exterior mirrors, auto on/off headlamps and high-beam control. 

All CX-9 versions are available in front- or all-wheel drive.

Mazda’s i-Activesense safety package also is standard, as are a 7-inch infotainment screen, LED head- and taillamps, one-touch front power windows, rear privacy glass, 3-zone climate controls, hands-free phone, rearview camera, keyless entry and push-button start.

Touring trim adds Apple or Android links, leather-trimmed seating, power-adjustable passenger seat, second-row slide and tilt seats with center armrest and a pair of USB ports, and the power liftgate, as well as a larger 9-inch touchscreen.

A Touring Premium package adds third-row USB ports and a power moonroof, as well as Bose audio and second-row retractable sunshades. Grand Touring trim adds 20-inch wheels, 360-degree view monitor, active driving display with traffic-sing recognition, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, automatic folding exterior mirrors, power moonroof, wiper de-icer and more.

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Touring Premium and Grand Touring buyers can opt for the heated second-row captain’s seats.

Go all out for the Signature setup and those captain’s chairs get an upgraded center console and the choice of Deep Chestnut or Parchment Nappa leather. The crossover I drove for a week had the Parchment interior and Mazda’s new Soul Red Crystal premium exterior paint. 

Among other Signature touches are a hand-stitched chidori steering wheel, LED grille accent lighting and supplemental lighting around the shift lever on the center console.

I’m not a big fan of crossover vehicles, but the CX-9 was a delight, feeling smaller than it is and yet with plenty of room inside. I declare it  a road-trip ready vehicle that you actually can enjoy driving. 

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD

Vehicle type: 6-passenger 3-row 

crossover utility, all-wheel drive

Base price: $46,115 Price as tested: $47,855

Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, 227-horsepower @ 5,000 rpm, 310 pound-feet of torque @ 2,000 rpm Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 115.3 inches Overall length/width: 199.4 inches / 77.5 inches

Curb weight: 3,825 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 20 city / 26 highway / 23 combined

Assembled in: Hiroshima, Japan

For more information, visit the Mazda website

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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