Sometimes it comes down to this: Do you simply want to impress people with the name badge on the back of your vehicle, or do you treat it as mere transportation and the ride is most important?
If you’re in Group A — and there’s nothing wrong with that — you’ll likely confine your crossover/SUV shopping to the well-known luxury brands, like Lexus, Audi, BMW, etc.
If you’re in the second group, I’ve got a winner for you. The 2019 Mazda CX-9 doesn’t clock a perfect score, but it’s a strong choice that won’t set you back dollar-wise nearly as much as the fancy-pants choices.
And, as a bonus, it looks terrific.
The CX-9 came out of the chute running, picking up the Motor Trend SUV of the Year Award just two years after it was unveiled. In the years since, it has made enough tweaks and adjustments to keep it relevant and popular with the masses.
Described alternately in the press as a mid-size and a full-size SUV, I can tell you from experience that it drives like a mid-size — and that’s a good thing.
Sure, it’s designed to accommodate families, thus the third row. But you pay a price in cargo space for that ability to seat seven.
All four trim sizes are powered by a 2.5-liter turbo-powered 4-cylinder engine. It generates 227 horsepower (unless you step up to premium fuel, which adds a few horses).
Six-speed automatic transmission comes standard, as does front-wheel drive, although AWD is an option for each trim and standard on the upper-level Signature model.
For my week of test-driving I was behind the wheel of the Grand Touring edition.
One of the first things you’ll notice are the cool lines of the CX-9. It’s difficult to make one crossover/SUV stand out from the others, but with it’s last major redesign in ’16 Mazda did just that.
The CX-9 is a bit shorter and lighter than previous versions, which adds to the sportier look and feel.
For years Mazda has put its chips on the handling side of the ledger, but in recent years they’ve done a good job letting some of the emphasis slide over to the need for comfort.
What you get today is a comfortable, and somewhat-luxurious, interior. You’ll have plenty of room up front, pretty good room for that middle row, and the third row . . . Well, it’s a third row, and those were never made with NBA players in mind. If you have smaller kids they’ll probably have fun back there.
Sight-lines are quite good, with the usual SUV issue with rear blind-spot coverage. SUVs just require those danged pillars, so what are you gonna do?
Seat quality is one of those areas where Mazda has upped their game. I enjoyed the feel, and although I didn’t take any long-distance trips during my week you can tell it would be a comfortable experience.
The second row has sliding and reclining capability, as well as heated seats.
All of your controls are set up with driver-accessibility in mind (which, trust me, isn’t always a given).
Small storage up front is good, with just the right amount of cubby space. Even the door cup holders are a good size.
Storage in the way-back, however, is where the CX-9 takes a hit. It falls below some of the competitors. The 14 cubic feet expands to more than 70 when you fold all of the seats.
Again, this is where Mazda competes well, and where the CX-9’s small diet pays off.
I hate to overuse the word ‘nimble,’ but that’s the best way to describe its drive. Because it’s not massive, it’s able to maneuver through town very well, and won’t require double parking spaces.
Acceleration was quite good, and I was never concerned about merging into traffic or pulling out from an intersection. The 0-60 speed actually falls right into the “average” category, but the feel is solid.
Steering, handling, and braking also show up as above average. Remember, we’re talking a relatively-modest price range; some people will pay $20k more (or still more) in order to get top-of-the-line with everything. But the CX-9 delivers a good quality ride from the mid-30s to mid-40s.
Normally I’d grade the vehicle about average, because of my personal bias against mouse/dial-based designs.
Mazda doesn’t go crazy with that. The screen menus are easy enough to understand and operate, but what raised the grade are the ease of the climate control system and the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
(The time has come to just admit we’re hooked on that stuff, and any car maker who leaves it out moving forward is taking an awful big risk.)
Your smartphone pairs easily with the system, and you’ll also be treated to enough USB ports.
Mazda builds in plenty of safety aids, too, and delivers an overall 5-star safety rating from the government.
The Bottom Line
Yes, you could pay more, and lots of people do.
But the Mazda CX-9 has snuggled nicely into that middle ground of quality construction, a good ride, and enough tech toys — all at a good price compared to the luxury kids.
With only the diminished cargo space and middling-fuel economy holding it back, this is a solid choice for families looking to haul their brood around town.
2019 Mazda CX-9
2.5-liter turbo 4 cylinder
6-speed automatic transmission
Front-wheel and all-wheel drive available
Fuel economy: 20/26/23 combined
As tested: $45,310
Reviewed by Dom Testa
Vehicle provided by manufacturer