Tested: 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature
Mazda's subtly updated CX-9 remains the King.
This review might almost be considered repetitive because of how freaking good this SUV from Mazda is. It's nearly a shock to think that other manufacturers are incapable of producing something so well-rounded. Kia comes close with the Telluride, but it doesn't drive like the Mazda. For the most part, you can refer to my prior review of the 2020 CX-9 Signature, the top-shelf 'reserve' edition which I found to be simply phenomenal. You can read it here. This 2021 edition goes mostly unchanged, and that's all for the better because of how accomplished the prior model I tested was. But, I don't mind rehashing a bit because it's easy to talk about the CX-9 for obvious reasons.
The biggest differentiator of the CX-9 compared to rivals is in the way it goes down the road. Mazda, known for its zoom-zoom persona and slogan, has somehow cracked the formula to make a normal, large, everyday SUV extremely good to drive. Good isn't fair because the CX-9 doesn't drive like most SUVs; In reality, it drives better than most cars. The steering is delightful to command with great weighting and accuracy and even some real feedback coming through. Then there's the handling, combining a deft and athletic balance and sharp keenness to tackle corners. All-wheel drive helps further secure things and never leaves you in doubt for traction. Yes, this is an SUV that is a joy to drive quickly and feels completely at home on backroads. Despite these wondrous driving dynamics and personality, the ride quality remains comfortable at all times and never seems harsh, but also never bounces around uncontrollably from larger bumps.
The styling inside and out both impress, too. The exterior is a shapely triumph, with soft yet sharp edges and curves. The grille, though large, is so well integrated and the way the headlights connect to it are simple statement design done right. Look from the side profile, and the grill becomes three-dimensional even as the hood seems to stretch down to it. Nice. It's such an understated and elegant design that looks particularly upscale and can make other rivals in this segment look wildly vulgar and underdeveloped. Success follows inside the cabin, too. For a reasonable and not-crazy price for a three-row, midsize SUV, the interior is capably and properly luxurious. Go back and forth between this and a BMW X5 or Volvo and it's enlightening how close the Mazda gets to the luxury establishment. Leather is abundantly used throughout along with other high-quality and soft materials. In addition, the switchgear is pleasant to use; nothing feels flimsy nor cheap in the slightest. Also, the fit and finish is a step above.
The seats are great, too, with both comfort and support. Rear seat space is aplenty for anyone and the third row, while not the biggest in its class, still can house an adult in emergencies. The cargo space in the rear can stow most anything you desire, but again is not the largest in class in terms of outright volume. This can be attributed maybe to the stylish sheetmetal that does taper slightly toward the rear. But, it looks so good it can be forgiven. And also, I like that the Mazda doesn't value or emphasize excess like others do in the quest for space. One thing I would like to see in the CX-9 is a great big panoramic sunroof.
What is new is a large, over 10" infotainment screen, serving as a noticeable visual upgrade from the somewhat smallish unit in the 2020 I drove a year before. The graphics and operation have both been updated to a modern look. I like the simplicity of its design because other manufacturers' interfaces are too crowded and busy in their quest to shove as much data and info onto the screen at any given time. A rotating knob is the best way to operate the screen and comes naturally after a little use. Some steps seemed backwards when navigating music menus, but storing presets helps to alleviate any issues.
Mechanically, nothing has changed, meaning this loaded Signature trim comes with the potent turbocharged 2.5L inline-four and a tried and true six-speed automatic. Power is rated at 227 horsepower on regular pump gas, or 250 if you shell out for the good stuff, that 91 octane that always catches your eye. The power levels are not exciting in the slightest, but the gruff motor churns out over 300 lb-ft of torque from a low RPM. This gives you a flat power curve meaning you have lots of horsepower available to you at all times. What's more is the Skyactiv engine has a unusually high compression ratio that affords great throttle response. That, combined with the 2.5 liters of swept volume (verse the normal 2 liters that so many others have), also help reduce noticeable turbo lag.
On the road, performance always feels more than adequate thanks to a strong midrange. In performance testing, it does slightly lag behind more powerful V6 alternatives like the Pilot or Highlander V6, needing 7.2 seconds to reach 60 MPH from a stop. It certainly is nothing to scoff at, but some extra outright punch would not be unwelcome for a vehicle so eager to corner and attack good roads. Economy, while still satisfactory at 29 MPG on the freeway at 70, also trails the Highlander, which achieved 30 in my testing. Shifting is done by a tried and true tested six-speed automatic to give effortlessly smooth gear changes at all times. It responds well to manual inputs, too. That six-speed, however, does limit fuel economy by running well over 2,000 RPM on the freeway. A seventh or eighth gear to drop engine speed below 2,000 would likely yield a MPG figure over the magical 30 mark. While the shift quality in normal driving is quite good, the shifts in acceleration testing proved to be on the slower side. It's a more than decent transmission, but something newer would not be amiss in the future.
So, surprise surprise, the 2021 CX-9 continues Mazda's trend of delivering beautifully styled, beautifully furnished, and beautifully driving cars and SUVs. For all the best hardware, the price does creep up a ways above its $35,000 starting price, but it's also competitively priced when compared to the top-tier alternatives from rivals. The most direct competitor I see is the Kia Telluride, which is so well packaged and practical with a great interior to boot, but doesn't drive quite as nice. For the best driving and luxurious mid-size SUV under 50 grand, though, the CX-9 is still the winner.
2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD
As-Tested Price: $48,100
The Road Beat Rating: 4.5/5
Pros: Beautiful to look at, beautiful inside, and beautiful to drive
Cons: Could use more power
Verdict: Mazda's CX-9 maintains its stronghold as the best reasonable mid-size SUV