By Malcom Gunn

The Mazda CX-9 is a solid choice for a utility vehicle that behaves somewhat differently from its competitors.
Yes, it ranks high on the style scale, but the CX-9’s on-road behavior will have you believing you’re piloting a sport-tuned machine instead of a 4,400-pound family bus with three rows of seats.
For many years, Mazda’s focus for its entire fleet has been to deliver MX-5-Miata-sports-car-like driving enjoyment. The SkyActiv moniker that the company advertises extends past the powertrains and into vehicle dynamics. The marketing spin is that no matter what Mazda you buy, you’re getting a sharp-handling machine that will put a smile on your face.
And here we are.
The current-generation CX-9 that arrived for 2017 has changed very little over the intervening years, other than a mild restyling at both ends that remains true to Mazda’s Kodo (Soul of Motion) philosophy. For 2021, a new 10.3-inch display rises up from the dashboard, and wireless phone charging is now standard for all trims except the base. The rest of the interior would look right at home in a more upscale brand.
The heart of the CX-9 is turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. That’s when burning 93-octane premium gasoline. Put regular fuel in the tank and output is limited to 227 horses and 310 pound-feet. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard.
The front-wheel-drive model is rated at 22 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway and 24 combined. Those numbers might be a challenge to attain because of the CX-9’s willingness to hustle up to speed without undue delay. Velocity is deceiving since the whisper-quiet cabin and silent-running engine might trick you into thinking you’re moving slower than you think you are.
The suspension absorbs road imperfections with relative ease, but the ride is also sure-footed and the steering is sharp. The main takeaway is that the CX-9 drives smaller than it really is.
It’s also quite capable with a tow rating is 3,500 pounds, although this is less than most competing models with maximums of 5,000 pounds.
Both the front- and second-row seating — either bench or available high-back bucket seats — are comfortable and supportive, while the standard third row (with two chairs) is best suited for smaller passengers.
The wide front-window pillars block some forward visibility, which means drivers should be extra watchful for pedestrians and cars at intersections.
The CX-9 Sport, the least expensive of the four trim levels, starts at $35,100, including destination fees. It includes plenty of content such as heated front seats, tri-zone climate control and a power-operated driver’s seat with lumbar adjust. You also get a number of dynamic-safety technologies such active cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist.
The Touring version gets leather seat coverings, power front-passenger seat, power-sliding second-row seat and power liftgate. The Grand Touring comes with a head-up information display and a 360-degree surround-view camera.
All-wheel-drive is optional with the Sport, Touring and Grand Touring trims, but is standard with the top-end Signature along with quilted leather upholstery, power-sliding moonroof, Bose-brand audio system, large-diameter dual exhaust pipes and 20-inch wheels (18s are standard). Second-row high-back bucket seats, separated by a center console, are also standard Signature items and part of the new-for-2021 Carbon Edition that’s based on the Touring.
This model is fitted with a gloss-black grille and trim and 20-inch black alloy wheels. Combined with standard gray paint, the Carbon Edition looks sort of bad-boy, which would seem out of place with the CX-9’s family-oriented mission.
Mazda likely doesn’t see that as a misstep, but rather as fitting perfectly with the CX-9’s apart-from-the-crowd character that continues to distinguish it.

What you should know: 2021 Mazda CX-9

Type: Front- /all-wheel-drive utility vehicle
Engine (h.p.):   2.5-liter I-4, turbocharged (227/250)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Market position: There are many tall wagons on the market with three rows of seats that mostly focus on utility. The CX-9 definitely trades some of the usual boxy height and size for sporty looks and driving dynamics.
Points: Current five-year-old design still looks fresh. • Standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine performs as well as a V-6. • Interior styling and fittings smacks of luxury. • Modest towing capacity might not be enough for some utility buyers. • Don’t look for a hybrid option anytime soon although Mazda plans to introduce a new electrified vehicle in the near future.
Driver assist:  Blind-spot warning with cross-traffic backup alert (std.); active cruise control (std.); front emergency braking (std.); inattentive-driver alert (opt.); lane-departure warning (std.); pedestrian detection (std.)
MPG (city/hwy) 22/28 (FWD); Base price (incl. destination) $35,100.

Although the third row of seats is not really easy to access, there is good room once you’re seated. They also fold away quickly to help with carting larger items. PHOTO: WHEELBASE MEDIA

The new Carbon Edition — based on the Touring — comes with black wheels, a black grille and this unique shade of gray. PHOTO: WHEELBASE MEDIA

The CX-9’s interior is luxurious, but not in a pillowy kind of way. Instead, think finely crafted designer luggage or home furnishings. PHOTO: WHEELBASE MEDIA

B Y  C O M P A R I S O N

Honda Pilot
Base price: $33,400
Eight-seat utility vehicle has a 280-h.p. V-6. Plenty of std. safety tech included.

Chevrolet Traverse
Base price: $31,000
Roomy model can fit up to eight passengers. 310-h.p. V-6 is standard.

Subaru Ascent
Base price: $33,350
Seven-passenger wagon runs with a 260-h.p turbo I-4, engine. AWD standard.

2021 MAZDA CX-9: Possibly the closest thing to a seven-passenger sports car for the masses