Behind the Wheel

2020 Mazda CX-9 Review: An elegant family hauler that blends in with the competitive crowd

The Mazda CX-9 is an elegant, three-row family hauler.

Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

For seven years, I lived in a small tourist town in Southwest Colorado. Thanks to nearby Mesa Verde National Park and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, not to mention mind-bogglingly beautiful scenery, we had a constant flow of Texans and Californians wanting to see "The West."

For a remote town of some 20,000 people, Durango was remarkably well-stocked with amazing restaurants. Thanks to our tourist friends as well as a well-heeled second-home community, Main Street was lined with top-notch eateries that wouldn't be out of place in any major city across the country.

2020 Mazda CX-9The model features Mazda's signature exterior blunted nose and heavy wheel cladding.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

Whether we wanted sushi, steak, Greek, whatever — we were absurdly spoiled for choice. It was heaven. Though I live in Boston now, which saw its own culinary resurgence in the half-decade I was away, I still miss the restaurants of Durango.

My favorite was always East By Southwest. You wouldn't expect a sushi joint in the middle Rockies to blow you away, but the chefs were creative and I was always delighted with whatever they came up with. My favorite was the BLT&T roll, which swaps seaweed for lettuce and adds tuna to the lunchtime staple. It was topped with a garlic pesto aioli and I could eat it every day for lunch.

As I slipped behind the wheel of Mazda's Japan-built CX-9 SUV for a test drive, I found myself thinking about all those restaurants. See, the Mazda CX-9 is a very nice premium three-row SUV. My test unit, a top-of-the-line Signature trim, was $47,385 with all the toys.

It has Mazda's excellent 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv engine, all-wheel-drive, 20-inch wheels, a full safety suite including adaptive cruise control, a lovely Bose sound system, nice leather, and on and on.

2020 Mazda CX-9Mazda's large grille fronts an imposing figure.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

There's a five-year 60,000-mile powertrain warranty and a three-year 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper. It has three-zone climate control (the rear seats are the third-zone). It seems well-built, assembled in Mazda's Hiroshima, Japan plant and shipped over to the states.

I particularly like the heads-up display and the easy-to-read dashboard, which is common to all Mazdas. Too many carmakers end up filling every available inch with icons and graphics that you just don't need. The infotainment is not the best (I've complained about Mazda's user interface before so I won't belabor the point), but the screen is solid and CarPlay works well.

Visibility is good and the handling and drive performance are excellent, with the little turbocharged four-cylinder delivering 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. The inside is luxurious and all the buttons and touch points are lovely.

2020 Mazda CX-9The interior of the CX-9 Signature trim level is as luxurious as many higher priced models.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

However, like with all those amazing restaurants in Durango, we are spoiled for choice in this segment.

The Hyundai Palisade is tremendous, as is its sister-vehicle the Kia Telluride, and at the top-trim you're at the same price point as this Mazda. There's the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas as worthy competition too. If you don't really need the third-row, you're starting to get into the price range of the smaller luxury SUVs as well.

But it's the Palisade that really gives the Mazda a run for its money. Of course, the Hyundai is brand new and any new vehicle is going to have an advantage in tech features, but it also looks better (Hyundai is killing it in design these days), has quilted leather and heated and ventilated rear seats in the Limited trim, as well as a far better warranty, running 10-years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain.

2020 Mazda CX-9Second- and third-row passengers are not treated like afterthoughts in the CX-9's design.Photo courtesy of Mazda North American Operations

And, the Hyundai's lane-centering functionality is so far beyond what most other vehicles have that, for commuters especially, it's hard to recommend anything else.

Viewed in a bubble, the Mazda CX-9 is great. As a vehicle, it's comfortable and luxurious and you'd be perfectly happy owning it. But when you look at the competition, it's a much tougher comparison.

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The CX-50 is surpsingly capable off-road.

Mazda

I have driven all of the Mazda vehicles that have been sold in the US market over the past three decades. On everyday roads and on racetracks. I’ve appreciated their “zoom-zoom”. Good power. Punchy torque just where it was needed. Well-balanced and sporty handling. A bit of growl for the versions that called for it. Plus, tasteful-but-modest styling and more or less elbow room, depending on the model. Mazda’s have been made for sports-car enthusiasts and to ferry families. But, I had never known a Mazda called an “overlander”. Until now.

2023 Mazda CX-50Towing capacity extends to 2,000 pounds.Mazda

The 2023 Mazda CX-50 moves this traction-sophisticated automaker into the lands where the pavement ends and now takes the brand ‘off-track’. Although it’s not a new thing for many of today’s carmakers to add a backcountry model or two to their lineup, it’s new for Mazda. I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to check out this all-new crossover built on Mazda’s seventh-generation small SUV platform that is shared with the smaller CX-30. This 5-passenger utility is longer, lower and wider than the CX-5 that rides on the previous generation’s underpinnings. The CX-50 has been crafted with a roomier second row and more cargo room for the goods and gear that weekend warriors and adventurers want to carry.

The CX-50 comes with a choice of two engines: a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with cylinder deactivation that gets 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, and Mazda’s Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter turbo-charged powerplant with 256 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; both shift through a six-speed automatic transmission. The sport ute can tow up to 2,000 lbs. with the naturally aspirated motor and up to 3,500 lbs. with the turbo-charged mill and Intelligent Drive Select (Mi-Drive) that brings a tow mode as well as Normal, Sport and Off-Road. The newest Mazda model has been made for North America only and is built in Alabama. It is the first Mazda vehicle with auto start/stop that can be deactivated.

2023 Mazda CX-50Mazda is a master of upscale interiors. Mazda

The new crossover starts at $26,800 and comes in S, S Select, S Preferred, S Preferred Plus, S Premium, and S Premium Plus with the base motor. Turb-charged versions come in Turbo, Turbo Premium, and Turbo Premium Plus that tops out at close to $42,000. A long list of technology and safety features are standard or available. Mazda says that Meridian, a fourth turbo trim will arrive soon with even more off-road cred; it will be set up with 18-inch black wheels AT, hood graphics and other backcountry goodies.

When you look at the CX-50, the first thing you’ll notice is exterior styling that speaks to its adventure-ready mission. Muscular bodywork, such as extra cladding, wide fender flairs and larger, more aggressive tires mean that this crossover has been designed not only to give a nod to the looks of a rugged crossover but to provide enhanced traction and a tad more suspension stretch for motoring over uneven terrain and along bumpy dirt roads. Planted on its haunches with functional air vents, it eschews minivan styling with a low and wide footprint that allows owners to have easy access to high-strength roof rails for loading gear on top; the roof has been made stronger than other Mazda crossovers to accommodate heavier loads, such as a roof-top tent. A panoramic moonroof- a first for Mazda- and attractive antiglare hood graphics and are tasteful additions.

The interior is attractive and roomy, with horizontal lines and “cleanable” surfaces as a nod to outdoor endeavors. Our Turbo Premium Plus model had bright orange reverse stitching that popped the cabin that has been crafted with uplevel trims and materials and brought heads-up display. A 7-inch infotainment screen is standard, while the top models get a 10.25-inch version. A wireless charging pad and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. Of note, is the rear power and programmable liftgate to the wide and deep rear cargo compartment, with a load floor that flush with the liftgate opening to help slide heavy items in and out of the back. An available line of cargo accessories makes stowage easier.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 is family roadtrip ready.Mazda

How did it handle over the 200-plus miles of our ride and drive? The Turbo Premium Plus CX-50 offers a lot like; many of its driving attributes are consistent with Mazda’s tuning and handling priorities across its product line. Traveling along coastal highways, carving mountainous twisties with tight turns and accelerating on flat and straight well-graded pavement, it has great Mazda manners: i.e., there is enough power and torque in the right bandwidth to move it well; precise steering with a slightly heavily-weighted leather-wrapped steering wheel and well-modulated brakes, especially with towing a 3,500-lb. load. We enjoyed using Sport mode for carving corners, as it brings elongated shifts from the six-speed automatic; a crisp response comes when sport shifting in “manual mode” and provides a quick throttle response.

We tried out the Off-Road mode on a course that included flat and uneven dirt roads, as well as hill climb and descent. Although there is no downhill descent control system, the brakes worked well, along with manual gearing. Of note, Mazda would be wide to add downhill descent engineering for steeper and slicker terrain. We were able to test the difference between Normal and Off-Road over a special section of the course with sandy corners and a winding track at a speed of 30 mph showing the improved traction in the Off-Road programming and the aid of Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control that brings a bit of magic to transfer torque to the wheels where it is needed to keep the intended track-think of it like an enhanced traction control program that helps with steering and yaw control.

2023 Mazda CX-50The CX-50 comes with off-road driving modes. Mazda

Other aids for off-road and backcountry travel are: the i-Activ All-Wheel Drive system that is standard equipment on all CX-50s, with a 50/50ish power transfer front to back; 8.6 inches of ground clearance; an 18-degree approach angle and a 24-degree departure angle; and an optional 360-degree camera system.

*EPA reports: base motor fuel economy 24 city/30 highway mpg, while the turbo option gets 23/29 mpg and can run on regular or premium fuel.

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New minivan

Honda announces new Odyssey Sport

Sport is a new trim for the Odyssey minivan.

Honda

The Honda Odyssey may not be the most exciting vehicle in the world, but it's getting a new Sport model that at least makes it look the part. Honda will release the model for the 2023 model year, and the Odyssey line overall will be offered with a new Honda Service Pass, which includes two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance.

The Odyssey Sport slots into the Honda catalog between the EX-L and Touring trims. It comes with gloss-black exterior trim and black 19-inch wheels outside, and black leather with red stitching inside. The cabin comes with red accent lighting on the dash and in the footwells, and the roof pillars and headliner are both black. Under the hood, the Odyssey Sport gets the same 3.5-liter V6 from years past. It makes 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, and comes paired with a ten=speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.

2023 Honda Odyssey SportThe Sport comes with dark exterior trim and unique leather upholstery with red stitching inside. Honda

All Odyssey models come with Honda Sensing safety equipment, which includes adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection. The 2023 van hasn't been crash-tested yet, but the 2022 model earned a Top Safety Pick + award, so it's likely the new model will be rated similarly.

Honda Service Pass is a new program for 2023+ Honda vehicles. It covers routine scheduled maintenance for up to two years or 24,000 miles, whichever comes first. Under the program, buyers get free oil changes, tire rotations, and multi-point inspections.

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