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-9 The 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-9 Mazda'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-9 The 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-9 Second- 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-5's styling is sharp and clean.

Mazda

Crossovers have clearly become the family vehicle of choice. Minivans and large sedans are far less common than they used to be as buyers opt for the relative plushness and more generous space offered by utility vehicles. That's not a bad thing, but many people will find the increasing levels of sameness in the crossover market to be off-putting.

Thankfully, Mazda is here to help keep things interesting. Its CX-5 takes a different approach than its rivals. Where vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V focus on comfort and efficiency over almost everything else, Mazda managed to jam in loads of vehicle feedback and engagement. Behind the wheel, the crossover feels and sounds much more alive and responsive than its competition. Jumping out of a larger vehicle and into the CX-5 felt like a shock at first, as the Mazda's steering wheel delivers real, actual feedback and transmits a picture of what's going on underneath the vehicle, which is something not often seen outside of expensive performance vehicles.


2021 Mazda CX-5 The CX-5's cabin is more upscale than its rivals. Mazda


Engaging Powertrains

The CX-5's base four-cylinder engine is fine, but the turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is where things start to get interesting. It bumps the standard mill's 187 horsepower to 250 and gives off a pleasing turbo whine under heavy throttle. It pairs almost perfectly with the six-speed automatic transmission and delivers surprising power and torque. My test vehicle's all-wheel drive gave the CX-5 a surefooted feel, and from experience I can say that it's worth the added cost if you live anywhere with legitimate winter weather.

There are a few tradeoffs that come along with the CX-5's level of driver engagement, largely related to interior space and noise levels. While the Mazda's cabin is comfortable and is in no way low-rent, a great deal of wind, road, and drivetrain noise make their way into the vehicle at all times. You could argue that this is just another expression of the CX-5's connection with its driver, and you'd be right in some cases. At many times, however, such as when taking the kids to school or just running to the grocery store, it gets tiresome. Your five-year-old won't care about how good the steering feel is when they have to keep asking you to crank up the volume on their podcast story. The noise level is most noticeable around town with the constant stop and go of traffic.

The other main drawback with the CX-5, at least for families (like mine) that don't travel lightly, is interior space. Thanks to its curves and beautifully sloped roof, the Mazda's cargo hold is not as spacious as some of its rivals, such as the Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CR-V, or Toyota RAV4. That dramatic shape also makes the rear seat feel tighter than it reads on paper, but thanks to a friendly ride height and large rear door openings, parents will have no issues with loading kids in car seats.


2021 Mazda CX-5 A sloping roofline can make rear-seat headroom challenging for taller people.Mazda


Great Tech and Safety

Mazda bumped the CX-5's infotainment screen size from 7.0 to 10.3 inches across the board for 2021, but there's no touchscreen here. Instead, the system is controlled using a rotary dial and volume know that are mounted behind the gear shifter in the center console. It's a responsive and fairly straightforward process to use and control the system, but scrolling through long menus or trying to wade through several options using the rotary controller becomes tiresome and distracting at times.

The 2021 Mazda CX-5 was named a Top Safety Pick + by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). That award is due in part to the crossover's excellent performance in crash tests, but also comes thanks to its long list of standard advanced driver aids. All models get a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane departure warnings with lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, a smart brake support system, and high beam control. My top trim tester also got a driver attention alert system, front and rear parking sensors, and a 360-degree monitor.

It's hard to ignore the quality, value, and fun that the CX-5 brings to the table, even considering how good its competitors have gotten. With a price tag that maxes out under $40,000, the Mazda's driving experience and plush interior should put it at the top of shoppers' lists. Its few drawbacks don't spoil the overall package, and only really present a problem for families of four or more – like mine. Those people, myself included, should be shopping for a slightly larger vehicle, anyway, and for them, there's the Mazda CX-9.


2021 Mazda CX-5 The CX-5 is one of the most fun-to-drive crossovers on sale today.Mazda

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The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder arrives on dealer lots this summer.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder doesn't have to be capable of rock crawling or deep water fording. What it has to do is service the needs of families in their daily life and give them the opportunity to competently go off-roading on rocky trails should they desire. The new, fifth-generation models does just that and adds in enough nifty features to make it among the most compelling choices for three-row SUV buyers.

The 2022 Pathfinder is thoroughly modern though not the boxy off-roader it once was. The SUV's styling harkens back to that time with a tilted, darkened C-pillar and a return to a more muscular body style. That styling makes straightforward visibility good but for shorter drivers seeing what is immediately in front of the grille is a challenge that necessitates using surround view camera technology (available only in upper trim levels) when navigating challenging terrain.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can easily handle the roads less traveled.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V6 that offers up 291 horsepower and torque - plenty to do the job without complaint. The SUV's nine-speed automatic transmission replaces the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the previous generation and delivers smooth shifts. Though low-end torque isn't as robust as I like it to be, once up over 35 mph, the Pathfinder's powertrain delivers smooth, powerful sailing.

The redesigned architecture and components underpinning the Pathfinder make it stable on the road and don't allow it to wallow on winding roads. Even off-road, the suspension provides the right blend of stability while the drive dynamics allowing the driver to feel engaged with their surroundings whether on freshly paved roads, city streets, or muddy trails.

Nissan has given the Pathfinder a 6,000-pound towing capacity and even when maxed out the engine's functionality is strong as ever. The transmission can get held up in a gear mid-range when performing this function, however, with 5,000-6,000 rpms registering on the tachometer but a quick release of the gas pedal recalibrates the offering bringing it down to a more traditional 2,000 rpm range.

The eight-seater Pathfinder clearly has the Toyota Highlander in its sights, with good reason. It's the top-selling three-row SUV in the country. Nissan boasts that three adults can fit across the rear bench seat of the Pathfinder and, as long as they're average size or smaller, the marketing talking point holds up. There is gobs more room back there than there is in the Highlander.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Nissan has given the Pathfinder ample cargo space.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Getting in and out of the third row is easy thanks to one-touch buttons on the outboard side of the second-row chairs that move the SUV's captain's seats forward creating enough room to get through to the back. Smartly, Nissan's engineers have put duplicates of these buttons on the back side of the same seats allowing third-row passengers to simply press the button to move the seat up.

The third row can also be accessed via a split between the captain's chairs as well, a space traditionally occupied by a center stowage bin/cup holders/arm rest. Owners can quickly remove the center console by opening a panel on the front and pulling the release mechanism. The one-handed operation takes seconds and the console can be easily stored in the under-floor trunk space behind the third row seat for ease.

Speaking of cargo space... The Pathfinder is one of the most spacious midsize SUVs on the market today for both passengers and cargo. There is a substantial amount of room behind the third-row seat and the under-floor storage area is nearly twice the size of the one in the Highlander. Plus, it has a feature that allows the area cover to be automatically propped up when pushed up by a user. This is especially help when carrying groceries or plants home and keeps them from being crushed.

The first- and second-row seats are suitably comfortable, even for extended periods of time and standard trig-zone climate control makes finding the right in-cabin mix easy. Bottle holders in the pockets of the front doors are exceptionally large, fitting even bulky water bottles.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder's front row seats are comfortable.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

In front of the driver is a standard tachometer, speedometer, and 7.0-inch driver information display. Buyers can upgrade to a fully digital 12.3-inch instrument cluster and head-up display but they're not reason enough to upgrade to the top-tier Pathfinder Platinum on their own.

Nissan packs the new Pathfinder with a host of desirable features that make living with the Pathfinder easier including one-touch auto up/down windows, a wireless phone charger, grocery hooks in the rear cargo area, USB ports in all three rows, second-row sunshades, rear door keyless entry, wireless Apple CarPlay, and a motion-activated lift gate.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is priced to start at $33,410 for the two-wheel drive S base model and $35,310 for the four-wheel drive S base model. The model tops out around $50,000 with destination and delivery included, which seems fair when comparing the Pathfinder to other vehicles in the market.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

If you're thinking of purchasing a Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Honda Pilot, or Highlander, do yourself a favor and schedule a test drive of the new Pathfinder when it arrives at a dealer lot near you. You may just be surprised how seamlessly it fits into your daily life compared to the competition.

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