2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature straddles the SUV class line

The 2020 Mazda CX-9 embraces some contradictions for a three-row crossover SUV. Mazda’s largest vehicle leads the competition by a long nose when it comes to length, yet its shorter height results in less cargo room than the Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride, and the Subaru Ascent. Its sporty design enables the CX-9 to handle more nimbly than the competition yet it has the weakest engine output. Stellar safety scores highlight its family charm, yet the cramped third row diminishes its utility.

Lastly, but certainly not least, the top Signature trim edges Mazda deeper into premium territory belonging to Buick, Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, and perhaps even Cadillac. It comes with a premium price of just less than $50,000. 

What all those contradictions amount to is a 6.5 TCC Rating for the 2020 Mazda CX-9. That score would be higher with the fully loaded Signature trim I tested in a weeklong sojourn along the Great Lakes. For nearly 1,000 miles, it made road-tripping calm and comfy, but the technology could use an upgrade and the rear captain’s chairs might not be worth the extra space they consume—both in the SUV and your wallet. 

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

Hit: Luxurious quiet

The 2020 CX-9 shuttled across the mitt of Michigan from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron in effortless quiet and with the kind of softness once attributed to Lexus. Even though the 2.5-liter turbo-4 might not impress on paper, making 227 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque (or 250 hp and 320 lb.-ft. with 93 octane), it handled the hilly shores with nary a shrug. Even under full throttle in Sport mode, the cabin remained quiet and calm. There was nearly no noticeable difference between the sound on a 45-mph state highway and a 70-mph interstate. The adaptive cruise was equally smooth, with no unnecessary abrupt actions. 

Hit: Sporty handling

The proportions of the CX-9—longer, lower, and with a lower center of gravity than the others— grant it the handling of a smaller vehicle. There’s less body roll and more athleticism than other three-row SUVs. This doesn’t just translate to fun on roads curving around blueberry farms; for those drivers who want or need a three-row crossover but aren’t sure if they want the extra bulk that comes with it, the CX-9 maneuvers into parking spots and garages more elegantly than many of its counterparts. Vision out the rear is poor, but the surround-view camera on Signature trim helps. 

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

Miss: Missed opportunities

When the CX-9 gets its imminent makeover, Mazda will focus on updating the technological real estate inside. The insistence on analog gauges at a time when every other automaker showcases complex digital screens has its charms, but the CX-9 is limited. Between the speedometer and tachometer is a narrow vertical bar of icons only noticeable by pressing the “Info” button wedged between tuning arrows on the steering wheel. Narrow fingertips required. The info displayed for the trip meters or the driver-assistance features pops up in the center of the speedometer, but that space should be better optimized so drivers don’t need to fiddle with the controller dial and center display screen.

I am in the minority of my colleagues who prefer the click-wheel controller to a touchscreen, and Mazda is one of the few holdouts with the controller dial. But it’s clunky, and Mazda limits the functionality when in gear in the name of safety. If you don’t set the radio presets or navigation settings, prepare to be frustrated. My tester’s Apple CarPlay was disabled so I can’t comment on that. 

Hit: Roman nose, striking looks

The 2020 Kia Telluride SX might be the runaway best-looking SUV for 2020, but the CX-9 still looks fresh and distinct despite a design that dates to 2016. A long flat hood protrudes like the brow of an ape, then tucks back to showcase the grille. A long wheelbase stretches the corners, while round wheel arches clad in black dramatize the 20-inch black alloy wheels of my tester. Mazda’s “Soul Red Crystal Metallic” paint radiates in a way unmatched by most other brands; it arrests the eye and makes you notice the details. It sits at least an inch lower than other SUVs, and the integrated roof spoiler and rounded rump further distinguish it. But…

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

Miss: Form over function

The 2020 CX-9 has a total passenger volume of nearly 136 cubic feet, while the next smallest competitor listed above offers 150 cubic feet. The front seats needed to be in the lowest position for me to not knock my noggin getting in. New for 2020 were heated captain’s chairs in the second row. The center console provided armrests, cupholders, climate control, and storage, but the unit took up a big chunk of space that might have been better used as an aisle. The third-row seats positioned above the rear axle made for limited foot room, but getting in and out is easy with a latch on the top of each seat. Other models at this price offer push-button convenience, but the latch design prevents any accidental motions. Behind the third row was a stubby 14.4 cubic feet of space, similar to many sedans, and with the third row down the 38.2 cubic feet trailed the competition by nearly double digits. The sloped roof ate away at space that is provided by boxier exterior shapes.

Had my two kids accompanied my journey across Michigan, we likely would have needed a rooftop carrier or rear bike rack or both. There are larger, roomier three-row SUVs, but few look as good and perform as calmly on the road.     

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2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature

Base price: $47,160 including destination

Price as tested: $47,855

Drivetrain: 227-hp 2.5-liter turbo-4 with a 6-speed automatic in all-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 20/26/23 mpg

The hits: Striking design inside and out, remarkably quiet

The misses: Tight third row, questionable captain’s chairs, limited infotainment.

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