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2021 Mazda CX-9: An SUV without surprises

A comparison of just-under-$50K SUVs goes in three directions — plug-in performance, hybrid luxury, and a tried-and-true three-row. Which will win out?

The 2021 Mazda CX-9 looks quite like the 2020 — and the 2019 — even back to the 2016. Yep, it's been a while.
The 2021 Mazda CX-9 looks quite like the 2020 — and the 2019 — even back to the 2016. Yep, it's been a while.Read moreMazda

2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE AWD vs. 2021 Lexus NX 300h Black Line vs. 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD — versus 2021 Kia Sorento: When you have just under 50 grand to drop on an SUV, here are four, count ‘em, four distinct ways to go.

This week: Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD.

Price: $48,200 as tested. Fancy gray paint, $495.

Conventional wisdom: Consumer Reports likes the “nimble handling for its size, effortless power delivery, comfortable ride, and quiet cabin” but not that the “infotainment system is unintuitive,” and that it’s “not as roomy as some competitors, including a tight third-row seat and short on towing capacity compared with V6-powered rivals.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Sophistication and performance in perfect harmony.”

Reality: Mazda isn’t trying to be something it’s not — for better and for worse.

But, wait, there’s more! We go a different way with our almost-$50,000 budget this week, away from hybrid-powered smaller SUVs and to the three-row CX-9.

Then, surprise! Into our test fleet arrived the three-row Kia Sorento, which will make a nice under-$50,000 three-row comparison next week.

» READ MORE: 2019 Mazda CX-9 provides sportiness in three rows

What’s new: The CX-9 receives technology and styling changes for 2021, with a larger infotainment display and a Carbon Edition model. It was last redesigned in 2016, and it feels its age.

Up to speed: The Mazda CX-9 features a turbocharged 2.5-liter four that creates 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque when fed a proper diet. It makes getting to 60 mph short work for a three-row SUV. The magic number comes in 7.2 seconds, just as it has since 2016, according to Motor Trend.

I drove the SUV for a while without checking the deets sheet and swore it was front-wheel drive. The front end pulls a lot in hard acceleration, and the steering becomes fairly unresponsive. Which, duh, physics, but other vehicles seem to have worked this out.

At least the exhaust sound is pleasant when you’re going full tilt.

Shifty: Mazda calls its six-speed transmission “quick-shifting,” but occasionally I found it “stomach-upsetting.” The shifts could verge on abrupt, although this happened only a small percentage of time.

Sport mode also holds gears far too long, even as Mr. Driver’s Seat started down hills after a long climb. Shift capability is available through the shift lever or paddles, and that choice clears up the shift issues quickly.

» READ MORE: For 50K, Lexus NX 300h offers luxury, economy and some fun

On the road: The CX-9 handles well in day-to-day driving, cornering like a much smaller vehicle and maneuvering nimbly through the side streets and parking lots.

On highways, though, the CX-9 seems prone to wander. I felt as if I were always drifting a bit in my lane, and correcting the steering frequently.

It also bounces a lot, on rough roads and such. The tires lose their grip faster than a QAnon follower.

Driver’s Seat: Mazda continues to offer a firmish seat. I’ve noted CX-9-inspired back pain in pre-COVID-19 times, but this time I’d only made a trip to King of Prussia and some local runs.

Gauges and dashboard remain no-nonsense and pleasant enough to look at.

Friends and stuff: The second row offered nice accommodations in the test vehicle, with reclining bucket seats and a console. Legroom, headroom and foot room are all pretty nice.

Rear-seat passengers will be disappointed, though. Mr. Driver’s Seat’s head touched the ceiling and knees touched the seat in front, and feet are not moving even an inch. Call this the blood clot row.

Entry and exit are particularly challenging. Push the middle row up far enough for some space in the back, and size 11 shoes still struggle to clear the seat and door frame. Same for the rear row.

Cargo space is 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row and 71.2 with two rows folded.

» READ MORE: Got 50 grand? New 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime roars and sips

Play some tunes: The Mazda infotainment screen has grown a bit to 10.25 inches, and it’s plenty big. The controls remain the dial-and-button system, which are easy enough to follow. Scrolling through radio stations remains a challenge.

Sound from the system is very good, an A-.

Keep warm and cool: Dials control the temperature, and buttons control everything else. Not too complicated a setup.

Fuel economy: This remains a tough prospect in the CX-9. I averaged about 18 mpg in a homebound round of testing. Premium fuel gets the best performance.

Where it’s built: Hiroshima, Japan

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts its reliability will be a 4 out of 5.

In the end: Auto reviewers tend to call this three-row SUV the best thing since fresh-baked homemade bread, but its highway manners, ride and overall comfort may help explain its smallish percentage of the market.

If I had to pick from this, the NX 300h and the RAV4 Prime, honestly, I’d struggle. Fifty grand seems a lot to pay for any RAV4; the NX 300h power is disappointing; and the CX-9 sucks fuel and offers questionable comfort. I guess the RAV4 offers the most of the three, although I could be talked into the Lexus.

Next week: 2021 Kia Sorento.