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Driver's Seat: Honda Pilot SE takes on Mazda CX-9

2015 Honda Pilot SE 4WD vs. 2015 Mazda CX-9 AWD Grand Touring: Battle of the little big boys. This week: Mazda CX-9.

Even Mazda refers in promotional material to the 2015 CX-9 as "the elder statesman" of its lineup.
Even Mazda refers in promotional material to the 2015 CX-9 as "the elder statesman" of its lineup.Read moreDavid Dewhurst Photography

2015 Honda Pilot SE 4WD vs. 2015 Mazda CX-9 AWD Grand Touring:

Battle of the little big boys.

This week: Mazda CX-9.

Price: $39,890 as tested (bumped up $2,435 for the GT Tech package - more on that below). A base CX-9 Sport starts at $29,985 with power to the front wheels, and $31,575 powering all four.

Marketer's pitch: "Remarkably engineered to take on the incredible."

Conventional wisdom: liked the "responsive steering, strong V6 engine, spacious interior, easy-access third-row seat with room for adults," but not "middling crash-test scores . . . underwhelming touchscreen interface."

Reality: Room for the family, without forgetting the driver.

Catching up: Last week, we rode in the Honda Pilot, an aging crossover set for a full redesign in the 2016 model year. But the Pilot still has its virtues, not least of which are heavy discounts.

Showing its age: Even Mazda press materials refer to this model as "the elder statesman." Mazda has remade much of its lineup in the last few years, but no redesign looms for the CX-9. So, unlike the Pilot, discounts may not apply.

On the road: Ever since unveiling the Miata for the 1990 model year, Mazda has made itself into the sporty Japanese automaker. Even the CX-9 meets these criteria; despite having room for seven, the crossover handles like a sports sedan.

Up to speed: The 3.7-liter V-6 develops 273 horsepower, motivating the CX-9 to highway speeds without hesitation. Acceleration is quick.

At a price: I usually feature fuel economy at the end, but the CX-9's is pitiful, and has been in previous Driver's Seat tests. I barely eked out an average 16 m.p.g., about the worst of any vehicle in my tests. Mazda really needs to SkyActivize this baby; those new four-cylinder engines have improved fuel economy.

Shifty: CX-9 drivers can shift gears old school: The shift lever slides to the left, then moves forward and back to raise and lower gears. The big console makes the shifting position awkward. Still, this is one in the CX-9's column; the Pilot doesn't even allow drivers to select some gears.

Friends and stuff: For its small size and feel, the CX-9 provides fairly remarkable space in all its seats. I tested the back row and found entry and exit not too uncomfortable. I sat behind nearly 6-foot Sturgis Kid 4.0 and found legroom and foot room snug but workable. Knees sit fairly high. This is not the board Sturgis Kids 1.0 and 3.0 found brutal in the Pilot.

In the snow: We had a couple of inches of snow on two occasions during test week. The CX-9's all-wheel-drive system was sure-footed and worked without calling attention to itself, and, unlike the Pilot, everything is automatic.

Entertainment option: This $2,435 option for navigation and improved stereo seems dear - Toyota offers Entune with a giant navigation screen for half that. And the result? The interface looks like a bad HTML coders program. The tiny screen can be difficult to read. Tabs across the top are the only way to change the music source and require two screens to list all the options. And the screen is extraordinarily small. On the bright side, the sound is excellent.

To a stop: Like the Pilot, the CX-9 also needed plenty of braking distance to get back to zero.

Getting there: Dear Mazda, please cancel your contract for navigation systems with TomTom. I lost navigation more than once. The graphics are also difficult to read, and street names are not provided often enough. The small LED screen could be a factor in that last part, though.

Night shift: Map lights shone much too brightly and interfered with the driver's view into the distance. Headlights also shone a little on the dim side and made high beams too much of a necessity. The CX-9 we tested had only middle lights for the middle and third row, not the corner lights most vehicles offer.

Where it's built: Hiroshima, Japan.

How it's built: Consumer Reports puts the CX-9 in the better-than-average category, a notch higher than the Pilot.

In the end: Two m.p.g. may not seem like a lot, but we're talking more than 10 percent more fuel to keep the CX-9 fed than the Pilot. If Mazda would correct this, and offer a better screen, it would be the CX-9 hands down. If you need a real third row, though, it has to be the CX-9.