If you’re a cool parent with more than one kid, you are undoubtedly shopping in the “large three-row crossover” segment of new cars. Perception dictates these large not-wagons are far cooler than a minivan and thus, the competition among automakers is fierce. Though Kia and Hyundai have stolen a lot of recent thunder with their Telluride and Palisade twins, Mazda’s CX-9 has been an ongoing favorite as well. I’ve got several sets of friends who worked through ownership of the smaller Mazda CX-5 and moved up to the CX-9 when they wanted more room. Their lease expires and they don’t shop around, they just get another – in this case, the 2021 Mazda CX-9.

Mazda’s involvement with motorsport extends, quite seriously, down to the amateur level. Their old, powerful “Zoom Zoom” slogan has given way to a bland “Feel Alive” tagline, but their purpose is the same either way – make cars that are good to drive, no matter the shape or size. I spent a week with their largest and most luxurious crossover to see what made it so special in some buyers’ eyes.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature

What Is It?

This is a 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature. This current iteration of CX-9 was released for the 2016 model year and treated to a little nip-and-tuck for 2021. Styling has been revised in the form of updated bumpers front and rear, and the interior has been tweaked to include a new infotainment screen tied to the newest version of Mazda Connect.

Every 2021 Mazda CX-9 is powered by the brand’s hottest engine, a turbocharged 2.5 liter four cylinder found in every model except the Miata. It makes the same 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque as in other Mazdas, and requires premium gasoline to do so. If you run it on regular, you’ll see just 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft. The turbo Skyactiv-G engine is paired to a six-speed torque-converter automatic and an optional front-biased all-wheel drive system.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature engine

The 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature I was sent is the top-trim model, which most notably includes second-row captains’ chairs with a center console (to the chagrin of some friends) and upgraded Nappa leather covering the seats. There are no real “options” on the Signature trim, as it includes everything optional on lower trims as standard.

MSRP of my 2021 CX-9 Signature came to $48,200, with the only upcharge listed as $495 for Machine Gray paint (boring, get a color if you’re spending extra money).

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature white interior

It’s the Miata of Three-Row Crossovers

What’s perhaps the most noteworthy element of the 2021 Mazda CX-9 is what you won’t find when you slip behind the wheel. There are no drive modes to pick from, no shock absorbers that change settings or an exhaust that gets louder or anything to put the all-wheel drive system on higher-alert in bad weather. There’s a little Sport toggle that kinda-sorta changes the throttle sensitivity and steering effort, but it makes such a small difference that you’ll promptly forget about it.

In the absence of any adaptive-ness, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 is instead just… very well-done. I didn’t take many notes in my week with the big Mazda because I found the driving experience to be that well-executed. It’s a great example of what the “default” ought to be. Suspension is well-damped, with good body control. Steering is neither devoid-of-feel light or sports-car heavy. The brakes provide reasonable initial bite and good feel as you get deeper into the pedal. Move to the skinny pedal and it’s equally well-calibrated. It all adds up to a confident package of driving dynamics – something that can and should exist outside of the “special” models from so many manufacturers like BMW M and Mercedes-AMG.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature

With all those driving dynamics so well-done, the CX-9 is sounding pretty good, right? It’s akin to Mazda’s Miata – nothing too wild but quite good in its default state of being. Well, it is pretty good. It’s also very Miata-like in that it is not the fastest thing in the world.

Yes, the boosted 2.5 liter makes an abundance of torque – 320 lb-ft is pretty good out of an engine this size. The CX-9 is snappy off the line and around town, where the torque figure can play a leading role. Where the CX-9 feels more like a Miata is at highway speeds. You can tell the engine is making more torque than power when you attempt a pass – it’ll do it, but doesn’t feel super enthused in the process.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature steering wheel

I’ve called the 2.5 turbo “diesel-like” in its performance and it is. It is a very quick partner, deceptively so, in smaller Mazdas like the Mazda3 and CX-5. But the CX-9 weighs 1,100 pounds more than a Mazda3 hatchback and nearly 600 pounds more than the CX-5 crossover. And past a certain point, the 250 horsepower doesn’t feel anything beyond “sufficient” in the CX-9. Hyundai’s Palisade, by comparison, produces less torque but makes another 31 horsepower and weighs less. Mazda has engineered the CX-9 to feel punchy where it will be driven the most. You’ll win the stoplight drag race, but you’ll want to plan your passes.

Power aside, when the roads get twisty, the Mazda is an engaging partner that feels right at home. I’d almost call it athletic.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature

Oh, You Have a Family?

It did occur to me while flinging the CX-9 around off-ramps like a big Miata that some buyers of this crossover would have a family and thus care more about creature comforts and space utilization than driving dynamics. And the 2021 CX-9 Signature delivers in some ways and falls short in others.

Given Mazda sells the Signature as the top-tier of the CX-9 lineup, it is appropriately upscale inside. Mazda has been pushing this “attainable luxury” sort of thing and it’s working. Even lower-trim Mazdas feel elevated inside. But while Mazda has used nice materials everywhere, demanding buyers may notice a few missing features that the competition has – notably, a panoramic sunroof and ventilated second-row seats.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature second row

The CX-9 is otherwise quite well-equipped, and the updated Mazda Connect infotainment with its high-resolution, 10.25″ widescreen looks far more proper than the outgoing setup. Graphics are classier and Mazda should be applauded for configuring Apple CarPlay to use the entire width of the screen. So many other brands have not figured that out yet, and it’s a waste of some otherwise-beautiful pixels.

Mazda also forces you to use the infotainment with a clickwheel, like old-school BMW iDrive. They claim it’s safer and I agree for the most part. CarPlay, unfortunately, isn’t designed super well for clickwheels and you never quite know what you’ll select each time you have a spin. But, voice controls and steering wheel buttons largely solve that problem. Mazda’s own software is generally good, should you prefer that to CarPlay or Android Auto, though it takes a significant number of clicks and spins to change radio presets. But with a pretty-good Bose sound system, you should really stream lossless music over USB instead.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature clickwheel

Interior space is generally well-used, though choosing the higher trim levels of CX-9 and their added technology features requires you have a center console between the two captains’ chairs in the second row. One friend of mine insisted this was A Bad Thing as he wanted a loaded 2021 Mazda CX-9 with captains’ chairs and no console. Your use may vary.

Third row room is the only real letdown. Second row seats are comfortable, even for six-footers, but the third row is pretty tight. Every three-row crossover is somewhat cramped for adults in the “way back” compared to a minivan, but others in the segment (Palisade and Telluride in particular) do it better and offer just enough space to add significant comfort.

2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature cargo space

Final Thoughts

The 2021 CX-9 offers a nice evolution of a design that has been and continues to be a knockout, in a segment that generally prioritizes function over form. If you care about driving dynamics, the CX-9 excels, perhaps taking away some of the sting that comes with trading your smaller, more fun daily driver for a family hauler. Though the engine’s power level can be nitpicked at highway speeds, in reality it’s going to be quick enough most of the time.

The CX-9 is relatively huge in the first and second rows, and would be a perfect road-tripper if you only planned on using those four seats. But if you’re looking for the best utilization of interior volume, the CX-9 may fall short. Bring the whole family and plan to try before you buy.

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