What the experts say about the 2018 Mazda CX-9

In this ongoing series, Boston.com talks with automotive authorities about why you should consider driving — or avoiding — a specific model.

2018 Mazda CX-9

Three-row SUVs entail trade-offs: more passengers for less performance, more space for less styling. The Mazda CX-9, the Japanese brand’s flagship vehicle, doesn’t demand compromises, instead pushing the bounds of mass-market luxury and performance.

The seven-passenger large SUV comes in four trims – Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, and Signature – powered by a turbocharged, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. Despite its size, the CX-9 handles well on hills and highways alike, its size belying the agility of a smaller crossover. The SUV’s steering is sharp, and its optional all-wheel drive is capable enough for steep inclines and off-pavement excursions.

You’ll pay more for the CX-9 than competing midsize SUVs such as the Honda Pilot or Kia Sorento, but you’ll get what you pay for. Mazda went upscale for the CX-9’s second generation, which launched last year, adding premium materials such as Nappa leather seats and rosewood inlays to its top-of-the-line Signature trim. Bluetooth, dual USB ports, and the Mazda Connect infotainment system with a 7-inch touch screen come standard. The Touring trim adds leather seats and a larger touch screen. Upgrade to Grand Touring for navigation and a moonroof.

The 2018 model hasn’t been rated for safety yet, but the 2017 model aced crash tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, earning the agency’s Top Safety Pick+ designation. A rearview camera, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert are standard. Higher trims include advanced driver assistance features such as forward collision warning and rear parking sensors. The 2018 model introduces standard Smart City Brake Support, which automatically applies the brakes in emergency situations when the SUV is traveling up to 19 mph.

Front-wheel drive versions deliver 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. Those numbers drop to 20/26 mpg city/ highway for the all-wheel drive configuration.

The 2018 Mazda CX-9 starts at $32,130. The Touring and Grand Touring trims begin at $34,960 and $40,470, respectively. The Signature trim, which comes standard with all-wheel drive, starts at $44,315.

What the experts are saying

Brand booster

“The CX-9 redesign in 2016 has wowed customers. Previous owners loved the change but a whole new crop of upscale buyers added it to their shopping list. Most mention the beauty of the front nose of the vehicle and the craftsmanship, especially in the Signature package. Through the CX-9, customers are noticing Mazda as a more premium brand.  We find ourselves not only competing with Toyota and Honda but more often some of the luxury brands. After experiencing the vehicle on a test drive with all of its offerings, most customers are surprised by the value the CX-9 brings at its price point.” – Joe Shaker, owner of Wellesley Mazda and North Shore Mazda

Entry-level luxury

“The Mazda CX-9 has the potential to exceed expectations. In the top Signature trim, there are some elements that brush the boundary of entry-level luxury, but then again, so does its price. Inside, there’s no shortage of premium materials — for a non-luxury-branded SUV — and we’re particularly fond of the infotainment system. It uses a knob controller, much like the ones found in Audi, BMW, and Mercedes products and is just as easy to operate. Missing, however, is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though they are on the way and will be implemented on Mazdas already on the road). The CX-9 is particularly attractive on the outside, especially when compared to its more utilitarian rivals. Furthering its cause is its sporty driving dynamics with no appreciable sacrifice in ride quality. It’s comfortable in the first two rows, but the third-row passengers may feel a little cramped. Likewise, the cargo capacity isn’t as accommodating as the competition, but it should still fit all of your stuff. Overall, we wholeheartedly recommend the CX-9 among other three-row midsize SUVs.” – Mark Takahashi, senior writer, Edmunds


Viable competitor

“The latest CX-9 retains Mazda’s rewarding driving dynamics, with a nimbler feel than its size would indicate. This second generation takes interior appointments up a notch. Overall, Mazda paid particular attention to minimizing gaps, panel seams, and unsightly transitions inside and out. Mazda also added the Signature trim, with unique trim, materials, and features, not unlike a Ford Titanium trim package or Chevrolet’s Traverse High Country. The CX-9 has performed well since its market launch in summer 2016, generating about 8 percent of Mazda brand sales through August 2017. Going forward, the market competition is only getting fiercer: VW has entered the three-row CUV competition with the Atlas, which is slightly shorter than the CX-9 but offers a longer wheelbase, and GM has an all-new Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia on hand. Mazda’s most significant challenge is getting consumers to consider the brand.” – Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst, IHSMarkit