In search of the perfect family SUV (and because my editor wouldn’t let me test the MX-5 Miata RF), I took to California’s Highway 1 and put the Mazda CX-9 thoroughly through its paces. Does it hit the handling highs set by other Mazdas? Does it eschew the lumbering oafy-ness of most SUVs? Would its body roll induce seasickness previously only known to high-seas sailors? There was only one way to find out.

The Good: Like all Mazdas that we’ve tested, the handling and steering on the CX-9 are top notch. It’s predictable, does not exhibit body roll like similarly sized SUVs/crossovers and is genuinely spectacular to drive. Though it may look big and lumbering, the turbocharged four-cylinder does more than enough to get the CX-9 up and moving with its 250 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. The handling and engine combination, paired together with an interior that leaves little to be desired, makes for an SUV that fights well above its weight.

Who It’s For: The CX-9 makes for a great family car. It’ll keep the driver entertained while still offering plenty of space. It’s also great for outdoor-minded types who like to get outside and onto gravel and dirt roads in snow and sun. The SKYACTIV all-wheel drive works admirably and will get you where you need to go.

Watch Out For: I have few qualms with the CX-9, and those I do have are minor. First, I find the steering wheel to be a bit thin. (I know, it needs a steering wheel that finds a middle ground for all hand types and shapes.) Second, I wish that the CX-9 got slightly better gas mileage. 20 city / 26 highway isn’t terrible, but it certainly isn’t setting any records.

Alternatives: The best alternatives to the CX-9 would be Volkswagen’s Atlas V6 ($34,095+) and Subaru’s Ascent ($31,995+). Both are excellent options and are among the best in their class. You can read our review of the Atlas here, or the Ascent here.

Review: My first experience with Mazda was a 2003 MPV. For the unfamiliar, the MPV was Mazda’s Honda Odyssey minivan fighter. Not much needs to be said in order for you to gauge my opinion on it; suffice it to say… not great. But the CX-9 is a different beast altogether. The first CX-9 replaced the MPV in 2006 as the SUV/crossover craze was taking full flight and has benefitted from constant improvement since. The most recent update, aside from a few cosmetic upgrades here and there, is the addition of Apple Carplay and Android Auto. But those updates are, frankly, unexciting – any modern car priced above $25k should come standard with such capabilities.

Instead of the small technological advancements made to Mazda’s infotainment system, what I found most impressive about the CX-9 was how it made me feel as a driver and the reactions I got from passersby.

Given Mazda’s reputation for producing cars that handle extremely well, I felt the best place to test a 4,383-pound SUV was to drive from Jenner, California to Sausalito via Highway 1, then up and over the Panoramic Highway. It’s a windy, labyrinthine stretch of asphalt that for some would induce significant motion sickness. The CX-9 handled the curves far better than I would have anticipated. In fact, I’d even argue that it was the perfect car for the job. The bolstered, cooled leather seats kept my organs in place and of a regulated temperature. The steering felt tight, smooth and predictable; the brakes were adequate. As soon as the road straightened, punching the CX-9 up to the speed limit forced me back in my seat just enough to make things interesting.

And the reactions of passersby: I got more reactions to the CX-9 than I recently did in a Durango SRT, which was shocking to me. People were struck by the Mazda’s crisp body lines. In fact, one person walked 200 yards down a cliff (to where these photos were taken) to ask me what I thought of it.

Verdict: Sure, the CX-9 is no MX-5 Miata, but if you crave a big hulking SUV with handling on par with some of Mazda’s smaller offerings, the CX-9 should be at or near the top of your list. It’s peppy enough to keep you entertained when the kids aren’t in the car and still has enough space for everyone, plus luggage… plus skis plus plants plus cases of soda plus two medium to large dogs and on and on. It’s refined and comfortable in a way that an SUV – especially one that sells for just over $40K – shouldn’t be.

Key Specs

Horsepower: 250
Engine: turbocharged 2.5 four-cyclinder
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drivetrain: all-wheel-drive
Towing capacity: 3,500 lbs
Fuel capacity: 19.5 gallons
Curb weight: 4,383 lbs

Note: Mazda provided the 2019 CX-9 for review.
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