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2020 Mazda CX-9 crossover: still pretty, still more than pretty good?

2020 Mazda CX-9

What changes will make the 2020 Mazda CX-9 different?

New colors, perhaps some feature-tweaks, but model-year 2020 should be a quiet one for Mazda’s flagship SUV after comfort and connectivity updates for 2019. The next major change for this handsome, agile seven-passenger midsize crossover will be a full redesign, likely for model year 2023.

Today’s second-generation CX-9 launched for model-year 2016. All new from the ground up, it followed the Japanese automaker’s design and engineering philosophy to a T: Blend head-turning styling, upscale accommodations, and exceptional driving characteristics with sophisticated engineering and great fuel economy. It also broke with midsize-crossover convention by eschewing a V-6 engine and going exclusively with a turbocharged four-cylinder – a move few rivals have copied.

The original CX-9 premiered for the 2007 model year, borrowing much of its underskin design from the Edge crossover produced by its then-corporate overseer, Ford. By 2015, Mazda was again an independent entity. The CX-9 is its largest vehicle, but its best-seller is the CX-5 compact crossover. Indeed, CX-9 sales have never been outstanding. Despite 9-percent increase for 2018, it ranked dead last in sales among midsize crossovers with three seating rows. On the upside for Mazda, most CX-9 buyers spring for one of the two most expensive trim levels. Combined with stingy factory incentives, the CX-9 appears to be reasonably profitable even at low sales volume.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of the 2019 Mazda CX-9. In areas where the ’20 might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

Consider the 2019. It gained convenience features notably absent from the 2016-2018 CX-9: a surround-view camera, ventilated front seats, power-folding exterior mirrors, and support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. It also retuned the suspension to hone ride and handling. We suspect Mazda won’t be so generous for 2020.

It could offer the Signature with front-wheel drive, but other changes worth waiting for are unlikely. And prices will almost certainly rise on what’ll be essentially an unchanged vehicle.

Expect the 2020 CX-9 lineup to again start with the Sport grade and ascend through Touring, Grand Touring, to the Signature trim. Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring have offered a choice of front-wheel drive or traction-aiding all-wheel drive (AWD). AWD’s been standard on the Signature, and Mazda may be considering offering a front-drive version aimed at sunbelt buyers who want the flagship’s luxury features without the extra bulk and expense of drivetrain hardware they might never use.

Will the styling be different?

Extremely unlikely. Style-wise, CX-9 has no equal in its competitive set. Sleek and contemporary, there’s nary an extraneous detail or out-of-place element. Overall, it looks like a far more expensive vehicle than it is.

The top-notch aesthetics continue inside. For model-year ’19, Grand Touring and Signature grades received a slightly revised instrument panel, with a configurable LCD display replacing the 2016-18’s analog speedometer. It’s a solid compromise between fully analog gauges and the all-digital clusters available on some rivals.

Mazda deserves credit for adding CarPlay and Android Auto support to the 2019 CX-9, but we’d urge it to refine its integration for 2020. In our tests of a 2019 CX-9 Signature, it took a long for a connected smartphone to be recognized by those interfaces – upwards of 60-90 seconds in some instances. Further, using CarPlay or Android Auto essentially overrides the system’s other functions. It’s not easy to back out of either and enter the main menu to access, for example, AM/FM/satellite radio or the available imbedded navigation system. At several points during our test we simply disconnected our iPhone from CarPlay and relied on the Bluetooth connection to receive phone calls and text messages. Adding to the frustration, Mazda disables the touchscreen when the vehicle is in motion, though you can still control its functions via a center-console knob.

Thankfully, the quality of the ’20 CX-9’s cabin materials should remain among the very best in class, with nicely grained plastics and inlays available in genuine aluminum or wood. Leather upholstery is standard on all but the Sport model, with the Signature slathered in premium Nappa hides accented with French stitching. Some premium-class crossovers aren’t this well-appointed.

In the first two seating rows, passenger accommodations are fine, with generous headroom and legroom. Upper-crust buyers might bemoan lack of an available panoramic sunroof, especially since the available rear entertainment system places its dual screens on the backs of the front-seat headrests. Omission of a panoramic roof doesn’t make the cabin feel claustrophobic, but it is a feature most rivals offer.

In the CX-9’s third row, room and comfort are hardly adult-worthy. It’s a challenge to access, and although you can slide the second-row forward with a child seat in place, the aperture it creates is not especially wide. Once situated, grownups feel like they’re riding on the floor with limited leg and knee clearance unless second-row seats are moved forward enough to compromise the comfort of their occupants. If you want a midsize crossover with genuinely usable third-row accommodations, look to such rivals as the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Hyundai Telluride, Toyota Highlander, and the class-leading Volkswagen Atlas.

The 2020 CX-9’s wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles) and its overall length will remain among the longest in class, so inefficient third-row packaging is a disappointment that carries over to cargo volume. It, too, will remain below the segment average for 2020, with just 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row, 38.2 behind the second, and 71.2 behind the first. There is ample interior small-items storage, however, with a nicely sized center console and glovebox.

Any mechanical changes?

No. Mazda broke the mold with the second-generation CX-9, producing a three-row midsize crossover with a turbocharged four-cylinder as its sole engine. In this competitive set, only the Subaru Ascent has thus far matched that precedent. Several rivals do feature a four-cylinder as a base engine, often available only with two-wheel drive and always far outsold by their available V-6. The 2020 Ford Explorer features a turbo four as its base engine and its 310 pound-feet of torque matches the CX-9’s output, while its 300 horsepower is 50 more.

The 2020 CX-9 will continue with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four that should again generate 250 horsepower – if you use the recommended premium-grade 91-octane gasoline. Choose less expensive regular-grade 87-octane gas and Mazda says horsepower drops to 227.

Either way, acceleration off the line will again be surprisingly strong thanks in large measure to the engine’s 310 pound-feet of torque, which is more than most of the V-6s offered by rivals. (Think of torque as the force that gets a vehicle moving, horsepower as the energy that keeps it moving.) Better yet, the CX-9’s peak torque occurs at just 2,000 rpm, a much lower engine speed than peak torque arrives in those V-6s.

Mazda says its studies show most crossover drivers seldom if ever employ enough throttle to rev their engines much past 2,500 rpm. Sure enough, the only time a CX-9 driver might miss the high-rpm punch of a V-6 is attempting to aggressively overtake or pass at highway speeds. But merging onto even fast-moving freeways won’t leave you wanting more muscle.

Fine-tuned suspension settings for 2019 mean the ’20 CX-9’s road manners will continue among the best – if not the best — in the competitive set. Handling is tight and nimble, with excellent steering feel and minimal body lean in fast changes of direction. The tradeoff is ride quality that errs on the firm side, especially the Grand Touring and Signature models, which have 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires. When traversing pockmarked Midwest roads, our Signature test vehicle occasionally exhibited some unwanted side-to-side motions. Better at absorbing bumps will be the Sport and Touring, which have 18-inch wheels with more forgiving tire sidewalls.

Mazda’s engineers paid special attention to quietness and refinement with the CX-9, and mostly hit their mark; road and wind noise are seldom an issue. The engine’s sound, however, has a degree of coarseness missing from rival V-6s and you’ll likely find that invigorating or irritating, depending on your perspective.

Will fuel economy improve?

With no powertrain changes expected, the 2020 CX-9’s EPA ratings should mirror those of the 2019 model. That would again make the CX-9 more fuel efficient than rival crossovers with V-6s.

Look for the ’20 CX-9’s EPA ratings to repeat at 22/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 20/26/23 mpg with AWD. Our 2019 AWD Signature review sample averaged 21.5 mpg in our suburban test loop with most of our test drive occurring in sub-freezing temperatures.

Again, Mazda will recommend premium-grade 91-octane gasoline for maximum engine performance, but 87 can be used with a reduction in horsepower.

Will there be new features?

Possibly. We would like to see the Signature model become available in colors other than black, silver, gray, or white. Otherwise, the 2020 CX-9 will again come reasonably well equipped. On the safety front, all grades will again include blind-spot alert and rear cross-traffic detection. Sport grades should return with low-speed autonomous emergency braking that works up to 19 mph. Mazda is likely to keep all-speed autonomous emergency braking optional on the Sport and standard on all other 2020 CX-9s. Same goes for automatic high-beam headlights, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, adaptive radar cruise control that can maintain a set following distance from traffic ahead, rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Look for other standard features on the Sport to again include three-zone automatic climate control, 7-inch touchscreen infotainment display with CarPlay and Android Auto, and pushbutton ignition. Touring grades will add a power rear liftgate with programmable height adjustment, LED headlights, leather upholstery, heated power front seats, 8-inch touchscreen, keyless access, and USB charging points for second-row occupants.

Most 2020 CX-9 buyers will continue to start at the Grand Touring level, which will again add 20-inch wheels, steering-linked headlights, LED fog lights, front- and rear-obstacle detection, power sunroof, power-folding exterior mirrors, Bose-brand audio system, imbedded navigation, surround-view camera, driver-seat memory, ventilated front seats, heated outboard second-row seats, heated steering wheel, genuine aluminum interior trim, and second-row sunshades.

Signature grades will return with LED accent lighting in the grille, Nappa leather upholstery, wood interior trim, and contrast interior stitching.

Will 2020 prices be different?

They’ll likely increase, but not by much since we don’t expect Mazda to add significant features for 2020. Base-price estimates here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $1,045 ($1,090 in Alaska) for the 2019 CX-9.

With front-wheel drive, estimated base prices are $33,500 for the 2020 CX-9 Sport, $36,500 for the Touring, and $42,000 for the Grand Touring. AWD will likely remain a $1,800 extra on these models. If the Signature remains AWD only, it will probably start around $46,500.

Among factory options, Sport’s Power Driver’s Seat and I-Activsense Package ($1,290 on the 2019 model) would add a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and the advanced driver assists that are standard on the Touring.

The Touring Premium Package ($2,390 on the 2019) would include most of the items that are standard on the Grand Touring, such as Bose audio, power sunroof, LED fog lights, obstacle detection, second-row sunshades, satellite radio, and imbedded navigation.

Neither the Grand Touring nor Signature would have factory options other than extra-cost paint ($200-$300).

When does it come out?

Mazda’s vehicle release-date schedule is all over the map. Our best guess is that the 2020 CX-9 will start reaching dealers at the end of calendar 2019 or in early 2020.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Sorento and Telluride, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, Volkswagen Atlas

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About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]