Conventional wisdom says that family road trips require really big SUVs, and that's what we always look for when loading up the kids and way too much gear for the two trips we take each year. This year was no exception, but our drive was a bit longer (Chicago to Hilton Head, SC), a distance of roughly a thousand miles. We were a bit worried since our press vehicle was a 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature, but our concerns were not with drivability, build-quality, or technology. It's just not a very large three-row SUV, so we had our misgivings as to its utility.
Our family decided to get away for the Christmas holiday, and we wanted to leave for a full week. We didn't have a ton of options in terms of vacation destinations that met the following qualifications: accessible ocean beach, shorter than 15 hours of driving one-way, warmer than 60 degrees, and good AirBNB rental options. Hilton Head, South Carolina seemed like the perfect destination since it fulfilled our aforementioned qualifications and received great reviews from travelers.
We planned to drive down in two trips, stopping in Nashville, TN the first night and arrive in Hilton Head by late afternoon the next day. On the way back, we would do the drive in one shot. We needed a three-row SUV, and Mazda was kind enough to provide a press loan of the latest Mazda CX-9 Signature, the top trim for the model. So, we packed up the kids and the gear and hit the road. I wasn't quite sure how the CX-9 would do, but we were committed to getting out of the house.
The Driving Experience is Sublime
The CX-9 we tested in 2020 was damned good, and we gave it an 8.9 out of 10 for an overall score of "excellent". Every car critic raves about how good the CX-9 is to drive, and we concur wholeheartedly. One aspect of long-distance driving that rarely gets mentioned, however, is how the actual driving experience can either increase or decrease driving fatigue.
We knew how good the CX-9 is to drive thanks to excellent road manners, steering, and handling, but we never took one on a long trip. We averaged about 80 mph over the course of two 8-hour drives on the way to Hilton Head, and the CX-9 was flawlessly on-center and stable the entire way. Combined with a quiet ride and good steering feel, this all equated to less fatigue behind the wheel, a huge plus that enabled us to go long periods without stopping.
The first thing you notice is how well the CX-9 accelerates, even fully loaded. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine might not seem like a powerhouse (250 hp with 93-octane fuel or 227 hp on 87-octane) and 320 lb-ft of torque, but it moves with authority. Even with the CX-9 packed with luggage and five occupants, the CX-9 pulled out from toll booths smoothly and quickly.
Throttle response was excellent with no noticeable lag. The excellent torque level is present even on 87-octane. Too bad I'm too cheap to pony up for 93-octane, so we never found out how potent the additional 23 horses might feel, but that wasn't necessary. The CX-9 never felt lacking for power, and we managed to get around errant drivers and 18-wheelers without a problem. The CX-9 also never feels like it's going faster than it actually is, and it never feels squirrely even in crosswinds. We averaged about 77 mph over the 2,000+ mile trip, and the CX-9 had no trouble maintaining stability and great on-center steering with minimal correction.
Interior Comfort is Long-Haul Goodness
On your daily commute, you might think your car's seats are great, but subject your hindquarters and back to hundreds of miles per day without many breaks, and you'll find the difference between good seats and truly great ones. The CX-9 Signature's seats look phenomenal because of the luxurious new Bentley-like stitching, but it's their comfort level that changes the long-haul game. Only at the end of the 15-hour drive back (in one day) did we start to experience some lower back soreness, but it probably had more to do with the length of the drive and our own posture.
The only two things we would've liked to see on the CX-9's seats were 1) height change adjustability for the power lumbar; and 2) an extendable thigh bolster for more surface area for additional leg support. Otherwise, just about everything was spot on, including the great heating and ventilation functions. The leather is also very soft, looking and feeling nicer than some premium brands.
In terms of amenities, the CX-9 outfitted with Captain's Chairs has enough storage in the 2nd-row console for snacks, drinks, and devices/books/water bottles fit nicely in the door pockets. We also had no trouble installing car seats with the LATCH system. There are also USB charging ports for every occupant, ensuring no kid yells, "My battery is dead!!"
For the driver, the new Driver Attention Alert system works wonders and chimes and cues up a visual warning on the instrument panel when it senses the driver isn't paying attention at speeds of over 65 mph. It learns driver habits based on driver inputs and the vehicle’s movements and then fires up when it notices deviations from those baselines before fatigue sets in, preempting the point when you're actually drowsy.
The 2021 model improves on tech by providing a big 10.3-inch infotainment screen and a brand new infotainment interface that's way better looking and much easier to navigate. Even this change added a new level of ease on our trip since operating the system was more intuitive and took less time thanks to the improved visuals and simple menus.
The control knob in the center console is far better than systems with just touchscreens, especially when you're traveling at highway speeds. The new Qi-Wireless charger just below the center stack is welcomed, but it's situated at too steep of an angle due to the confines of the space. The result is that it's all too easy for the phone to slide off, probably the CX-9's biggest tech demerit. We solved it by plugging into the USB interface port, which enabled us to use Apple CarPlay, anyway.
The CX-9 Delivers Solid Efficiency
If you look at the EPA estimates, the CX-9's figures aren't exactly astounding, especially for a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. 26 mpg highway is the same as the Kia Telluride's, a vehicle that's both more powerful and larger than the CX-9, albeit less pleasurable to drive. But we have to throw in some caveats. First, our vehicle had several hundred pounds worth of people and gear for the entire trip, and we drove about 50 percent of the time in Sport mode for better responsiveness.
The result was that we attained 23 mpg, the combined EPA figure. Some of that comes from the around town driving we did when we were in Hilton Head, so the figure doesn't really deviate that much. Also, had we driven at 70 mph versus the 77+ on our long drives, we're certain our mileage would've been better. So, the CX-9 delivered respectable numbers that were far from disappointing. Anyone who wants to criticize the CX-9's lack of power or efficiency must have a screw loose. Sure, it's no Ford Explorer ST or Highlander Hybrid, but the CX-9 does so much so well.
Thankfully, It Doesn't Look Like a Minivan
Most families on road trips might not care much about how their vehicle looks, but we do. A minivan has way more room and utility, but they can't hold a candle to the CX-9's svelte styling both inside and out. There aren't many SUVs, for that matter, that can compete with the way the CX-9 looks. The vehicle looks great from every angle, and the attention to styling details like the perforated five-bar grille, the matching rounded LED headlight and taillight elements, and the crisp body creases give the CX-9 a premium look.
The CX-9 shows off the best of what Mazda design has to offer. It never looks bulky or awkward, and it hasn't fallen pretty to overdone styling like floating roofs, ellipsoid tailpipes, bulging taillights, or faux diffusers. It also manages to avoid the curse of overdone bright chrome in the front, the back, and around the window frames. The result is a sporty looking SUV that looks more expensive than it actually is.
Even after a ton of driving, the CX-9 still looked great, especially with the excellent Soul Red premium paint. The dark chrome trim on the grille, the lower front fascia, the rear trim bar between the taillights, and the wheels is a nice change from bright silver chrome trim, and the overall aesthetic is more sporty than competitors like the Chevy Traverse and the Honda Pilot. Price points might be similar, but the CX-9 wins out in the looks department. No one would ever call the Honda Pilot an attractive vehicle, whereas the CX-9 looks like it could be a Jaguar, to be honest. We never grew tired of looking at it.
So, What About the Cargo Room?
When you have a large-ish family, you can't exactly cram a sedan with all the occupants (some of them scream a lot) and all their belongings, food, etc., into a sedan, even if it's a big one. What you really need is an SUV, but the question is, "How much SUV do you need?" I have a family of five, and since the Signature has Captain's Chairs in row two, all three rows would have passengers. Plus, we need three child seats (one front-facing, two boosters), and we also pack a fair amount of gear.
The CX-9 is definitely not the most voluminous in terms of cargo space. It offers 14.4 cubic feet behind row three and 71.2 cubes with the 2nd and 3rd rows folded flat. Since we had three kids in tow and the Captain's Chairs configuration, we folded down one side of the 3rd row for luggage. Although we packed a fair amount of gear and food, we were able to pack everything we needed without obstructing any views. The cargo section's underfloor compartment helped with flatter items, and nobody felt suffocated. If you're wise about packing, the CX-9 proves you don't have to have 90 cubic feet of cargo space to do a road trip with the family. Now, if we had done a ski trip with all our gear, the CX-9 would've been lacking in terms of space.
We were more than pleasantly surprised by how good the CX-9 was on a demanding, long-distance road trip packed with kids and gear. It made a very strong case for buying a smaller three-row SUV because of its top-notch drivability, comfort, and technology. Sure, we were tired after driving so much, but it was more because of the distance than the effort involved in driving. We're sure we would've been far more drained were it not for the excellence of the 2021 Mazda CX-9 Signature.