Auto123 reviews the 2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro.
The current version of the Mazda CX-9, launched in 2017, was pretty effective at making folks forget about its predecessor, a product developed in collaboration with Ford. The time when the biggest Mazda in the lineup offered a sedate - and very American - driving experience is well and truly past. For 2021, the CX-9 doesn't really change, except of course for the special editions Mazda is trotting out for the new year – like this Kuro edition.
Mazda's resident three-row crossover certainly shows the brand's expertise in delivering driving pleasure, but it also illustrates the head winds facing smaller automakers as they navigate solo among much larger players in the automotive industry, without a major partner.
The Kuro edition
Those of you who don't follow automotive news regularly, or aren’t already fans of the brand, might not know that Mazda has been trying to improve its image for a number of years now. Specifically, the maker of the MX-5 has ambitions to rub shoulders with the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, or at least nip at their heels.
That’s a tall order, and it means polishing the silverware so that its models’ design, powertrains and interiors are all up to snuff. And frankly, you can say that about the latest models and generations produced by Mazda. There are still, however, a few steps to go before Mazda can be considered a direct rival to the world’s prestige automakers.
As this process unfolds, the Japanese automaker offers the market us exclusive versions, notably the 100th anniversary editions to mark the brand’s centenary, as well as the Kudo editions, slightly little less gilded and expensive than the 100-badged models, but still attractive.
The CX-9 Kuro - Mazda also offers Kuro editions of the Mazda6 sedan and the CX-5 - is available in two exclusive body colours: Polymetal Grey Metallic and Jet Black Mica, which adorned our tester. Other exclusive elements installed on this 2021 CX-9 Kuro to make it stand out are alloy wheels with a black metallic finish and glossy black mirror caps
Inside, however, is where the nicest bit of bling is found, in the form of Garnet Red leather seats that really pop within the all-black interior; the red stitching on the steering wheel and a few portions of the first row (console, dashboard, etc.) is a nice touch as well.
A sporty interior, but...
As is the case with other Mazda vehicles, driving position is excellent, as are the ergonomics and the position of the most-commonly used controls. Comfort is, overall, one of the CX-9's strong points - at least in the first two rows. That said, a little more soundproofing would be welcome on board.
As for the third row, it certainly does better than the previous model's, but there's still work to be done if it wants to compete in that respect versus recent additions to the category, such as the Korean Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride tandem for example. Let's just say that children won't have a problem there, but adults might!
The other real negative point that stands out in the beautiful, uncluttered cabin is the infotainment system, which is not the latest version that you’ll find in the CX-30 and Mazda3. Navigation through the menus is more difficult - and less attractive - while the rearview camera image is, graphically speaking, only mediocre.
As for the rest, the driver’s space is well thought-out, although the climate-control buttons are oddly placed, behind the transmission lever. I figure the coming redesign will fix that and other minor missteps; the Mazda3 and CX-30 got it, so why not the CX-9?
Sporty, absolutely - but muscular? Not so much…
Mazda engineers are traditionally obsessed with delivering to the driver a sensation of being directly connected to the vehicle. The CX-9, despite its weight and bulky dimensions, respects this philosophy. The 4-cylinder turbocharged engine is the equal of what ‘s found under the hood of direct competitors, but the truth is the sturdiness of this SUV’s chassis would allow for a beefier powertrain. Were Mazda to develop a new 6-cylinder in-line engine, say, that would do wonders in this vehicle.
It's true that the mandate of a CX-9 is to move families around and not aspire at overt sportiness, but still, the CX-9 could well handle more horsepower under the hood. After all, the Dodge Durango is entitled to its Hellcat version, right? So Mazda could add a little muscle to its largest vehicle, especially if the brand's goal is to rub shoulders with luxury brands.
Another, not unrelated element that the CX-9 will have to correct during the next redesign is its towing capacity, currently lower than the other players in the category. While most of those rivals can tow 5,000 lb, the CX-9 has to make do with 3,500 lb. It’s a detail, but for those who might want to pull a trailer on their next road trip, the CX-9 is simply not as capable.
Nevertheless, the CX-9 lives up to the brand's reputation for delivering driving pleasure. The stiffness of the chassis, the steering that's heavy on the highway and relatively precise, and even the firmness of the suspension are reminders that Mazda prioritizes this facet of driving.
With 250 hp and 320 lb-ft (227 hp and 310 lb-ft on regular gasoline) available from its powertrain, the CX-9 has what it takes to put a smile on the faces of drivers who love to drive. And while it's true that the 6-speed automatic transmission is at a competitive disadvantage (only due to its limited number of gears), it's proven to be a very effective gearbox. In fact, its gearing is adequate for everyday use and it doesn't affect average fuel consumption in any way.
Speaking of which, I managed to register an average of 11.1L/100 km after a fairly dynamic ride on the highway followed by some to-ing and fro-ing in the city. That’s an entirely reasonable result considering the CX-9's size.
The last word
The 2021 CX-9 is a class act, delivering truly impressive driving pleasure for a model of this size. The problem for Mazda is that its three-row SUV is up against some tough hombres in its segment, some of which have been renewed more recently than it. Consider the Korean tandem, the revised Toyota Highlander and even the overhauled Ford Explorer; then there’s the upcoming Nissan Pathfinder.
The CX-9 is still the best of the bunch when it comes to the overall driving experience (even on the base trim level), but is that enough to convince customers who are more concerned about storage space and passenger comfort than the way the vehicle handles in corners? Unfortunately, the CX-9’s significant plusses many not be enough to overcome the minuses, at least as the segment is currently constituted. This is an SUV that will have to fine-tune certain elements if it wants to convince more consumers.
The driving pleasure
The quality of the interior
Reasonable fuel consumption
We like less
Tight space in the third row
Lower-than-average towing capacity
Outdated infotainment system