After its 2001 introduction, the Toyota Highlander quickly established a reputation for reliability and utility—its strong sales record is no surprise. The Mazda CX-9 is, by contrast, a relative newcomer to the market, first appearing on the scene in 2007.
The CX-9 has generated plenty of buzz as an up-and-coming contender in the crowded crossover segment, and a recent redesign has increased its popularity. But does it live up to the standards of incumbents like the Highlander?
What the Highlander Gets Right
Few vehicles are as versatile as the Highlander. With seating for seven, a variety of interior configurations, a potent V6 engine, and available all-wheel drive, it is as useful as they come in this class.
With a smaller body, the Highlander maneuvers through tight parking lots pretty easily, making it ideal for folks in more crowded cities. What’s more, despite this smaller body, the Highlander actually beats the CX-9 in maximum cargo-hauling capabilities.
What the CX-9 Gets Right
All new for 2016, the CX-9 has a lot going for it. Leading the way is its new, sportier design that sets a high bar for its competitors. Additionally, its highest trim level, the Signature, delivers a level of luxury that rival traditional luxury crossovers.
The CX-9, while not as powerful on the top end as the Highlander, has a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers a wallop at up to 250 horsepower (with premium fuel only) and 310 pound-feet of torque, and is relatively thrifty at up to 25 mpg combined. This engine also helps out with the CX-9’s max towing capacity of 3,500 pounds; that's 2.000 pounds more than the Toyota.
Finally, though the CX-9 is no Miata, Mazda’s zoom-zoom personality does shine through in more spirited driving.
Can the CX-9 Compete with the Highlander?
The short answer: Yes. The name "Mazda" doesn't always appear on a Toyota shopper's comparison list. But if you're giving serious consideration to a Highlander, the CX-9 deserves a test drive.
Our Verdict: Mazda CX-9
It's a close call, but we give an edge to the Mazda CX-9 for matching the Highlander's utility in a package that's more fun to drive and sexier to look at.