A three-row crossover that really isn’t. The crossover segment has logic to it. There are subcompacts and compacts for those looking for a small vehicle, and three-row models for those with larger families.

And we understand, the three-row 2021 Mazda CX-9 exists to fill that latter gap, but it’s really more of a 2.75-row crossover, as the rear seats are tiny. Plus, its design limits its cargo room. It’s tight third row and cargo area negate two key benefits of these larger crossovers.

That said, the CX-9 has a lot of good to offer.

Potent powertrain but noticeable turbo lag. The CX-9’s turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine pumps out just 227 horsepower, putting below virtually every competitor. However, its 310 pound-feet of torque gives it the low-end punch needed to hang with the 310-hp Chevrolet Traverse and 295-hp Toyota Highlander in acceleration.

This boosted four-cylinder also delivers a muscular growl at full throttle, adding to the dramatics that make it feel faster than it is and help hide its relatively noticeable turbo lag. Once the turbo spools up, though, the CX-9 feels plenty competent.

Where the CX-9 shines the brightest is its combination of comfort and handling. It not only absorbs bumps nicely, even with the 20-inch wheels on higher trims, but it also handles corners confidently.

Mazda CX-9

Stunning inside and out, but that infotainment system… As with most Mazda models, the CX-9 has a broad array of offerings, ranging from relatively simple to borderline luxury. Regardless of the trim level you pick, you’ll get the CX-9’s incredible outward design that stands out in a crowd.

Inside, the CX-9’s design looks great in all trims thanks to its thick-rimmed steering wheel, angular air vents, tasteful metallic trim, and sleek dash with a standard 10.3-inch infotainment screen perched atop it. The CX-9 is at its best in the Signature trim, which features quilted-leather seating, second-row captain’s chairs with a center console, a premium Bose audio system, and more.

While its now-standard 10.3-inch infotainment screen is a standout feature, and the system comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, this setup is otherwise awful. That fancy new screen isn’t a touchscreen, leaving you to control the entire system, including smartphone integration, with a frustrating cursor.

The Traverse, Highlander, Subaru Ascent, and Volvo XC90 all have smaller standard screens, ranging from 6.5 to 8 inches, but they’re all far less distracting touchscreens.

Roomy first and second row, but limited cargo room. The CX-9 has comfortable and roomy first-row seats, and the second-row seats offer plenty of room for adults and kids. While the second row’s 39.4 inches of leg room is ample and beats the Traverse (38.4 inches), Ascent (38.6 inches), and XC90 (37 inches), you may want to skip sitting three adults across the bench.

However, with just 29.7 inches of third-row leg room, squeezing anyone other than a small child into the back-back seat borders on cruel and unusual punishment. If you intend to use the third row regularly, you may prefer the extra leg room in the Traverse (33.5 inches), Ascent (31.7 inches), or XC90 (31.9 inches).

The CX-9 is plenty long enough to haul long cargo – we carried a rolled-up 9-foot rug with room to spare – but its raked glass and high cargo floor limit its overall cargo room to 11.2 cubic feet with all the seats up, 49.6 cubes with the third row folded, and 64.1 with all the rear seats folded. These measurements are minuscule compared to the Traverse (23 to 98.2 cubic), Ascent (17.8 to 86.5), and Highlander (16 to 84.3).

Final thoughts. For buyers seeking a unique crossover with stunning styling and a luxurious feel on a budget, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 is a great pick. It boasts striking good looks and a cabin that feels like a luxury rig in its higher trims.

However, buyers who plan to use their three-row crossover as a people and cargo hauler have far roomier options, including the Traverse, Ascent, and Highlander.

Check prices for the 2021 Mazda CX-9 »