Credit where credit is due. Wall Street Journal car writer Dan Neil was the first to note that sales of the 2020 Mazda CX-9 crossover have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic that is otherwise decimating most of the auto industry. In a July 10 review, Neil reported that its sales have increased 50% year-over-year, and wondered why. The CX-9 is not the newest, roomiest, most powerful or most economical three-row SUV on the market.
But is arguably the best looking and best handline affordble crossover for sale today. Neil concluded that because schools aren't expected to reopen and youth sports aren't expected to return this year, parents who want a new SUV have reasonably concluded they don't need to buy the one that can carry the most children and gear. So many of them have decided to buy the one they want — the one that looks drop dead gorgeous and handles like a sport sedan, the 2020 Mazda CX-9.
Makes sense to me. My test Signature All Wheel Drive version looked great in the driveway, with slitty headlights and a large grill contrasting with the flowing lines of Mazda's current design theme. The optional Nappa leather trimmed bucket seats were very comfortable and contributed to the luxury feel of the interior. The turbocharged 2.5-liter engine provided plenty of smooth power, especially in the Sport mode (although premium is required for maximum horsepower and torque). And, as noted earlier, the precise steering and supple suspension made it a treat to drive.
Mazda is slow to tinker with success. In recent years, it's biggest changes have been the introduction of the CX-30 compact crossover and the addition of turbocharged engines in the Mazda3 compact sedan and Mazda6 midsize sedan. So aside from making the i-Activsense suite of active safety features and heated from seats standard on all trim levels, little has changed with the 2020 CX-9.
In normal times, this should have spelled trouble for Mazda. Several other very good three-row crossover SUVs have recently been introduced, including the mechanically similar Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride. But as Neil first reported, the opposite has happened, with Mazda selling 2,727 CX-9s in June alone.
I'm glad to see it. I have been a Mazda fan for a long time. The first car I ever bought was a 1970 Mazda R100, the first of the company's rotary engine cars sold in America. Although it didn't look much different that a compact Datsun or Toyota, the rotary engine was much more powerful than the four cylinder engines in those cars, which made it a lot more fun to drive. I even tracked down some people who were doing early rotary engine race development and had them add some performance parts, like a custom built header and exhaust system that required a massive Cadillac muffler to suppress the resulting wail.
One thing I've noticed over the years is that Mazda vehicles have always been more refined than those from the other affordable Japanese manufacturers. The company has also been unwilling, so far, to electrify. Mazda does not offer a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric vehicle.
Instead, Mazda has consistently improved fuel economy by what it calls SkyActive technology, which means making every component as light and efficient as possible. The result contributes to the outstanding handling that all of their vehicles are known for — especially in the quick and nimble Miata MX-5 sports car.
I've wondered for awhile of that was the best strategy, especially in the highly competitive crossover market. Now it seems to be. As Neil also reported, Mazda sales only declined 9.6% for the first half of the year, compared to 29% for VW, 36% for Toyota and 50% for Nissan. And overall Mazda sales actually increased 11% in June.
Go ahead, give in to temptation. If you're in the market for a three-row, midsize crossover SUV, start with the 2020 Mazda CX-9.
2020 Mazda CX-9 Signature AWD
Base price: $33,890
Price as tested: $47,855
Style: Midsize, three row crossover
Engine: Turbocharged 2.5-liter 4 (227-250 hp, 310-320 lbs-ft)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode
Drive modes: Normal and Sport
EPA fuel economy: 20/26
Length: 199.4 inches
Weight: 4,166 to 4,388
Final assembly: Hiroshima, Japan
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