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Can more, better tech vault 2016 Mazda CX-9 ahead of Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot?

Is the Mazda CX-9 midsize SUV ready to slug it out with Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander as the best midsize SUV with three rows? The 2017 CX-9, which just launched, is likely to be the favorite of driving enthusiasts whose circumstances (family, children, carpools) force them into an SUV when they really wish they were driving a sport sedan. The higher end CX-9 trim line also pushes Mazda up into the near-luxury space.

Here’s a look at how the 2016 Mazda CX-9 stacks up, particularly on technology, against two three-row standard-bearers — Pilot and Highlander — that ran 2-3 in sales last year. The current Pilot first shipped mid-2015 as a 2016 model; the Highlander shipped in early 2014 and is due for a mid-life refresh in the fall. All three are just under 200 inches long, the dividing line between midsize and full-size vehicles. The table below compares some of their key tech features. Surprisingly, all three are holdouts on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Other top choices among midsize three-row SUVs base-priced in the thirties include Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer (the best-selling midsize SUV in 2015),  GMC Acadia (look for the new 2017 Acadia just shipping), Hyundai Santa Fe, and the Kia Sorento. Dodge, Ford and GMC, the US-flagged entrants, are the ones that feel a bit more big SUV / truckish, which has helped more than hurt sales.

16Pilot_020The third-generation 2016 Honda Pilot (review) has for the past year been the best midsize three-row SUV to buy without spending Acura MDX-Audi Q7-BMW X5 levels of money. It is still among the best, most tech-savvy three-row SUVs, especially with the affordable Honda Sensing option ($1,000) that provides adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, lane departure warning, and lane centering. Honda’s switch to Garmin navigation (same as Chrysler has used for years) is a wise choice. Four adults travel in exceptional comfort if you choose the second row captain’s chair option; max seating is eight with a bench seat in row two. This generation is quieter, roomier, and more refined; the previous Pilot now feels truckish.

At the same time, Honda made some curious choices that turned off a few longtime fans. The 8-inch touchscreen LCD is a annoyance to some because of the glass button interface, although it’s less of an issue as you become comfortable with voice control. LaneWatch, the passive right-side camera system, standard on all but entry LX, shows cars in your blindspot via the center stack LCD, but LaneWatch is not everyone’s cup of tea. Honda offers traditional active sonar-based blind spot detection, but only on the $47,000 Pilot Elite.

Mazda CX 9 Honda Pilot Toyota Highlander table-5

You can get Honda Sensing (recommended) on the Pilot EX front-drive for $34,480 or navigation on the Pilot EX-L for $37,055; to get both you need the Pilot Touring, $41,470. The newer Honda Civic (review) has full range or stop-and-go ACC, also CarPlay and Android Auto, and we believe Honda will wait to offer that on Pilot at the midlife refresh (2018 models, possibly 2017). All this makes the Pilot a better tech car if you’re buying the upper trim lines, Touring and Elite, more so than the mid-range EX and EX-L.

If you’re always hauling three rows of people, a better choice might be the Honda Odyssey, which shares the same chassis. A lot of families won’t be caught dead in something with sliding doors, but long trips are more tolerable in the Odyssey. Just saying.

2014_Toyota_Highlander_Limited_Platinum_04The Toyota Highlander (review), like the Pilot, runs forever. Most buyers choose it to haul up to seven or eight in comfort. Even in its third year, there’s a lot of tech, even a hybrid Highlander that goes for $51,000. Like Honda, much of the tech is reserved for the upper trim lines that run well into the forties. The center console holds 38 12-ounce beverage cans (it’s a tech feature because it can hold a laptop or multiple iPads.) Easy Speak is a PA system that mutes the infotainment in rows two and three and lets the driver tell the kids, over the rear speakers, to pipe down if there’s too much noise. Rather than CarPlay or Android Auto, Toyota says it will develop SmartDeviceLink, a variant of Ford AppLink, that lets you view and control smartphone apps from the center stack. There’s a wide shelf across the dash, with a cutout leading to the USB jack below — perfect for your cellphone, change purse, or wallet. Toyota sells the Highlander with four- and six-cylinder gasoline engines as well as a hybrid that tops $50,000. Shorter than the others, the third row is tight on legroom except for younger kids.

If it’s not the sportiest crossover, it handles daily carpooling and summer vacations well enough to be the second-best-selling three-row SUV. The Highlander gets a mid-cycle refresh this fall with a 2017 model that is heavy on driver assists: forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian braking, and a surround view monitor. Adaptive cruise control still will not be full-range. The specs table below reflects the 2016 Highlander model.

Mazda is the go-to company for sedans and crossovers that handle well. As for the just-released CX-9 crossover, think poor man’s BMW X5. The top trim line has a cockpit with rosewood trim and Nappa leather seats. Mazda’s Commander cockpit control wheel pays homage to BMW iDrive and Audi MMI. The upper trim levels have adaptive cruise control and a head-up display that is unique to mid-price crossovers. Mazda’s i-ActivSense driver assists also includes blind spot detection, lane departure warning / lane keep assist, and automated highway-speed and city braking. On a test drive, it aggressively self-braked while turning a corner in stop-and-go traffic and encountering a stopped car ahead; it probably could have traveled another 5 feet before braking, but better safe than sorry.

To be competitive on NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), Mazda added 53 pounds of sound insulation under the carpeting and installed front acoustic glass make the CX-9 quiet at highway speed. Despite the padding, the 2016 model weighs 198 pounds less than the previous CX-9 and 287 pounds less for the version with i-Activ predictive all-wheel-drive. i-Activ is Mazda’s term for the AWD’s electronics that monitor 27 inputs 200 times a second for wheel-slip, rain or snow, lateral force, and terrain changes to send the right power to the right wheels in the period between the car senses loss of grip and the driver does. It’s especially useful in winter driving and works as well or better than mechanical torque vectoring in snow and ice.

The engine used to be a 273-hp V6. Now it’s a turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 227 hp (250 on premium fuel) versus 185-270 hp for Highlander and 280 hp for Pilot. But Mazda biases engine performance toward maximizing torque at lower rpm, making it more like a diesel engine. To avoid turbo lag when starting off, butterfly valves cover part of the exhaust stream, increasing the velocity of exhaust gases hitting the turbocharger. It works the same way as when you cover part of a garden hose to increase the speed of the water coming out. Mazda calls it dynamic pressure turbocharging.

Mazda CX-9 MY 2017 (May 2016 San Francisco / Sonoma-Napa)

The head-up display worked reasonably well (it could be brighter) and included blind-spot-detection indicators. While automakers say you’ll see the yellow blind-spot-caution indicator in the side mirror when you turn your head to the side mirror, the alert in the HUD warns you even sooner: a sonar/radar looking wave form lights up when a car is detected (lower left icon in photo above). And if you miss that and turn on your directional, the icon blinks and the car beeps. This is a small but important step for safety. Only a handful of other cars do this, including Hyundai Genesis, Hyundai Equus, and Kia 900.

Mazda says it will wants to use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in the future, and it’s possible the new CX-9s could be made retroactively compatible. Meantime, every trim line (Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, Signature) gets two USB jacks in front, infotainment voice control, Aha, Pandora, Stitcher, HD Radio, text message receive and reply by voice, and E-911 accident notification using a connected smartphone. Touring and up get two more USB ports in the second row center armrest; Grand Touring and Signature get navigation, Bose audio, and satellite radio. All trims have LED headlamps. None have CD players; it’s dead technology.


All three are big improvements over their previous generations in passenger comfort, fuel economy, safety, and technology. They may leave you wishing for features you can’t yet have: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto so you could use smartphone navigation on a less costly trim line, full-range adaptive cruise control, and blind spot detection / lane departure warning that offered steering wheel-vibration alerts rather than beeps. (The CX-9 at least lets you change the LDW beep to a simulated rumble strip.)

The Highlander sells best among these three, 15% more than the Pilot in 2015 and eight times as much as the CX-9 in 2015. The Toyota has fewer things that might be buyer turnoffs, but it also has a bit less advanced tech (until the 2017 model). Honda’s buttonless Display Audio LCD gets mixed feedback and LaneWatch is cheaper to implement than blind spot detection, but it requires the driver to make go/no-go judgments. Both Toyota and Honda can seat eight, one more than Mazda.

With the CX-9, Mazda has few if any shortcomings that would be deal killers. Ford has shown turbocharged four-cylinder engines (EcoBoost) sell, although the competition in a Honda-Toyota versus Mazda face-off will note raw horsepower numbers, while Mazda will say, “Let’s go for a test-drive.” The CX-9 has a sunroof, which makes is lighter and more rigid than a dramatic panoramic roof. Comparably equipped, the CX-9 should be a couple thousand less expensive. The new CX-9 is likely to be the biggest winner among midsize SUVs because it’s gone mainstream on ride comfort and NVH, retained its sporty feel, may be the best at winter driving, and offers a segment-unique technology in the head-up display. Mazda has the potential to increase CX-9 sales by 50% if shoppers find the car as good as the critics say.

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