Mazda CX-9 vs. Toyota Highlander

It’s been over 15 years since Toyota introduced the first Highlander. With each successive edition of this vehicle, Toyota has improved upon what was inherently a good package. The latest version of the Highlander is a logical progression of Toyota’s thinking. The new Mazda CX-9 is built around Mazda’s “Driving Matters” philosophy, and demonstrates what can be achieved when the joy of driving remains a priority.

Styling

The Toyota Highlander is large vehicle, and its styling does little to disguise its dimensions. An imposing grill announces the Highlander’s arrival, and the heavy rear-wheel arches add heft to the overall design.

Comparatively, the Mazda CX-9 combines sophistication with elegance. Both of these vehicles offer seating for an Ultimate Frisbee team (7), and in the case of the Highlander, an extra seat for the coach. Mazda’s KODO design philosophy influenced the styling of the CX-9. Few large vehicles carry their size as well as the Mazda CX-9, its lines suggesting an inherent athleticism.

Engine

Toyota offer three engine choices in the Highlander. An entry level 2.7 litre 4 (185 hp), a 3.5 litre V-6 (270 hp), and a 3.5 litre V-6 hybrid (280 hp). Depending on engine selection, either a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), or a 6-speed automatic are fitted. The 2.7 litre 4 cylinder is adequate, but leaves little in reserve with the Highlander loaded. The majority of Highlanders will be sold with a V-6 under the hood, providing far better overall driveability and fuel economy. Any perceived advantage of ordering the Hybrid V-6 is quickly lost as a result of 350 pounds of additional weight, attributable to both electric motors and batteries.

While a V-6 engine is typical fare in this market segment, Mazda engineers have followed a different path. Their efforts have resulted in a unique turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the CX-9. Displacing 2.5 litres, the engine produces 227 horsepower, and an incredible 310 lb. ft. of torque at just 2000 rpm. The engine features Mazda’s Dynamic Pressure Turbo System, which combines two turbocharging technologies. Variable vane and twin-scroll offer distinct advantages depending on application. Using them together in one component reduces turbo-lag and maximizes power output. The new 2.5 litre is considerably lighter than the V-6 found in prior CX-9 models, which translates into fuel savings. The CX-9 is expected to return fuel economy of city/highway (L/100 km) 10.5/8.3 for FWD models, and 11.2/8.8 for AWD examples, which places it among the best in the segment. Gear changes are accomplished by way of a six-speed automatic gearbox.

Interior

Depending on the model, the Toyota Highlander can accommodate up to eight passengers. Bucket seats are fitted to the front row on all versions of the Highlander, the second row being either a three-person split bench seat, or a set of captain’s chairs (2). Typically, the third row seating is best used by those who are either small in stature, or thankful for not having to walk. While the exterior is influenced by truck styling cues, the interior is far more car-like.

The Mazda CX-9 provides bucket seats for the driver and the front seat passenger, with a split-bench seat occupying the second row. Passengers travelling in the second row will find ample leg-room by simply sliding the row of seating backwards. This will compromise the comfort of those in the third row, unless an accommodation can be reached. Mazda typically fits stylish and durable interiors across its model range. The Mazda CX-9 continues in this vein, with quality materials in various contrasting shades on display. The finish of the interior wouldn’t be out of place in comparison to premium brand competitors.

Driving

Being perhaps the closest in spirit to a truck, the Toyota Highlander doesn’t offer handling conducive to spirited driving. While the Toyota has revised the vehicle’s suspension components and improved the handling characteristics, there is still a tendency for the vehicle to lean when asked to change direction quickly. While this isn’t necessarily dangerous, it can be disconcerting.

Driving Matters. The importance of vehicle dynamics is evident in every vehicle that Mazda produces. The 2016 Mazda 3 has been described as “Drives as if it has two fewer doors.” While considerably larger, the CX-9 is imbued with this spirit. Mazda engineers have created a Crossover that provides all the convenience of the vehicle type, without asking the driver to sacrifice driving enjoyment. Underway the CX-9 is firm but controlled, with engine and suspension noise rarely intruding to a degree to provoke comment. The CX-9 can be enjoyed without ever feeling that the car is somehow diminished by being a three-row SUV/Crossover.

Conclusion

The Toyota Highlander is a competent and reliable choice for those needing a large people mover. Quiet, and offering a smooth ride, the Highlander indulges its passengers in an interior that has been compared to a living room. On the downside, the Highlander’s handling isn’t as good as some of its immediate competitors. The ability to carry eight, rather than seven passengers may be a deciding factor for some buyers.

The CX-9 is an entirely new way to consider the SUV/Crossover. Combining all the positive attributes of KODO “Soul of Motion” design, with the ethos of the “Driving Matters” mandate, Mazda posed an interesting question for its competitors. Why shouldn’t a Crossover be every bit as compelling to drive as a well thought out car, while continuing all the positive aspects of owning a multi-purpose vehicle. The Mazda CX-9 will quickly establish a new benchmark for what is possible when engineers are allowed to answer the question, “What if…”