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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Mazda CX-9 Vs. Toyota Highlander: Compare Cars

If you’re shopping for a three-row, seven seat crossover or SUV, there are plenty on the market to choose from these days. That list includes the popular Toyota HIghlander, of course, but it also includes another option that may not immediately come to mind when thinking about family transportation. The dark horse candidate we’re referring to is the Mazda CX-9, which offers up crossover utility but with a distinctly sedan-like driving experience.

Either will likely prove to be a safe and reliable family vehicle, but only one comes out on top in our comparison. It’s worth noting that the victory is hardly a decisive one, and it really does come down to personality as the deciding factor.

The Mazda CX-9 can trace its family tree to the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, but it  doesn’t look a thing like either one. Mazda’s distinctive styling is part of the CX-9’s appeal, since it really doesn’t look like anything else on the road (except for its smaller brother, the Mazda CX-7).  While the Mazda has been refreshed somewhat, the basic lines stayed the same, and we say that’s a good thing. The Toyota Highlander, however, is best described as “plain,” with little to make its box-on-box styling stand out in a crowd. Its most distinguishing feature is probably its size, since the Toyota looks to be larger than the Mazda inside and out. If you want a crossover that looks more like a traditional SUV, you’ll probably prefer the Toyota to the Mazda.

Under the hood, the Mazda CX-9 gets a 3.7-liter V-6, good for 273 horsepower and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Buyers get to choose between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, but that’s it as far as powertrain options go. Toyota Highlander shoppers, on the other hand, have a choice of three engines, including a four-cylinder, a six-cylinder and even a hybrid variant. For comparison purposes, the Highlander with the 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is probably the closest to the CX-9, but it’s saddled with a five-speed automatic transmission instead of a six-speed like the Mazda.

On the road, the advantage goes to the Mazda CX-9. We’d stop short of calling the three-row crossover “sporty,” but it does provide a level of driver involvement and feedback that’s absent from the Toyota Highlander. The CX-9’s suspension is noticeably firmer, but never objectionably so; if anything, its the suspension tuning that makes the Mazda feel more like a sedan than an SUV, which may well boost your confidence behind the wheel. The Highlander is both softly-sprung and possessed with unnaturally light steering; add to that the Toyota’s higher center of gravity, and you’ve got a family hauler best suited to traversing long stretches of interstate, not winding its way though mountain passes.

Inside, the Toyota Highlander offers up a bit more room for adults in the first two rows, though five adults can still sit comfortably in the CX-9. The third row of both vehicles is best reserved for children, or at least adults under five feet in height. Of the two, the Highlander gives slightly better access to the third row, thanks in part to its more level roofline. If the Highlander gets the nod for access, we’d give the nod to the CX-9 for interior design, since the inside of the Mazda is just a nicer place to spend time than the interior of the Toyota. If you’ve got the budget and the desire, both can be equipped with amenities like leather seating, navigation and premium audio systems.

While both vehicles have good safety records, only the Highlander is an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The Mazda scores well in all regards except for roof strength testing, where it achieves a score of “marginal” instead of the “good” required to earn a Top Safety Pick award. Both vehicles come with a full complement of safety features such as airbags and electronic stability control, and the Mazda can even be equipped with a blind spot monitoring system and back up camera.

Based on its car-like ride and distinctive style, we give the win in this battle to the Mazda CX-9. It’s more engaging to drive and carries itself with a bit more style than the Highlander, which is just enough to squeak out a narrow victory in this competition. You’ll want to drive both before making a purchase decision, but the choice for us is clear enough.

That story may change for 2014, when the Highlander gets a complete redesign, including a somewhat more fashionable interior much like the one in the new RAV4, plus a smooth, more contemporary exterior. Powertrains aren't anything new, however--remaining either a four, a V-6, or a Hybrid. In the 2014 Toyota Highlander, look for better handling, new safety features, and updated connectivity and infotainment.

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