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2021 Toyota Highlander vs Mazda CX-9

2021 Toyota Highlander vs Mazda CX-9

2021 Highlander vs CX-9 - How do they stack up? Which is Better?

The Toyota Highlander and Mazda CX-9 are three-row SUVs that have many attractive qualities. They have the size that many buyers need to accommodate all of their passengers and gear, they have strong engines to get them through a variety of conditions, and they have modern components. Vehicles seem to be getting better and better each year, and with these two models, there are several high-tech features to appreciate.

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The Powertrain

A main difference between the two SUVs is that the Highlander is available with either a traditional or hybrid powertrain while the CX-9 is not. In the CX-9, there's just one option for the engine. It's a 250-horsepower 2.5-liter engine with a turbocharger and four cylinders. It comes with 320 pound-feet of torque and a six-speed automatic transmission. That transmission has Sport mode and manual shifting in case people want to change things up when they're driving.

Both of the available engines in the Toyota Highlander are more powerful than the CX-9's engine. The traditional powertrain uses a fairly large 3.5-liter V6 engine. It can make an impressive 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. The hybrid powertrain uses a 2.5-liter engine and an electric motor, and it's able to generate a net horsepower of 243. Toyota has matched the V6 with a Direct Shift eight-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, and the hybrid Highlanders get to use electronically controlled continuously variable transmissions.

With either SUV, the standard option is to have front-wheel drive. This type of drivetrain is perfectly fine for the majority of time, and it can lead to greater fuel efficiency.

Alternatively, the Highlander and CX-9 can come with all-wheel drive. It's an option on many trims, and on a few trims, it has been automatically been integrated into the vehicle. All-wheel drive can improve traction when it may be difficult to grip the road. If a Highlander has all-wheel drive, it could have a program called Multi-Terrain Select. This system allows users to choose from Normal, Mud/Sand, or Rock/Dirt modes.

Some Highlander models have upgraded drivetrains called Dynamic Torque Vectoring all-wheel drive. This type of AWD system gives the SUV the ability to split the torque between the rear wheels. It's ideal for when people are on rugged trails.

The CX-9 doesn't have that exact type of all-wheel drive system, but it does have off-road traction assist. It's intended to be used when the road surface is uneven and hard to grip, and it can be useful if people are dealing with challenges off the pavement.

Fuel efficiency in the Toyota Highlander isn't too bad. It can earn up to 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 miles per gallon on the highway. If it has the hybrid powertrain, it can travel up to 36 miles on a single gallon of gas. The Mazda CX-9 is in the same general range as the non-hybrid Highlander. A CX-9 has an estimated fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 miles per gallon on the highway. Having all-wheel drive could lower those numbers by a small margin.

Some people are interested in SUVs because of their towing capacity. They should pay close attention to the towing capacities of each model because there is a fairly significant difference. The CX-9 can tow up to 3,500 pounds, and the Highlander can tow up to 5,000 pounds. This may be important to drivers who plan on towing small campers, boats, or other cargo that has been loaded up in trailers.

The two companies are providing their customers with similar warranties. A limited powertrain warranty on both types of SUVs would be good for five years or 60,000 miles, whichever mark is hit first.


Since the Toyota Highlander is the more powerful of these two models, it may be preferred by those who really value performance. It's more responsive and a little more fun to drive, and the XSE trim of the Highlander is particularly sporty and athletic. It has the upgraded all-wheel drive system that was described earlier, and it has sport-tuned suspension. It's more on par with what one might see in a high-performance car, and it leads to enhanced cornering and a lower center of gravity.

While the CX-9 doesn't quite have as much power as the Highlander does, it still handles itself well. Some people may feel that the CX-9 feels just like a smaller SUV does in regards to the driving experience.

This brings the discussion to the topic of size. A lot of customers are going to be attracted to these vehicles because they have three rows of seats. In the Highlander, leg room in the first and second rows is 42 and 41 inches, respectively. In the third row, there's considerably less room, with there being 27.7 inches of leg room. It's an ideal place for children.

In the CX-9, leg room is 41, 39.4, and 29.7 inches in the first, second, and third rows, respectively. Having the additional two inches in the third row should make it the more comfortable area in comparison to the back row of the Highlander.

However, the Highlander has a third row that can fit three passengers. In contrast, the CX-9 only has two extra seats back there. In both models, the middle row can be set up with a bench seat or with a pair of captain's chairs. This means that the Highlander can either have a seating capacity of eight or seven, and the CX-9 can accommodate a total of either seven or six people.

To have so much interior space, these models are on the larger side. The length of the Toyota Highlander is 194.9 inches, and it's 76 inches wide. It sits eight inches off the ground. The length of the Mazda CX-9 is even longer, at 199.4 inches. It's 77 inches wide, and it has a ground clearance of 8.8 inches.

With these dimensions, one would expect these SUVs to have a considerable amount of cargo space. Maximum cargo space in the Highlander is 84.3 cubic feet, and it's 71.2 cubic feet in the CX-9. Behind the third rows, both models have relatively small cargo areas. These can be ideal for getting groceries or carrying a few pieces of luggage, for example. The rear cargo are in the Highlander has a volume of 16 cubic feet, and the cargo hold in the CX-9 has a volume of 14.4 cubic feet.

In addition to space, technology plays a role in how people view the overall driving experience. Fortunately, Toyota and Mazda have done very well in regards to incorporating advanced systems into these vehicles.

There are several configurations in the Highlander in terms of the infotainment system. At the most basic level, the Highlander would have an eight-inch touchscreen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and five USB ports. It would also have Bluetooth, SiriusXM, and Amazon Alexa. It's evident that this is a vehicle that will certainly be able to please customers who love high-tech features. The most premium infotainment package comes with a 12.3-inch touchscreen, 11 JBL speakers (to include a subwoofer), and dynamic navigation. On all models, Wi-Fi capability is an option.

In all trims of the Mazda CX-9, there are 10.25-inch full-color center displays. The standard package consists of Bluetooth, two USB ports, HD Radio, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. This doesn't quite compare to what an entry-level Highlander can offer.

Higher trims of the Mazda CX-9 have SiriusXM to broaden the entertainment choices, wireless charging for convenience, and more USB ports. Several trims have two USB ports in each of the three rows so that no one has to compete for access to charging equipment. The CX-9 can be upgraded with a Bose Centerpoint 2 Surround Sound System that has 12 speakers. The top two trims have integrated navigation and SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link. Wi-Fi is available on the CX-9 as well.

It's interesting that Mazda has decided not to install a touchscreen. Instead, it has given its vehicles a large center display that can be controlled with voice commands, buttons, and the Commander control. The Commander control is a large dial placed near the gear shifter, within arm's reach of the driver, and by using this control, drivers can scroll through different lists and make adjustments. It is actually a pretty intuitive system that's easy to learn.

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The Toyota Highlander and Mazda CX-9 shine when it comes to safety. They are well-equipped with advanced equipment that can actively work to protect passengers. Driver-assist technology is a perfect example of how technological innovations can really benefit everyone.

In every trim of the Highlander, there's a safety package called Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+. It comes with pre-collision warning and emergency braking, pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, lane tracing assist, and lane departure alert. It also has Road Sign Assist. Through this program, the Toyota can read road signs that it comes across, and it can then display the information on the dashboard as a reminder to the driver to stay aware of speed limits or upcoming traffic patterns.

An available blind spot monitoring system can be integrated into the outside mirrors. A warning indicator would light up whenever a vehicle in the Highlander's blind spot. This can be very useful because it's sometimes difficult to keep track of other vehicles when on busy roads.

Higher trims of the Toyota Highlander could have even more features. A head-up display is available, and like Road Sign Assist, it alerts drivers to important information. The Highlander could also have a 360-degree camera to make parking easier, in addition to a parking assist program with automatic braking to prevent minor fender benders.

Many of these same features are found in the CX-9. It comes standard with automatic high beams, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, frontal collision warning, and adaptive cruise control. Blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring are standard in the CX-9. On its higher trims, there are the addition of parking sensors, a driver attention alert system, and reverse automatic braking. The top two trims have 360-degree cameras.

Which Has the Best Value?

From a price perspective, the CX-9 may be the more strategic choice. That's because it has a starting price of $34,160. The Highlander starts out at $34,910. While this difference isn't too significant, it still means that the CX-9 is the more affordable model.

There are five total trims of the CX-9. In addition to the base model, which is called the Sport, there are the Touring ($35,950), Carbon Edition ($41,280), Ground Touring ($42,140), and Signature ($46,805) trims. With each jump, there's a substantial price increase, so potential customers will have to think about which upgrades are worth the extra cost.

Every CX-9 trim has upscale features like heated side mirrors with LED integrated turn signals, LED headlights, and three-zone climate control. The Touring has a few notable upgrades, such as an auto-dimming rearview mirror and rear power liftgate. The Carbon Edition is sportier with its paddle shifters, moonroof, and black accents. The Grand Touring and Signature both have hands-free lift gates, heated steering wheels, heated second-row seats, heated and ventilated front seats, and navigation.

Since there are ten trim levels with the Highlander, it's not as straightforward to discuss the trim options. A few key points are that several trims are available as hybrids, a hybrid powertrain costs about $1,400, and that the Highlander lineup is topped off by the Hybrid Platinum, which costs $48,465.

In general, the Highlander's trims are pretty comparable to the CX-9's in terms of interior and exterior amenities. The same type of headlights, side mirrors, and climate systems are found in both models, and the Highlander also has an available moonroof and hands-free power liftgate.

In the Mazda CX-9, only one trim has cloth seats, and the others have leather. In the Highlander, the lower trims have cloth upholstery, middle trims have a SofTex synthetic leather, and the premium trims have leather upholstery. Just like in the CX-9, the Highlander can have heated and ventilated front seats, a heated second row, and a heated steering wheel.

Remember, though, that the Highlander is the more capable model. This may be a primary reason why it has the higher cost.

Which is Better?

The truth is that both of these three-row SUVs are excellent options. The average driver would likely be very satisfied with either model. They're strong and athletic, spacious and versatile, and packed with convenient amenities.

Anyone looking for a more rugged vehicle will probably be drawn towards the Toyota Highlander. It can handle difficult conditions a little more adeptly than the Mazda CX-9 can, and it has a greater towing capacity. Plus, it has more cargo space than the CX-9 does, and its hybrid powertrain is going to help it get some attention from eco-conscious buyers.

The Mazda CX-9 has a lot to offer, too, especially in terms of its sophistication and refined elements. It has many high-end features, and this is impressive considering that it doesn't have an extremely expensive price tag.

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