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2021 Toyota Highlander vs. 2021 Mazda CX-9: Which is Better?

The 2021 Toyota Highlander and the 2021 Mazda CX-9 are midsize SUVs with three rows of seats. Which is better?

Quick Facts

  • The Toyota Highlander was redesigned for 2020.
  • The CX-9 is Mazda’s largest SUV.

2021 Toyota Highlander

2021 Toyota Highlander Front Left Side In Charcoal GrayBase Price: $34,910 / Read our 2021 Toyota Highlander Review

What we like: Standard V6 engine; hybrid model has stellar fuel economy; class-leading resale value; impressive reliability record.

What we would change: Add blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to the base model; more space in the third-row seat would be welcome.

Overview: The latest, fourth-generation Toyota Highlander offers more of the same qualities that have made the model a best-seller. A 3.5-liter V6 is again standard and pairs with an 8-speed automatic transmission. It makes 295 horsepower, yet fuel economy rivals that of competitors’ turbo fours. The real efficiency champ, however, is the hybrid, which boasts EPA combined ratings as high as 36 mpg.

Both versions can be had with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) — the system in higher-spec trims gets torque vectoring across the rear axle for sharper handling. Max towing is 5,000 pounds for the V6 and 3,500 pounds for the Hybrid. The base L and LE get a 3-person bench in the middle row, while captain’s chairs are offered elsewhere. A third row is standard, and its cramped accommodations are one of the few knocks against the Highlander. Cargo space is mid-pack, while interior stowage cubbies are plentiful.

What’s new for 2021: The big news for 2021 is the arrival of a sporty-themed XSE trim, which brings more aggressive styling along with a retuned suspension and steering but no powertrain changes. It slots between the XLE and Limited models. Additionally, the Highlander’s already robust suite of driver assists is enhanced.

Features and technology: Most models get an 8.0-inch touchscreen with a 12.3-in unit reserved for the Platinum. Either way, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and a Wi-Fi hotspot are included. Limited and Platinum trims come with navigation, and they also get leather seating. Even the base trim includes a full slate of active safety features that included forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert arrive with the one-step-up LE.

What does the future hold: The Highlander was just redesigned for 2020, so we’re not likely to see major changes in the near term. See 2021 Toyota Highlander models for sale near you

2021 Mazda CX-9

2021 Mazda CX-9 Front Driver Side in Charcoal GreyBase Price: $34,160 / Read our 2021 Mazda CX-9 Review

What we like: Sharp styling; good handling; luxurious interior; standard active-safety features.

What we would change: Tight third row; increase towing capacity beyond 3,500 pounds; maximum power requires premium fuel.

Overview: Mazdas have a reputation for being driver’s cars, and that’s true even for the 7-passenger (six with optional second-row captain’s chairs) 2021 Mazda CX-9. The CX-9 drives smaller than its size, with great steering and surprising agility. The ride is well controlled but still comfortable.

A turbocharged 2.5-liter 4-cylinder with 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque is the only engine offered and can be paired with FWD or AWD (horsepower increases to 250 with 93-octane gasoline). While V6 engines are common in this category, the CX-9’s turbocharged 4-cylinder delivers spry acceleration. Fuel economy is slightly better than average at 24 mpg with FWD and 23 mpg with AWD.

We like the swoopy shape of the CX-9, but its design does impinge on cargo space. There is just 14.4 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, expanding to a modest 71.2 cubic feet with all seats folded. Passenger space in the third row is also tight and is definitely best for smaller children.

What’s new for 2021: The arrival of a new Carbon Edition trim is the big news. Elsewhere, the upgraded infotainment system has a larger 10.25-inch display and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is standard on all models. Wireless charging is now included on all but the base model.

Features and technology: The 2021 Mazda CX-9 is offered in Sport, Touring, Carbon Edition, Grand Touring, and Signature grades. All trims include Mazda’s i-Activesense suite of driver-assist features that includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring. The infotainment system features a 10.25-inch display with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and Bluetooth connectivity.

The Sport also includes 3-zone automatic climate control, keyless entry/ignition, a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and 18-inch wheels. The Touring adds a power passenger’s seat, leather upholstery, wireless charging rear-seat USB ports, and a power liftgate. A Premium package option includes a 12-speaker Bose stereo, power moonroof, LED fog lights, satellite radio, and third-row USB ports. The Carbon Edition brings second-row captain’s chairs, ventilated front seats, adaptive headlights, and automatic emergency reverse braking. The Grand Touring includes 20-inch wheels, navigation, and a 360-degree-view camera, while the Signature gets Nappa leather with quilted stitching, rosewood trim, accent lighting, and standard AWD.

What does the future hold: Given its sporty nature, we would like to see the addition of a more powerful engine upgrade, possibly a hybrid. See 2021 Mazda CX-9 models for sale near you

Highlander vs. CX-9: Strengths comparison

Toyota Highlander Benefits: Standard V6; available hybrid; 5,000 pounds max towing; impressive reliability; great resale value; two years free maintenance.

Mazda CX-9 Benefits: Luxe interior; engaging handling; standard active-safety features on all trims.

2021 Toyota Highlander vs. 2021 Mazda CX-9: Which is better?

The 2021 Mazda CX-9 and the 2021 Toyota Highlander have similar fuel economy and starting prices, and both have less cargo room and third-row-seat space than many rivals. Both are great choices, with the Toyota leading in resale value, but we prefer the Mazda for its exterior styling, interior design, and driving experience.

See 2021 Toyota Highlander models for sale or See 2021 Mazda CX-9 models for sale

2021 Toyota Highlander 2021 Mazda CX-9
Popular Powertrains
Engine 3.5-liter V6 2.5-liter I4 turbo
Horsepower 295 hp @ 6,600 rpm 227 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 263 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm 310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission Automatic, 8-Spd 6-spd automatic
Fuel Economy 24 mpg (21 city/29 hwy) 24 mpg (22 city/28 hwy)
Also Available 2.5L I-4 Hybrid; AWD AWD
Warranty 3 years/36,000 miles 3 years/36,000 miles
Powertrain Warranty 5 years/60,000 miles 5 years/60,000 miles
NHTSA Overall Safety 5 stars 5 stars
Max Seating Capacity 8 7
Wheelbase 112.2 inches 115.3 inches
Overall Length 194.9 inches 199.4 inches
Width 76.0 inches 77.2 inches
Height 68.1 inches 67.6 inches
Turning Diameter 36.1 feet 38.8 feet
Headroom, Front 39.9 inches 39.3 inches
Headroom, 2nd row 39.4 inches 38.5 inches
Headroom, 3rd row 36.1 inches 35.4 inches
Legroom, Front 40.4 inches 41.0 inches
Legroom, 2nd row 41.0inches 39.4 inches
Legroom, 3rd row 27.7 inches 29.7 inches
Shoulder Room, Front 59.0 inches 57.9 inches
Shoulder Room, 2nd row 57.8 inches 58.1 inches
Shoulder Room, 3rd row 55.0 inches 53.1 inches
EPA Passenger Volume 141.3 cubic feet 135.1 cubic feet
EPA Cargo Volume 16/48.4/84.3 cubic feet 14.4/38.2/71.1 cubic feet

Joe Lorio
Joe Lorio
Joe Lorio is an author specializing in automobiles. He says, “I have been into cars ever since I started with Matchboxes, and have been sharing my opinions about them for almost as long. Granted, I was pretty young at the time, but my parents really should have listened to me when I told them not to buy an Austin Marina.”

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