The 2018 Mazda CX-9 and 2019 Subaru Ascent are full-size, three-row crossover SUVs that deserve more attention than they’re getting. The CX-9 has been around a while, but with its last redesign, has emerged as one of the most attractive family vehicles you can buy. The Ascent, meanwhile, is Subaru’s first foray into this super-sized class of crossovers that many people have been waiting for. So, before you go out and buy your next Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, or Chevrolet Traverse, consider these two equally interesting yet very different alternatives.
Performance and Handling
Subaru: It’s difficult to trace a line directly from the Ascent to Subaru’s history of great-handling cars like the WRX and WRX STI sport sedans, and the two-door, rear-wheel-drive BRZ coupe. In fact, you can’t, because unlike with the CX-9, there’s no equivalent to Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom baked into the Ascent’s DNA.
It’s a family vehicle first and foremost with a ride tuned for comfort and steering as light as a breeze. That’s not to say it drives like an anemic minivan; it’s actually well-composed and rarely feels out of sorts unless you drive it like you don’t have kids in the back.
The Ascent is powered by Subaru’s turbocharged 2.4-liter horizontally opposed, a.k.a. “Boxer,” engine producing 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That’s considerably more horses than the CX-9, but an awful lot less torque, too. With a continuously variable transmission that’s actually a gem for once, the Ascent felt livelier from a stop than the CX-9. That probably comes down more to transmission tuning than the difference in their power figures, but score one for Ascent in this regard.
Lastly, Subaru gets credit for wrangling a full 5,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity out of this little turbocharged engine. I’d probably steer clear of towing for very long at its limits, but it’s nice to know it’s rated from the factory for such strong pulling.
Mazda: Mazda is the brand that makes the Miata, and their engineers, nay artisans, have made an art out of distilling the famous roadster’s essence into every other vehicle they sell. A three-row crossover is about as far removed from a two-seat roadster as one can get, and yet Mazda has done it again. The CX-9 is the best-handling three-row crossover I’ve ever driven.
It doesn’t even feel like a crossover or SUV from behind the wheel. It feels more like you’re driving a large sedan. Rather than being top heavy and rolling in turns, the CX-9 feels planted thanks to its wide base and lower roof. There’s a bit of a tradeoff in that you don’t get quite the same commanding view over others as you do in the taller Ascent, but the view of the next corner ahead is just as good.
Powering the CX-9 is Mazda’s turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Despite being nearly the same size in terms of displacement as the Ascent’s turbo 2.4-liter, Mazda has tuned this engine very differently. Its 250 horsepower is 10 fewer than the Ascent’s, but its 310 lb-ft of torque is 37 more. Unless you’re driving something diesel-powered, it’s very unusual for an engine to be rated with so much more torque than horsepower.
Out on the road, that high torque figure isn’t readily felt. In fact, the CX-9’s 3,500-pound maximum towing capacity, a metric directly related to torque, is 1,500 pounds fewer than the Ascent’s. Go figure.
Styling and Interior
Subaru: This brand doesn’t make beautiful machines; it makes functional ones. The Ascent looks exactly like a Subaru Outback would if you raised it a few more inches off the ground and grew it to accommodate a third row. In fact, the resulting shape looks a lot like a Honda Pilot, which isn’t a coincidence since Honda’s three-row crossover is equally as functional as the Ascent. That said, there’s nothing ugly or abhorrent about the exterior styling here. It’ll blend right into its suburban surroundings like an M1A1 tank does in the desert.
The interior of the Ascent is equally as functional, though with a couple bits of flair to make it more interesting to look at than the exterior. For one, it’s very vertical, with a tall dashboard and center stack, an upright and high seating position, and a tall greenhouse (a.k.a. windows). These are the very reasons people like driving SUVs, and the Ascent checks all the boxes.
The Ascent’s interior also avoids being monochromatically drab with pops of contrasting trim against its black plastic and seat upholstery. There’s some muted satin silver plastic, but most interesting is the strip of light tan-colored plastic with a carbon fiber weave texture. Who would’ve thought mixing the color of vanilla ice cream with the feel of carbon fiber would be cool, but it is.
Mazda: I won’t waste words explaining why the Mazda CX-9 is more beautiful than the Ascent, because it’s patently obvious. If you can’t see it, we can’t help you (but maybe an optometrist can). And not only is the CX-9 better-looking than all of its mainstream competitors, it’s prettier than even luxury three-row crossover SUVs costing tens of thousands of dollars more.
The CX-9’s interior is also beautiful, with high class materials and an elegant design that look more expensive than what you’re paying for. Yes, it’s entirely devoid of color, but Mazda has kept things interesting by using varying shades of blacks and grays in different finishes.
Like every Mazda, the interior is driver-focused with a permanent tachometer gauge; beefy steering wheel; and a slightly lower, more stretched out seating position compared to the Ascent. The controls for the infotainment system – a rotary dial on the center console surrounded by buttons and a small volume knob – are also similar to what luxury automakers like Audi and Mercedes-Benz use (although it’s far less functional).
Subaru: The Ascent comes with Subaru’s STARLINK infotainment system, which sports an eight-inch touchscreen at the top of its tall dashboard. The graphics are sharp and colorful, and the system responds to inputs fairly quickly. All things considered, it’s an above average infotainment system that provides all of the features one expects these days like Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming, satellite radio, voice-operated controls, and the all-important Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
The Starlink system feels a bit like an off-the-shelf system, which it sort of is. Its navigation and some other software elements come straight from third-party navigation specialist TomTom. But that’s no diss; third-party providers like TomTom and Garmin have long made better products than what automakers themselves offer, so it makes sense some automakers like Subaru have turned to them for turn-key solutions.
Mazda: The CX-9 uses the same infotainment designed in-house and deployed in all Mazda vehicles. Here it’s displayed on an eight-inch screen and controlled not by touch, but through a rotary dial on the center console called the Multi-Function Command Controller. Abandoning touch controls is actually no big deal; many German luxury automakers use the same set up.
That said, the CX-9’s infotainment system is less colorful than the Ascent’s, using a combination of only white, black, and red in its presentation. That’s a nitpick, but we nevertheless found it flavored our judgment. Also, while the CX-9’s infotainment system matches the Ascent’s almost feature-for-feature, it’s missing two key ones: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Without those, the winner of this category becomes clear.
Subaru: Like all Subarus, the Ascent was designed with function in mind. As such, it’s on the larger side. While not quite as large as the segment’s heavyweight champion, the Chevy Traverse, the Ascent is still similar in size to the Honda Pilot, another big competitor.
The Ascent’s cargo capacity extends from 17.6 cubic feet with all rows of seating in place to a maximum 86.0 cubic feet with its second and third rows folded forward. The load floor is also completely flat with the third row folded, and the second row captain’s chairs in our tester left just a slight incline to contend with. There’s also a hidden compartment beneath the rear floor where the cargo area privacy shade can be stored with plenty of room left over to hide more stuff from prying eyes.
People will be comfortable in the Ascent too, including third row passengers. While not ideal for tall adults, I found enough room back there to sit comfortably for shorter- to medium-length trips. Plus, the Ascent boasts 19 cupholders, which equals 2.7 cup holders for each of our tester’s seven passengers. Hope you’re thirsty.
Mazda: The CX-9 was designed with form in mind, and function takes a back seat. As such, it’s on the smaller side. While still qualifying as a full-on three-row crossover with a useable third row of seating, its total passenger volume of 135.1 cubic feet is far below the Ascent’s 153.5.
Likewise, the CX-9’s cargo capacity is more limited than the Ascent’s, with a minimum volume of 14.4 cubic feet and a maximum of just 71.2 when all the seats are folded forward. Strollers, coolers, and other detritus of life won’t fit as well in the CX-9 as the Ascent.
The same goes for passengers, especially in the third row. Back there, the CX-9 offers 29.7 inches of legroom compared to the Ascent’s 31.7. And let me tell you, every inch counts when you’re forced to sit in someone’s third row.
Subaru: There aren’t many automakers that can match Subaru on the safety front. Its lauded EyeSight Driver Assists Technology comes standard on every Ascent and includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane keep assist with sway control. On our Ascent Premium tester, which is just the next trim above the base model, blind-spot detection and rear cross traffic alert also come standard, while reverse automatic braking is optional. Thus, even though this Ascent is far from loaded or the most expensive version you can buy, it still comes with nearly every safety feature that Subaru offers.
I can personally attest to the effectiveness of EyeSight and its all-seeing sensors. While driving the Ascent on the highway, it helped me prevent a rear-end collision by braking when I wasn’t paying attention as well as I should have. A few years ago before the widespread availability of EyeSight, I would’ve given Subaru back a car with a few of its zones crumpled.
Lastly, like every Subaru besides the sporty BRZ, the Ascent comes standard with all-wheel drive. It’s just there, on almost every Subaru you buy, doing its thing, which was tuned, tested, and delivered by some of the best all-wheel-drive engineers in the world.
Mazda: The CX-9’s safety specs are also good, though offered in a slightly different way. Unlike with the Ascent, the CX-9 comes standard with blind-spot detection and rear cross traffic alert on all models, as well as a limited form of automatic emergency braking called Smart City Brake Support that operates only between 2 and 18 miles per hour. Even on the base model, though, you can buy an optional package that adds lane departure warning with lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and a larger operating range for the automatic emergency braking system.
This particular CX-9 is a relatively loaded Grand Touring model (only the Signature model is higher), and so came with all of these available safety features as standard equipment. And yes, our CX-9 tester did come with all-wheel drive, but it was an option costing an extra $1,800.
Subaru: The Ascent achieves an official rating of 21 miles per gallon in the city, 27 on the highway, and 23 combined. Thankfully only regular gasoline, not premium, is required, and the Ascent can travel up to 444 miles between fill ups.
Mazda: The CX-9’s fuel economy is virtually identical to the Ascent’s, though a little lower on paper. Its official rating is 20 miles per gallon in the city, 26 on the highway, and 23 combined. It too takes regular gas, and can go 448 miles between gas station stops.
Subaru: The Ascent begins with a base price of $31,995, while our Ascent Premium tester starts at $34,195. With a single option called the 7-Passenger Sporty Package selected, its as-tested price came to $39,430.
It’s not fair, however, to compare the price of these two specific vehicles since the Ascent Premium we tested is one trim level above base and the CX-9 Grand Touring one trim level below fully loaded. So far comparison’s sake, we’ll also let you know that an Ascent similarly equipped to the CX-9 Grand Touring we tested would cost $43,890 out-the-door.
Mazda: The CX-9’s base price is $32,130 for a front-wheel-drive model and $33,930 for one with all-wheel drive. Our Grand Touring model, the third of four trim levels, has a starting price of $42,270. With a rear seat entertainment system added for $1,995 and optional $200 Snowflake White Pearl Mica paint, its total as-tested price came to $45,440.
Any family would be happy with either of these full-size three-row crossovers, but for different reasons. If you permit me a purse metaphor, the Ascent is like a carpet bag that will swallow the entirety of your family’s life and feels comfortable on the shoulder, while the CX-9 is a Coach clutch that doesn’t suit every situation, but you make it work on account of how sexy it makes you feel (or so women tell me).
The general purpose of a three-row crossover, though, is to be useful, not sexy. The CX-9 sacrifices some of the former to achieve more of the latter, and for that reason, it’s not the best solution for most people. The Ascent puts the family’s needs first, and is always there for you with open doors and a comical number of cupholders to make life easier.
|2019 Subaru Ascent Premium
|2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring
|Turbocharged 2.4-liter H4
|Turbocharged 2.5-liter I4
|260 Horsepower / 277 Pound-Feet
|250 Horsepower / 310 Pound-Feet
|7.2 Seconds (est)
|21 City / 27 Highway / 23 Combined
|20 City / 26 Highway / 23 Combined
|17.6 / 86.0 Cubic Feet
|14.4 / 71.2 Cubic Feet