Since its introduction, the CX-9 has consistently been ranked as one of the most stylish and dynamically capable offerings in the intermediate CUV segment. It has been both a commercial and critical success. Numerous enhancements have been made for the 2018 model – further strengthening the competitive strength of this important vehicle.

Some of the key changes made for the 2018 model year include:

  • NEW – G-Vectoring Control
  • NEW – 17MY Technology Package is now standard on GT models
  • NEW – Heated 2nd row seats available
  • NEW – Pedestrian Detection now added to SBS
  • NEW – Available Traffic Sign Recognition
  • NEW – Front Wiper De-Icer
  • IMPROVED – GS and GS-L i-ACTIVSENSE Packages
  • IMPROVED – 3rd row accessibility
  • IMPROVED – Second and Third Row NVH

In this article, we will be looking at how the 2018 CX-9 fares in a head-to-head comparison against the all-new Volkswagen Atlas.

VOLKSWAGEN ATLAS AT A GLANCE

The Volkswagen Atlas is an all-new vehicle launched for the 2018 model. It is their first three-row/Intermediate SUV and is manufactured at their plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It has launched to critical and commercial acclaim and even though this is a new VW nameplate in the segment initial sales have been strong. Reviews in the enthusiast press have also been positive and in a recent comparison test the VW Atlas was ranked ahead of every competitor in the test – except the Mazda CX-9.

In the three-row SUV comparison test, conducted by Car and Driver (July 2017), the Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium (the top trim level in the US) placed ahead of the following competitor entries:

  • Dodge Durango GT
  • GMC Acadia Denali
  • Honda Pilot Elite

Car and Driver appreciated the ride/handling compromise possessed by the Atlas and was impressed with the amount of interior space. Despite the notable strengths of the Atlas it was not a match for the unique blend of attributes possessed by the Mazda CX-9.

“The CX-9 is also quiet, besting the pack both under acceleration and at cruising speed. .Combine this serenity with the nicest cabin and the tightest seams and panel gaps in our field, and the CX-9 was unquestionably the most luxurious. That it carried the lowest as-tested price only makes the Mazda that much more attractive to us.

And it’s attractive. Not quite as beautiful as Mazda’s small cars, but exceptional-looking in this class of boring boxes. The CX-9 is a compelling package, and although that package is not the largest, it is the best.”

POWERTRAIN / PERFORMANCE COMPARISON

AWD version of the Volkswagen Atlas come equipped with a 3.6L version of the company’s long standing VR6. It produces 276hp @ 6,200rpm and 266 lb-ft @ 2,750 and is mated to an 8-speed automatic.

The Mazda CX-9 features the company’s SKYACTIV-G 2.5T which produces 250hp @ 5,000rpm (with Premium fuel, 227hp with regular fuel) and 310 lb ft. @ 2,000rpm. This engine is paired with the 6-speed SKYACTIV-Drive automatic transmission. Despite producing 26hp more than the CX-9 and having an 8-speed automatic the Atlas is notably slower off the line than the CX-9 and uses more fuel. In a Car and Driver comparison test (July 2017) the CX-9 was more than a second quicker to 60 mph (6.8sec vs 7.9sec) and consumed less fuel. This is undoubtedly a result of the CX-9 being almost 400lbs lighter and having an engine that produces significantly more torque at lower rpm.

Not only is the CX-9 quicker than the Atlas but it also has been designed to deliver very linear performance characteristics. Unlike conventional turbocharged engines the SKYACTIV-G 2.5T is designed to pull strongly from initial throttle tip-in. Customers will appreciate the benefit of the way performance is delivered in a predictable, consistent fashion.

The Mazda Test Drive Experience (MTDE):

The MTDE is an important tool when demonstrating the strengths of Mazda vehicles. Encourage customers who are considering the new Atlas and the CX-9 to take both vehicles out for a comprehensive test drive. What they’ll discover is what the press has known all along – that the CX-9 is the best driving vehicle in the segment.

CHASSIS / AGILITY

Every Mazda, regardless of the size of the vehicle, has been designed to respond faithfully to the input of the driver. The CX-9, despite being an Intermediate SUV, with three rows of seating and all-wheel drive is true to the Jinba-Ittai philosophy as well.

In comparison, the Atlas was developed for the North American market and while the ride comfort is competitive the handling is merely adequate.

“Weight transfers smoothly in the CX-9, which feels better balanced and more compact than the others. Yes, its turbocharged inline-four is down on power, but 310 pound-feet of torque mitigates the effect. There is a flow to the controls of the Mazda that is not present in the GMC or any other mainstream crossover of this size.”

“On the road, the Atlas immediately identifies itself as coming from the Jetta and Passat side of the family, rather than the European one. The steering is light and makes maneuvering the giant buslike VW easy.. .It’s always competent, and you’d never accuse the VW of being sloppy like the Honda or sporty like the Mazda.”

Car and Driver, July 2017

FUNCTIONALITY / CARGO CAPACITY

On paper the Volkswagen Atlas has significantly more cargo room behind the second and third row than the CX-9. However, it is important to note that much of that room is above the beltline.

Put the Atlas and the CX-9 side by side and it becomes apparent that the difference between the useable space behind the third row isn’t as different as the numbers would have you believe.

There is a similar story behind the second row as well. Much of the on-paper advantage enjoyed by the Atlas is above the beltline and the practical differences between the two aren’t nearly as great as the numbers would suggest. Beyond the numbers it is also important to understand who the customers are.

84% of Atlas customers have two or fewer children, in fact 37% of Atlas customers have no children at all. What this means is that while the 3rd row seating of the Atlas is more

spacious than the 3rd row seating of the CX-9 this is not the differentiator that one would expect in this segment. More often than not the third-row seating in either one of these vehicles is likely getting occasional use only.

CRAFTSMANSHIP / DESIGN

The exterior design of the CX-9 has been sculpted to reflect the KODO: Soul of Motion Design language. The same care is evident in the interior of the CX-9 – especially when compared side by side with the Atlas. Much of the material used throughout the interior of the Atlas are hard plastic, rather than the soft touch materials utilized throughout the interior of the CX-9.

The entire centre console and the lower portion of the dash in the Atlas are constructed of hard plastic and lack the upscale appearance of the CX-9. The difference is further evident when comparing the faux wood on the dash of the Atlas versus the genuine Rosewood accents on the dash of the CX-9. These differences in materials and craftsmanship carry over to the door panels where the CX-9 has a more sculpted presentation and upscale execution.

The Nappa Leather and substantial nature of the seating surfaces in the CX-9 are another high touch zone that set the it apart from the Atlas (and virtually every other Intermediate SUV). Despite the fact that the Atlas is built to a lower standard in virtually ever area, it is premium priced relative to the CX-9.

SAFETY

Increasingly consumers are aware of the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety ratings (IIHS) and while the early 2018 Atlas’ met the 2017 Top Safety Pick the model does not meet the requirements for the 2018 Top Safety Pick. The CX-9 is a 2018 Top Safety Pick – and the Atlas isn’t. It is just one more way in which the CX-9 delivers a blend of attributes that the Atlas, and many key competitors, can’t match.

SUMMARY

Take the time to introduce customers to the 2018 CX-9 and let them experience it through the Mazda Test Drive Experience. The MTDE is the most effective and memorable way to demonstrate what sets CX-9 apart from competitive intermediate SUV entries and to convert them from shoppers – to owners.

Andrew Bardwell

National Manager, Instructional Design

Mark Peyman

National Manager, Product Strategy & Development