By some stroke of luck, we managed to snag a 2018 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring as our chariot to take the four-hour drive from Seattle to McMinnville, Ore., where we got our first drive of the 2019 Subaru Ascent. As one of our favorite vehicles in this class, the CX-9 would serve as a good comparison to the Ascent. And, on paper, the similarities are abundant: Both come from automakers with a clear, go-your-own-way approach to vehicle engineering, are powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines, and offer three rows of seating in a relatively compact package. Put simply, we expect the Ascent and CX-9 to be cross-shopped by a lot of new-car buyers looking for a new family car.
What we found is that the CX-9 is the better choice for the buyer who values a sporty driving experience above all else, while the Ascent is probably better for families looking for a healthier dose of practicality. Either option will ably serve the suburban American family they are targeting, but the ways they go about that life of servitude are quite different.
It's worth noting that pretty much every automaker in America is selling a vehicle in this class, which means there are a heck of a lot of vehicles from which to choose. For a few other options, check out this spec-sheet comparison here, and for anything else, be sure to visit the handy Autoblog compare tool. With that out of the way, let's break it down a bit more granularly.
Looks-wise, we prefer the Mazda. A crossover is going to be generally box-shaped, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring. The CX-9's bodywork flows gracefully from nose to tail, with just the right amount of flashiness in the form of headlights that take the form of cat-like eyes, a five-point grille surrounded in chrome, and gently arcing bodyside lines. It all works to form what we think is the most attractive midsize crossover overall.
We don't hate the Subaru Ascent's looks, but it's definitely more boring than the CX-9. There's a strong family resemblance to the Outback and Forester, which makes sense, but in reality all three err on the side of blandness. The box-like shape has some rugged-looking finishes without resorting to massive amounts of plastic cladding, and for that we're thankful. We doubt anyone is going to dismiss the Ascent based on its lackluster styling, but we also can't imagine anyone seeing one drive by and feeling compelled to visit their local Subaru dealership.
Practicality:As vehicles designed primarily to schlep a bunch of people and all their stuff from one place to another, practicality is of paramount concern in this vehicle segment. And the Subaru takes the win. Little touches like well-placed grab handles, easy-to-reach seat adjustment levers, and a whole load of cupholders of every shape and size combine to make the Ascent easier to live with on a daily basis than the CX-9. Just as important, the Ascent's boxy shape lends itself to big, box-shaped openings for the rear doors and hatch, which makes it easier to get people and cargo in and out.
The Mazda CX-9 is in no way impractical, but its sleek styling cuts down on interior space in predictable ways. For instance, even though the Mazda is longer and wider than the Subaru, there's more head- and shoulder room in the Ascent in all three rows, and more legroom in all but the middle row. It's a similar story with cargo space. The CX-9 offers significantly less space for stuff no matter how the interior is configured, and has 15 fewer cubic feet of storage room overall.
Plus, the Subaru Ascent can tow 5,000 pounds (note that the base model is limited to 2,000 lbs), while the Mazda CX-9 has a significantly lower 3,500-pound rating.
Powertrain:We're going to give this category to Subaru. The Ascent's 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-4 engine makes 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, on regular-grade gasoline. The Mazda offers 227 hp on 87-octane fuel, or 250 hp on premium, and spins out a stout 310 lb-ft of torque no matter what grade of fuel is used. In the real world, neither engine feels like a powerhouse, but both are completely adequate for daily driving duties.
The Mazda will run just fine on 87 octane, but the fact that owners have to make a choice of which fuel to put into the CX-9 can't count as anything other than a demerit. And even though it makes quite a bit more torque, the CX-9 doesn't really feel any quicker than the Ascent on real roads.
We usually cringe when we see the words continuously variable transmission on a spec sheet, but Subaru seems to have mastered the art of making CVTs livable. It just works, and almost never feels like it's getting in the way of your enjoyment of the vehicle. Plus, there are paddle shifters that quickly let the driver row through eight pre-set ratios, which can be both fun and useful on up- and downhill gradients.
Mazda went with a traditional six-speed automatic in the CX-9. These days, transmissions with eight or even nine gears are common, and more gears often mean quicker acceleration and greater fuel economy. But the Mazda six-speed works fine, doesn't hunt and peck for gears, and has manual and sport modes. What the CX-9 doesn't have, though, are paddle shifters. It's a small thing, but as a vehicle designed and marketed as a sportier option than its rivals, it feels like a strange omission.
The Ascent, like all Subarus (minus the BR-Z sportscar), comes standard with all-wheel drive. The CX-9 comes standard with front-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive is optional.
Fuel mileage is close between the two crossovers, with both the Ascent and all-wheel-drive CX-9 earning an EPA-estimated 23 miles per gallon combined. But remember, CX-9 buyers will have to choose between regular and premium fuel.
Driving dynamics:Mazda pretty much has a lock on crossover driving dynamics, as the CX-5 and CX-9 are both at the top of their respective segments in the fun-to-drive quotient. The ride is on the firm side of comfortable and is very well controlled for such a large vehicle. Its steering feel and throttle response are the best in the segment, and while we'd wager the ultimate limits are similar between the Mazda and the Subie, the CX-9 is more fun when pushed.
That said, the Subaru isn't bad, either. The ride is softer and the steering is much lighter, but it's never floaty and never feels out of control. The Ascent's chassis feels very stiff, and, while it's the biggest Subaru ever made, its overall heft is well-masked from behind the wheel.
Price:This one goes to Subaru, with the Mazda's $33,105 base price just slightly higher than the Subaru's $32,970. But the Mazda you get for that sum is front-wheel drive, whereas the Ascent is standard with all-wheel drive. Add that to the CX-9 and you're looking at $34,905.
Of course, neither automaker is going to sell a ton of base-model vehicles. And when climbing the options ladder and choosing higher trim levels, the Subaru Ascent continues its pricing advantage over the Mazda CX-9. Optioned out with a leather interior, upgraded sound system, and a panoramic sunroof, the CX-9 Grand Touring runs $43,840 versus the Ascent Limited's $42,920. You can go higher — to the Signature trim on the Mazda or to the Touring on the Subaru — at which point the price will just crest $45,000 for either vehicle.
Conclusion:Count 'em up and you'll see that the Subaru Ascent won three out of our five categories. By that measure, it's the winner of this comparison. But, as is so often the case, the reality is more nuanced than that.
If you want the very best-driving three-row crossover for sale in America, you should probably waltz on over to your Mazda dealer and take a test drive in the CX-9. Similarly, if you've grown used to small, sporty cars but now have a growing family to think about, you may prefer the dynamics of the Mazda, since, as contributing editor James Riswick puts it, it feels less like a penalty for parenthood.
But notice that we put driving dynamics down toward the bottom of our comparison. There's a reason for that. Enthusiasts — including, we'd guess, a fair number of Autoblog readers — may obsess over a few tenths here and there at a race track, but these are not race cars. They shouldn't drive like something they aren't, and in reality they don't.
Ultimately, if you care more about having fun behind the wheel on a curvy road than anything else, and you're not worried about making your third-row passengers carsick, pick the Mazda. Otherwise, we'd suggest starting your new-car shopping trip at the Subaru dealer and working down from there.