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When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

A white 2021 Ford Explorer is shown parked on a dock near a boardwalk.

The Ford Explorer Takes on the Mazda CX-9: The Best Three-Row SUV of 2021

Three-row SUVs like the Ford Explorer and the Mazda CX-9 are a saving grace for families of all sizes and with a variety of interests because they’re a stylish and sophisticated alternative to the behemoth minivans of the 1980s and 1990s. They’re ideal family haulers, whether your family is laden with babies and young children or if you’ve exchanged diapers for backpacks, after-school activities, and bigger family adventures and excursions. But which SUV is more versatile? That’s the question in this race between two of the most popular three-row SUVs: the 2021 Ford Explorer vs 2021 Mazda CX-9.

The Race Begins

Ford’s stellar reputation in the automotive industry is hard to beat, especially when you consider a pioneer like Henry Ford. This is the legacy that the 2021 Explorer continues and that automatically gives Ford’s midsize SUV an advantage over the 2021 Mazda CX-9. But what else does the Explorer have to offer that the CX-9 doesn’t and vice versa?

Choices in Power

The 2021 Explorer proves that a family-friendly SUV can be capable and, dare we say it, fun to drive. Ford ensures this by offering a wide range of power and capability across the Explorer’s engine lineup. The standard 2.3-liter turbocharged EcoBoost inline-four engine delivers more than enough power with 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque to give you confidence when you’re on the road.

Ford also knows, however, that more power is always better, and that’s why you’ll find a 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 in the lineup that delivers 400 horsepower, 415 lb-ft of torque, and a top speed of 143 mph. You won’t find this level of power on the Mazda CX-9, nor will you find anything comparable to the Explorer’s hybrid powertrain. Yes, Ford makes the Explorer even better with a 3.3-liter V6 hybrid powertrain that effortlessly balances power with efficiency to deliver 318 horsepower and 322 lb-ft of torque.

Every engine in the Explorer’s 2021 lineup delivers more power than the CX-9’s sole inline-four engine. In fact, Mazda’s choice of an in-line four rather than a more powerful V6 is surprising for the large, three-row SUV. Mazda lessened the blow by turbocharging the Skyactiv-G 2.5 engine and paired it with a 6-speed Skyactiv-Drive automatic transmission, the latter of which pales in comparison to Ford’s 10-speed automatic. The combination delivers 250 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque, making the CX-9 far less powerful and capable than even the hybrid Explorer.

A grey 2021 Mazda CX-9 is shown driving on a road in the woods during a 2021 Ford Explorer vs 2021 Mazda CX-9 comparison.

Efficiency or Power? You Decide

The Explorer’s impressive power gives it a clear advantage over the CX-9; it’s hard to ignore the numbers. But what’s more important – power or efficiency? Sometimes, you have to sacrifice one for the other, and that requires making peace with the fact that a three-row SUV like the Explorer or CX-9 will guzzle more gas than other, smaller models. So, how much of a sacrifice will you have to make?

It turns out; Ford gives you the chance to have your cake and eat it too, so to speak. The Explorer’s hybrid powertrain is, unsurprisingly, the most efficient and still delivers more power than the CX-9’s 2.5-liter engine. The Explorer’s hybrid powertrain averages 27 MPG in the city and 29 MPG on the highway, which exceeds the CX-9’s average of 22 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the highway.

The Explorer’s base 2.5-liter engine is comparable to the CX-9’s standard powertrain and averages 21 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the highway. Opting for the Explorer with the beefy 3.0-liter turbo V6 requires a small sacrifice in efficiency. You don’t expect to get 400 horses and 415 lb-ft of torque for nothing, do you? This sacrifice is minimal and brings the Explorer’s average fuel economy to around 18 MPG in the city and 26 MPG on the highway, which is worth it if you’re looking for more power and faster acceleration.

A Trim for Everyone

Just as Henry Ford knew that his customers were primarily farmers, Ford continues to show just how well it knows its customers and their diverse needs. The 2021 Explorer’s seven-trim lineup is designed to meet all those needs and more. The lineup offers something for everyone whether you’re looking for an entry-level Explorer, luxurious models like the Limited and King Ranch, a performance-focused SUV like the ST-Line, or the adventure-ready Timberline.

What’s remarkable about the Explorer’s lineup is Ford’s attention to detail and how these details distinguish each trim from the others. For example, the Timberline can fulfill your sense of adventure on the trail thanks to its variety of off-road components like its limited-slip rear differential that optimizes its handling on rough terrain to its steel skid plates that protect its underbody from debris and damage. The Platinum offers the most luxury with its tri-diamond leather seating with accent stitching, dual-panel moonroof that makes the cabin feel more spacious, and the premium Bang and Olufsen sound system that delivers an immersive listening experience.

The CX-9’s five-trim lineup doesn’t offer as many choices, nor does it give families with an interest in trail-running a viable option. Instead, Mazda focuses on satisfying the largest segment of its customer base with luxury, convenience, and innovation, all of which already come standard on the Explorer. The CX-9 Sport starts the lineup and builds the foundation for more refined models like the Touring and the exclusive Carbon Edition that features unique exterior and interior detailing. The Grand Touring’s focus on innovation and convenience is apparent with tools like Mazda’s navigation system, while the CX-9 Signature focuses entirely on opulence with its Nappa leather seats and second-row captain’s chairs with a center console for added convenience.

A green 2021 Ford Explorer Timberline is shown parked in the woods.

What Will You Choose?

SUVs like the 2021 Ford Explorer and the 2021 Mazda CX-9 are two of the most popular three-row SUVs in America. They combine power and capability with luxury and convenience at an affordable price. This makes them not only attractive options but also a great value for families who don’t necessarily want or need to spend a fortune on a family vehicle. But not all SUVs are created equal. Where one excels with its exceptional power, the other impresses with its efficiency, as we see when looking at the available powertrains on the Explorer and CX-9. Because of this, choosing the best SUV becomes an even bigger task since it means examining your own priorities and must-haves in a family vehicle.

Do you value power and performance over efficiency? If so, the 2021 Explorer is an exceptional option because it delivers a wide range of power across its multi-engine lineup compared to the CX-9’s single powertrain. The Explorer’s hybrid engine even proves that you can enjoy the best of both worlds with its ability to churn out over 300 horses while delivering the Explorer’s best fuel economy average both in town and on the highway.

Are you looking for a family vehicle that will help you navigate your daily life, from your commute and routine errands to school activities and beyond? Or, are you looking for an adventure-ready rig that can transition from the workweek to the weekend without missing a beat? The CX-9 focuses on luxury and convenience, whether you’re looking at the entry-level Sport or the top-tier Grand Touring. In contrast, Ford delivers this same level of luxury with greater options for adventure and sport-like handling thanks to trims like the Timberline and ST-Line. The choice, then, is entirely up to you and what you value most in a three-row SUV destined to meet all your family’s needs.

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