If you have a growing family, then a 3-row SUV has most likely found its way to your shopping list. For 2021, the Kia Sorento sees a complete refresh. But are the updates enough to take on one of the very best 3-row SUVs in this class? Read on…
Engine – The 2021 Kia Sorento has two engines to choose from. A naturally aspirated 2.5L or a turbocharged 2.5L. This SX trim has the latter with 281 hp & 311 lb-ft of torque (210 kW & 422 Nm). The 2021 Mazda CX-9 is only available with one engine; a 2.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder just like in the Sorento. However, it has two power outputs depending on what type of fuel it burns. On regular fuel, the engine will produce 227 hp & 310 lb-ft of torque (169 kW & 420 Nm). On the more expensive premium fuel, it produces 250 hp & 320 lb-ft of torque (186 kW & 434 Nm).
On paper, the 2021 Kia Sorento SX has more power and weighs less at 1,856 kg (4,092 lbs) vs the CX9’s 1,994 kg (4,396 lbs) so you would assume that it would be the faster one. But in reality, it’s a different story. While the Sorento’s engine is strong and provides good power from low rpms, the Mazda CX-9 feels – and is – faster. Not only is it faster to accelerate to 100 km/h from a stop, but it’s also faster at highways speeds when overtaking a slower vehicle.
However, the Sorento’s 2.5L turbo engine is more fuel efficient than the CX-9’s 2.5L turbo engine. The 2021 Kia Sorento SX AWD is rated for 11.1 L/100km (21.2 MPG) in a city & 8.4 L/100km (28 MPG) on a highway. The 2021 Mazda CX-9 Kuro Edition AWD is rated for 11.6 L/100km (20.3 MPG) in a city & 9.1 L/100km (25.8 MPG) on a highway. Better yet, the Kia Sorento doesn’t require premium fuel for maximum power output and is equipped with auto start/stop which aids in saving a bit of fuel at long stop lights.
Transmission – The turbocharged 2.5L engine in the Kia Sorento is paired with an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission. As far as dual-clutch transmissions go, this one is one of the better ones on the market. Shifts are smooth, fast, & responsive to driver inputs should you decide to use the steering wheel mounted paddles. It’s not quite on par with Porshce’s PDK but I would comfortably say it’s as good as Mercedes-Benz’s 8-speed dual-clutch.
By comparison, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 has the grandfather clocks of transmissions. It is a regular 6-speed automatic transmission. However, Mazda’s decision to stick with this transmission means that they’ve had years of refining it. By all accounts, this is the best 6-speed automatic on sale today.
Braking – Stopping nearly 2 tonnes of weight is a lot of work. Thankfully both SUVs have strong brakes. In everyday situations, little brake effort is required to stop either SUV. But while they are the same, the CX-9’s brake pedal feels a tiny bit firmer, giving you that feeling of surefootedness. Both SUVs also come standard with forward collision alert & automatic emergency braking.
Handling – The Mazda CX-9 is arguably one of the best handling 3-row SUVs on sale right now. The steering feel is not quite as sharp as it’s smaller CX-5 brother but for a nearly 2 tonne SUV, it’s darn good. The Sorento on the other hand is a big step up from the previous generation. It feels solid and planted around corners but it doesn’t offer quite the same enjoyment on a twisty road as the CX-9 does.
Off the beaten path, the Sorento has a slight advantage over the CX-9 as it comes equipped with off-road terrain drive modes. The system can be switched between Snow, Mud, & Sand. The CX-9 does have an Off-Road Terrain System but the computer decides what is best for the situation.
Ride Comfort – While the Mazda CX-9 is poised as more of a sporty driving SUV, it does a pretty good job of absorbing road imperfections & bumps. However, the Kia Sorento has a plusher ride than the CX-9. The Mazda’s suspension feels a tad on the firmer side when compared to the Kia. The Sorento just does a better job of isolating the occupants from small or larger bumps & potholes.
Interior Space – This is where the 2021 Kia Sorento has a bit of a leg up on the 2021 Mazda CX-9. While both are reasonably spacious in the first & second rows, the Kia has more occupant space in the 3rd row. It’s not a place you want to spend hours on end during a road trip but if you had to choose between these two, always go for the Sorento. On paper, the Kia also has a bit more headroom and a bit more legroom than the Mazda.
Getting in and out of the cars is easy for both, again though, for the 1st & 2nd rows. Getting in and out of the 3rd row is just a tad easier in the Kia than in the Mazda. The Sorento has a button on the second row seats that will quickly and effortlessly fold the seat and spring it into its most forward position. The Mazda has a lever that you pull but you’re using your own muscles to move it forward. It’s not that big of a deal but less effort is always nicer.
In the far back, the Mazda CX-9 has a bit more cargo space behind the 3rd row than the Kia Sorento. The Mazda measures at 407 L (14.3 cu-ft) vs the Kia’s 357 L (12.6 cu-ft). But start folding the seats and the Kia takes the lead. Behind the second row the Kia has 1,090 L (38.5 cu-ft) vs the Mazda’s 1,082 L (38.2 cu-ft) and finally behind the third row, the Sorento has 2,139 L (75.5 cu-ft) vs the CX-9’s 2,017 L (71.2 cu-ft). Getting stuff into the back while your hands are full is a breeze because the Mazda has a kick operated hands-free tailgate while the Kia has a “stand there for 5 seconds and the tailgate opens” hands-free tailgate. Of course they only work if the key is somewhere on you.
Noise, Vibration, & Harshness – Overall the 2021 Kia Sorento is a quieter 3-row SUV. Engine, road, and wind noise is better insulated from occupants in the cabin. Having said that though, the Mazda CX-9 is not particularly noisy on highways. It’s just when accelerating that you hear the turbocharged engine. However, that’s not a bad thing because the 4-cylinder in the CX-9 actually sounds really good. It has a throaty & muscular sound whereas the Sorento’s 4-cylinder sounds bland when you do hear it at higher rpms.
Odds and Ends
Gadgets – For 2021, The Mazda CX-9 gained a few gadget updates – primarily in the form of an updated infotainment system. That is, for the American market. The Canadian market still has to make due with the older, slower infotainment system. If you’re reading this in the United States, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 receives the 10.25-inch infotainment screen & system from the recently updated Mazda 3. The new infotainment system is much faster and better to look at than the older system. It is controlled by the rotary knob on the center console (the infotainment screen is not a touchscreen) but it works well because it was designed to be controlled that way. The only small hiccup with it is that Apple CarPlay & Android Auto don’t work so well with a rotary knob.
As for us here in Canada, the old system is really showing its age. The graphics look old and it takes a good minute or two for it to fully boot up when starting the car. It is a 9-inch touchscreen but only while stationary. When moving, it can only be controlled by the rotary knob.
Other gadgets on this Kuro Edition (Carbon Edition in USA) CX-9 include a head-up display, surround view cameras (but they are of low resolution), adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and keep but without lane centering, blind spot sensors, navigation, 20-inch black wheels, red leather upholstery, heated & ventilated front seats, heated 2nd row seats, heated steering wheel but only at the 9 & 3 positions, sunroof, and wireless phone charging.
By comparison, the 2021 Kia Sorento feels much more up to date in terms of technology. Starting with the infotainment system, it is controlled by a 10.25-inch touchscreen with very good resolution and graphics. It has the usual features like navigation, satellite radio, driver profiles, and so on. But it also has a few unique features such as cabin talk. You can speak naturally and the occupants in the 3rd row will be able to hear you through the rear speakers. There’s also Quiet Mode that only plays the radio through the driver’s speakers allowing other occupants to sleep, for example. There are also Voice memos that you can record and a Sounds of Nature mode that plays calming sounds like waves crashing or birds chirping in a forest.
Other gadgets on this top SX trim include a panoramic sunroof, HD surround view cameras, head-up display, heated & ventilated front seats, heated 2nd row seats, full heated steering wheel, climate controls in the 3rd row, wireless phone charging, adaptive cruise control, blind spot sensors, lane departure warning with lane centering, quilted leather upholstery, and a full digital instrument cluster.
Interior Design – The look of the 2021 Kia Sorento’s interior has evolved to look more rugged. There are more sharp lines in the design rather than smooth curves of the last generation. The materials also feel more upscale, especially in this SX trim. However, when it comes to material use, the Mazda CX-9 takes the cake. The leather is softer. The buttons have a premium feel when you use them. And there’s less use of hard plastics. The CX-9’s interior looks elegant but not quite as striking as the Sorento’s interior design.
Exterior Design – Apart from the black wheels and the special Polymetal Grey Metallic paint, the 2021 Mazda CX-9 looks pretty much the same as it did back in 2017 when it received the last major update. It still has presence on the road but it doesn’t look as striking as the all-new 2021 Kia Sorento. But some may like the less outlandish look. It looks more rugged and uses more sharp lines throughout its design.
One thing that annoys me, however, are the fake exhaust tips. Actually, there are no tips. The lower portion of the back bumper was designed to imitate the look of exhaust tips. The actual exhaust tips are behind it and point downward.
So in the end, which one is better? Overall as a 3-row family SUV, the 2021 Kia Sorento edges the 2021 Mazda CX-9 in my opinion. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are. Granted, if you prioritize driving pleasure above family comfort, then the Mazda CX-9 is still your best bet. But for most other families out there, the 2021 Sorento is a better bet. Plus it costs less than the CX-9. This SX trim Kia Sorento is $47,495 CAD ($40,590 USD) while the Kuro Edition Mazda CX-9 is $50,150 CAD ($41,280 USD, Carbon Edition). There’s also the Signature trim of the CX-9 that you can get which costs more still. So on the basis of costing less, offering more space, being more fuel efficient, and offering new technology, the 2021 Kia Sorento SX is the winner of this comparison.
Thank you to Kia Canada for providing the Sorento. www.Kia.ca
Thank you to Mazda Canada for providing the CX-9. www.Mazda.ca