|5,600||Max Towing (lbs)||3,500|
Put two vehicles together, and sometimes it’s a tough comparison. A grueling battle between two top-dog models, it’s something that fans and critics have seen time and time again. However, sometimes when you put two vehicles together, it illustrates the strengths and weaknesses that both vehicles possess, and more importantly, gives us a clear indication of what vehicle is the better purchase. For the 2021 Ford Explorer vs 2021 Mazda CX-9, the differences between the two vehicles are vast, and the one thing that nobody would expect is that the pricier option is the least impressive. That’s a huge problem, but this is a massive advantage for the Ford Explorer. It’s these weaknesses that ultimately define our decision, and the same is likely to be said for a wide range of drivers out there who are looking to get their money’s worth.
The 2021 Ford Explorer starts at a lower MSRP than the CX-9, with its base model, the Explorer starting at $32,925.* Ford has given customers a wide array of choices with the 2021 Explorer, and the first sign of this is a total of seven trim levels. The classic trims that we’re used to are here and ready to go, such as the Limited, the King Ranch, and of course, the Platinum at the very top. The 2021 CX-9 starts at a higher MSRP of $34,160 for its base model, the Sport. Compared to Ford’s SUV, choices are seemingly lacking, and you’ll only have five trim levels to select from. Five trims are still impressive nonetheless and are certainly not a disadvantage otherwise, but against the Explorer, this begins to raise the question of what exactly it is that you’re paying for.
Between the 2021 Explorer and CX-9, the performance couldn’t be any more different. This is great for the Explorer but is frankly horrendous news for the CX-9. One powertrain is all the CX-9 has for you, and to make matters worse; it’s not even a V6 engine. The engine inside of the 2021 CX-9 is a turbocharged 2.5L I-4 that links to a 6-speed automatic transmission. This combo gives Mazda’s SUV 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque, not too bad. Bring the base engine of the Explorer into the picture, which is also a turbocharged I-4, but 2.3L, and it's paired to a far better 10-speed automatic transmission. Additionally, this engine produces 300 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, which is a 20% increase in horsepower over the CX-9. Towing capacity is far greater on the Explorer’s base engine, too, with a maximum capacity of 5,300 lbs against the CX-9’s measly 3,500 lbs.
That’s all of the power that the CX-9 will give you, which begins to raise the question of why Mazda feels it needs to raise its price amongst competitors like Ford. There are three more powertrain configurations for the Explorer, two of which are different variations of the same V6 engine, and the other is a hybrid powertrain. Up first is the turbocharged 3.0L V6 that shares the same 10-speed automatic transmission as before and increases towing capacity one step further to 5,600 lbs. By default, this engine earns 365 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, but if you opt for the ST trim, this is vastly increased to 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque. This is the most power that the Explorer has to offer, and it’s not only 33.3% more horsepower and 33.8% more torque than the base engine, but it has a whopping 60% more horsepower and nearly 30% more torque than the CX-9’s only engine.
Lastly, the Explorer offers a hybrid powertrain, something that just simply is not present on the CX-9. This hybrid engine is a 3.3L V6 that retains the 10-speed automatic transmission and still holds plenty of power at 318 hp and 322 lb-ft of torque. That’s right, the hybrid engine inside of the Explorer outperforms the non-hybrid engine inside of the CX-9 and has far superior fuel efficiency. For example, EPA-estimated ratings for the CX-9’s turbocharged engine are 22 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the highway, and the Explorer’s hybrid engine gets 27 MPG city and 28 MPG highway.
Surprisingly, both of these vehicles are directed at the same subset of drivers, and it’s those with families. However, the Explorer does better in just about every regard here. Each vehicle supports a seating capacity of seven passengers, and the standard configuration in both features a bench seat in the middle with the option to replace this with traditional captain’s chair seats. The similarities end there, and it’s all about which vehicle can fit seven passengers the easiest.
Inside the Explorer, the first row passengers will get 40.7-inches of headroom, the second row has 40.5-inches, and the third row has 38.9-inches. For the CX-9, the front row gets 39.3-inches of headroom, the second row has 38.5-inches, and lastly, the third row has 35.4-inches. This means that the third row of the Explorer features almost as much headroom as the front row of the CX-9, which is very important to note.
Legroom tells a similar story for the most part. Starting with the CX-9, the front and second rows get 41 and 39.4-inches, and the third row gets a very tight 29.7-inches of legroom. The Explorer then offers the front row 43-inches of legroom, the second row gets 39-inches, and the last row has 32.2-inches. Now that we’ve established that the Explorer is the larger vehicle for its occupants, this may bring forth the concern of lackluster cargo space, but that’s simply not the case here.
As is the case with SUVs that have three rows, two of these rows can be folded up and down to accommodate the amount of space you need, and they’re quite versatile. Comparatively, though, the CX-9 offers less cargo space in all three situations. When all seven passengers are inside the vehicle, which is when the SUV will have the least amount of available cargo space to work with, the CX-9 only has 14.4 cubic feet of space against the Explorer’s 18.2 cubic feet.
Exclusively folding down the far most row, cargo space is improved significantly on both, with the CX-9 offering 38.2 cubic feet of space, a 164% difference. Folding down this same row on the Explorer reveals 47.9 cubic feet of space, a 163% difference over its default setup, and still offers more than 25% of space than the CX-9 in this case. Lastly, when you need the most cargo space, folding down both of the rear rows is how you accomplish this. When you do this in both vehicles, the Explorer comes out on top once again with 87.8 cubic feet, while the CX-9 only has 71.2 cubic feet.
The standard safety features that come with both vehicles are rather similar, which is quite the advantage for the Explorer with its lower price tag. Both vehicles come with safety suites courtesy of their manufacturers, and this greatly enhances the general appeal of these SUVs, especially for those who are going to be driving with their families regularly. What kind of features can you expect with these safety suites?
For starters, both vehicles offer forms of Automatic Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection. For the CX9, this is marketed as Advanced Smart City Brake Support. Think of these features as two in one, starting with the alert warning that is sent to the driver before a potential collision can occur, thus prompting them to apply the brakes as quickly as possible. If the vehicle hasn’t come to a complete stop in time, the automation factor takes over, and the vehicle will attempt to come to a stop to prevent a collision, whether it’s with a pedestrian or another vehicle.
Each of these SUVs also comes with a Lane-Keeping System, and this feature will only be used in times when your vehicle is leaving its lane unintentionally. When this occurs, the vehicle will attempt to correct its alignment with the lane that you should be traveling in. When traveling on the freeway, both vehicles also utilize a Blind Spot Monitor so that you’ll always indicate whether or not you’re clear to switch lanes.
These Blind Spot Monitors are also utilized when either your Explorer or CX-9 is in reverse, thanks to Cross Traffic Alert and Reverse Braking Assist. Cross-Traffic Alert will alert you if a vehicle is passing by the rear side of your SUV when you’re trying to reverse out of a parking space. Reverse Braking Assist has a similar effect, but it will trigger if a stationary object is obstructing the way of your vehicle. Best of all, both the Explorer and CX-9 were rated Top Safety Pick+ vehicles for 2021, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Although we can confidently say that both vehicles exceed expectations when discussing safety, it’s clear that it’s not what adds to the extra cost of the CX-9, and it makes the Explorer a clear choice in this regard.