We spend a lot of time talking about three-row SUVs around these parts, and for good reason: there’s just so darned many of them these days. The SUV market is exploding, and everyone wants a piece of the action. Several automakers that had never before dabbled in the family hauler market have added new products to their line-ups over the last few years, and a handful even offer multiple three-row options.
Kia is one of those companies now sporting multiple flavours of three-row thanks to the successful launch two years ago of its large SUV, the Kia Telluride. However, rather than following the same path as its sister company Hyundai — which dropped the three-row version of the smaller Santa Fe once its newer and larger Palisade took off — Kia kept its smaller offering in its line-up.
As a result, we have one of the contenders in this comparison test of coupe-style three-row SUVs, the 2021 Kia Sorento. Completely redesigned for this model year, the new Sorento drops its V6 engine in favour of a pair of four-cylinder options and adds features like available second-row captain’s chairs, a digital instrument cluster, and a wider infotainment screen. It’s not even possible to buy the Sorento with two rows anymore; Kia’s gone all-in on making this a three-row offering. The unit tested here is the top-of-the-line SX grade, which with an extra $250 charge for the Pacific Blue paint rings up at $49,695 including destination fees.
And for the Sorento’s opponent-du-jour, we have the 2021 Mazda CX-9. Mazda’s sole three-row offering is also designed with a more coupe-like shape that sees the roof slope downward toward the rear rather than being squared off at the corners. As a result, it’s quite rightly seen more often as being more about fashion than outright interior space. For this comparison test, we secured the CX-9 Kuro Edition, a new grade for 2021 that slots in between the GT and Signature grades with pricing at $52,300, fees in.
What’s worth noting right out of the gate is that Driving.ca’s Managing Editor Jonathan Yarkony and I decided to match these vehicles up based on our past experiences, which suggested they’d be very similar in size and interior space. It turns out that’s only partially true: while the Sorento is 4,810 mm long, the CX-9 is a full 25.5 cm longer at 5,065 mm, despite being beat out by the Sorento in nearly all head and leg room dimensions. Much of the CX-9’s extra length can be attributed to the elongated hood, and given the brand’s ethos of prioritizing looks and driving experience over all else, this isn’t especially surprising.
Under that elongated hood, the Kuro Edition is fitted with the CX-9’s sole engine option, a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. This engine can work with either regular or premium fuel, and there are different power output levels published for each: opting for regular gets you 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm, and choosing 93 octane gets you to peaks of 250 hp and 320 lb-ft at 2,100 rpm. This is matched with a six-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive.
On the new Sorento, there are two engines offered: a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder is equipped on the entry-level models, while most grades including the SX receive a turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder producing 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque peaking at 1,700 rpm. The literature makes no special fuel requests and says regular is recommended. All-wheel drive is standard, and with the turbo engine, power is fed through an eight-speed wet-type dual-clutch transmission.
In practice, the amount of power produced by each engine feels appropriately matched in each case, though Mazda’s mill comes across as being noisier. The Sorento’s transmission shifts noticeably more smoothly, though Mazda incorporates a turbocharger with technology that helps it come online earlier in acceleration, which makes up for the Sorento’s extra gears and keeps these two vehicles more or less on par when the right pedal is applied. Surprisingly, handling also comes across as similar: the CX-9’s character is typically Mazda-like in character, that being pleasantly responsive if a little bit stiff, though not overly jarring; the Sorento is so similar it leads us to believe the engineers likely used the CX-9 as a benchmark. The one key difference between the two is in the respective interpretations of Sport mode: Mazda’s doesn’t make much of a difference, while in the Sorento this mode seems to wake the engine up and brings a noticeably improved sense of urgency to the proceedings.
On paper, both of these vehicles are rated for slightly better fuel efficiency than most three-row SUVs. Natural Resources Canada says we can expect to burn 10.5 litres per 100 kilometres combined in the CX-9 (11.6 city, 9.1 highway), while the Sorento sees figures of 9.9 L/100 km combined (11.1 city, 8.4 hwy). In practice, though, our observed figures were much higher in both vehicles: we returned the CX-9 showing usage of 12.1 L/100 km and the Sorento at 12.7 L/100 km, having done nothing special in either, that would explain why the readings should be higher than expected.
If we turn this purely into a beauty contest, though, there’s no question for us that the CX-9 is the looker of this pair. The Sorento gets some significant and welcome updates for 2021 that streamline the exterior, giving it a much tougher and more muscular appearance. But the CX-9’s elongated hood, classic lines, and understated finishes are timeless, and that’s even before it’s received the stunning updated design language found on the Mazda3 and CX-30, which we can’t wait to see applied here.
And we haven’t even touched on the interior yet, which is where the CX-9 truly shines: while the Kuro Edition stops short of the wood-grain inserts and chrome accents found in the Signature grade, the gloss black finishes, rich red leather, and uncluttered design would pass inspection in a much more expensive vehicle. Yarkony and I agreed that the CX-9 is the clear winner in this department, but we disagreed on how closely the Sorento competes: Yarkony found the latter’s patterned inserts and plentiful stitching interesting, while I saw it all as overly busy and, frankly, trying too hard.
Given their relative dimensions, it’s unsurprising to see the CX-9 top the Sorento in rearmost cargo volume: the Mazda fits 407 litres of cargo behind its third-row seats, while the Kia tops out at 357 litres. But from that point on, the Sorento is the one that comes out on top despite its shorter build: it fits a maximum of 1,274 litres behind its second row and 2,139 litres behind the first, while the CX-9 fits 1,082 and 2,017 litres respectively.
The story is similar as we examine each of the three rows. Both vehicles have two-seat third rows and the two test units here are equipped with second-row captain’s chairs, meaning they seat six in total. And neither has a third row we’d label as especially pleasant for frequent use. Both are tight, dark spaces, and while the Sorento does have very slightly better head room and similar leg room figures — 935 and 752 mm respectively, to the CX-9’s 899 and 754 mm — the Sorento loses points with us for how close the seat cushion is to the floor, which leaves Yarkony gnawing on his knees. That said, there are two positions for child seats in the Sorento and none in the CX-9, which could be a determining factor for some larger families who need more than two sets of clips. Otherwise, amenities in the back are similar in each, including a pair of USB-A ports in these higher grades and cupholders combined with small storage cubbies.
For the second row, the Sorento is the clear winner on space at 994 mm of head room and 1,060 mm of leg room, to the CX-9’s respective 978 and 1,001 mm. Both have heated outboard seats at this price point. The Sorento has a bit more in the way of tech accommodations with three USB-A ports, two on the front seatbacks and one behind the centre console, joined by a 115-volt plug and 12-volt outlet, while the CX-9 stops at two USB-As.
And finally, we end with the front row. When we’re talking about a Mazda, this is probably where we ought to start: the brand makes no bones about the fact that it designs its vehicles around the driver first and foremost. Ergonomics and usability are excellent, for the most part, with everything the driver needs within easy reach and/or view. The CX-9 Kuro Edition also comes with a partially digital instrument cluster and a head-up display. Where it lags is in the infotainment. The screen here is an older, lower-resolution 9-inch unit, and the system is slow to load on vehicle start-up. Our opinions differ on its functionality once it gets going: I enjoy the dial-based input and find this system less distracting than most, though it does take some time to get used to navigating through the menus. Yarkony is less of a fan.
That said, in my view, the new Kia system is even worse. The previous version of Kia’s system was one of the better ones on the market, and while it still does have its upsides — such as the ability to show Apple CarPlay or Android Auto alongside vehicle functions on the 10.25-inch screen — the new layout has some usability issues. For example, while the huge station number graphics look cool in a retro lightbulb motif, they take up an enormous amount of space on the screen, which renders the preset buttons at the bottom so small as to be nearly unusable while driving. Plus, there are four screens of presets but they can only be sorted through in one direction, so if the preset you need is one screen back then you need to stab at the tiny button three times. I also had more than one instance where I changed radio bands and the graphics didn’t clear correctly, leaving the text unreadable. Let’s hope owners can look forward to some software updates. The Sorento SX also comes with a head-up display, and its instrument cluster is a 12.3-inch fully digital screen.
While the CX-9 includes more safety features than the Sorento in its base trim, by the time we reach this price point the two have more or less leveled out with blind spot monitoring, forward collision avoidance, lane-keep systems, automatic high beams, and an overhead-view monitor all equipped, among other features. The CX-9 has a handful of features available that are not offered on the Sorento including traffic sign recognition, wireless Apple CarPlay, and adaptive front lighting, while the Sorento SX has Hyundai Motor Group’s blind view camera to display each side’s blind spot on the instrument cluster when each turn signal is activated, plus safe exit assist to prevents doors from being opened into cyclists and a sonar-based rear seat reminder system.
And now, the verdict. We’re going to choose the practical one, right? The one with more space, more tech, a newer design? Nope. Between these two vehicles, I’d be driving home in the CX-9. Why? Because it’s prettier inside and out, it drives well for its size, and I like how everything works, and as a vehicle owner who loves to spend time on the road, I’m fundamentally vain and selfish. In choosing the CX-9, I’m fully aware that it’s flawed and there are things about the Sorento that make it better. But were I spending my own money, I’d be forced to conclude that the heart wants what it wants.