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A black 2021 Kia Telluride is parked with a sunset in the background after winning the 2021 Kia Telluride vs Mazda CX-9 comparison.

The Third Row Warriors: Comparing the 2021 Kia Telluride to the Mazda CX-9

As the saying goes, “the more, the merrier,” and in the case of three-row SUVs, that’s usually the case. While three-row SUVs were previously a market oddity, saved only for really big vehicles, American drivers are clamoring for, well, more. More space, more driving enjoyment, and more features make being on the road for any period of time with up to seven passengers more tolerable. Enter the 2021 Kia Telluride vs the 2021 Mazda CX-9.

The 2021 Kia Telluride and the 2021 Mazda CX-9 eagerly step up to the plate for your consideration as the family, team, or squad vehicle of your dreams. Both have a distinguished heritage, coming from manufacturers that have established themselves as providing high quality, reliable cars and SUVs that are fun to drive and have all the right stuff to tote a crowd around on a daily basis. These are not the minivans of the 1980s- they look cool, they drive smoothly, and they’re filled with modern technology.

Looking at the 2021 Kia Telluride and the 2021 Mazda CX-9 side-by-side, there are a lot of things to like about each vehicle. Perhaps you’re having a hard time choosing. Let’s inspect a little further to see which might be the perfect fit for your family, team, squad… or just your dreams!

A grey 2021 Mazda CX-9 is driving on a wooded road with mist in the background.

A Journey Through Space

When it comes to most vehicles, drivers tend to start the shopping process with “how powerful is it?” “What’s the gas mileage like?” When it comes to SUVs for the whole family, a lot of drivers redirect that thought process to “How much stuff does it hold?” or “Do the seats fold?”
In the case of the 2021 Kia Telluride and the Mazda CX-9, the answer to those questions is “a lot” and “of course!”

The 2021 Kia Telluride has an available cargo space of 21 cubic feet with all seats occupied, compared to the Mazda CX-9’s 14.4 cubic feet. While some of the Telluride’s trims offer second-row captain’s chairs for seven-passenger seating, and others provide two rows of bench seating for a total of eight passengers (more on that shortly), both types of seating fold to accommodate more and more cargo. With the third row folded, that increases to 46 cubic feet, and with the second row seating folded, you have 87 cubic feet of space to play with.

On the Mazda side, the third row features a 50/50 split. The second row folds in a 60/40 configuration. With the first two rows occupied, you’ll be able to slide in 38.2 cubic feet of luggage, equipment, and groceries. With all but the front seats folded, that increases to 71.2 cubic feet.

Of course, it’s even more important that those three rows of passengers are comfortably contained. The Kia Telluride touts space for 7-8 passengers, depending on the trim and seating configuration chosen, while the Mazda CX-9 provides space for 6-7. Each vehicle offers opportunities to change out a second-row bench seat for two captain’s chairs, which may be a huge benefit for family members in the “They won’t stop touching me!” age group.

Of the two, the Telluride provides the most room for passengers to stretch out, with an overall passenger volume of 157.1 cubic feet, which roughly translates into a comfortable adult in each seat. The CX-9, on the other hand, offers 135.8 cubic feet of passenger room, despite being a slightly longer vehicle. In comfort terms, that means it’s generally wise to put the kids in the third row and let the adults stretch out in the first two rows.

Both the 2021 Telluride and the CX-9 offer limited towing capability, which can be a boon on weekend adventures. The Kia can pull up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped, while the CX-9 has the capacity for 3,500 pounds. So, you can bring along some equipment when you’re heading out on a weekend family adventure.

Under the Hood

While neither the 2021 Telluride nor the CX-9 are equipped with an extraordinarily powerful engine, they each have the power to bring a smile to any driver’s face. Each has been engineered for smooth acceleration and braking and the right amount of “oomph” to make a carpool fun.

The Kia Telluride features a 3.8L Lambda DOHC 24 valve V6 engine, which provides 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. It is offered standard as front-wheel drive, but Active On-Demand all-wheel drive with AWD Lock and Snow Mode is an available option for all trims. The front-wheel drive versions of the Telluride have a fuel economy of 20 miles per gallon city and 26 miles per gallon highway, while the all-wheel drive versions drop those figures just slightly to 19 miles per gallon city and 24 miles per gallon highway.

The 2021 CX-9 takes advantage of Mazda’s Skyactiv G technology, which harnesses a higher compression ratio to create greater fuel economy. The result is a 2.5L Turbo DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder engine that provides 227 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. The CX-9 also comes standard with front-wheel drive and offers Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD with Off-Road Traction Assist as an available option. Drivers of the front-wheel drive models can enjoy 22 miles per gallon city and 28 miles per gallon highway, though all-wheel drive again drops that number to 20 miles per gallon city and 26 miles per gallon highway.

The grey interior and third row seating is shown from the side on a 2021 Kia Telluride.

Interior Highlights and Features

Choosing a vehicle for your family doesn’t just rest on space and power alone. You want to be able to enjoy your interior, with all the technological functions that help keep you on the road safely, regardless of the trip length or destination. Plus, a little enhanced entertainment capability certainly doesn’t hurt.

The 2021 Kia Telluride comes in four trims: the LX, S, EX, and SX. All trims are equipped with a full suite of safety and driver assistance technology, including forward collision avoidance with forward collision warning, and pedestrian detection with automatic emergency braking. Blind spot detection, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, smart cruise control, rear parking assistance, and rear cross traffic alert add to the safety suite. Finally, you can have a rear occupant alert and safe exit assist that helps those in the rear seats leave the vehicle safely- without getting left behind.

The base LX trim includes all the necessities, such as cozy synthetic leather-trimmed seats, rear passenger air conditioning, an 8-inch touch screen display with rear camera view, and one-touch slide and fold second-row seats. The X adds a power sunroof and roof rails, along with power adjustable heated front seats and 6 total USB ports. The EX trim has leather seating in all rows, with heated and ventilated power-adjustable front seats, and the added convenience of a power liftgate, and power-folding mirrors. The top SX trim features dual sunroofs for the first and second row, an upgraded 10.25-inch touchscreen display with navigation, a premium Harman Kardon 10 speaker audio system, and sunshades for the second-row passengers.

Mazda has been walking on the luxury side with its features in recent years, and the 2021 CX-9 is no exception. Offered in Sport, Touring, Carbon, Grand Touring, and Signature trims, each version comes well-equipped. Standard safety features across the board include a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and lane keep assist with lane departure warning. Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support with Pedestrian Detection and Collision Warning technology and radar cruise control with stop and go support are also included.

The Sport trim features three-zone automatic climate control with a pollen filter, along with a 6-way power adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, hi-def radio, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and two USB ports. The Touring trim adds two more USB ports to the rear seat, along with leather upholstery and a programmable power liftgate. The Carbon trim includes LED accent lighting throughout the cabin, automatic dimming rearview mirror, moonroof, and window shades for the second row, along with several exterior appearance details. The Grand Touring features easy tilt-and-slide rear seats, an 8-way adjustable driver’s seat, and a 360-degree view monitor to provide details about all of your surroundings. Meanwhile, the Signature features mostly luxury updates, such as aluminum interior, quilted and piped leather seating, and Rosewood inlays.

The Third Row Champion

Both the Kia Telluride and the Mazda CX-9 have been on the road for several years, and it appears that the manufacturers are looking to gear up both vehicles into serious road contenders. With plenty of room for people and things, a little extra zip for the driver, and plenty of safety features for the whole family or crew, it’s clear that the three-row SUV is here to stay. Thankfully, updates in technology mean the old family minivan is a thing of the past, allowing the sleek, convenient SUVs of today to take the lead on the roads.

However, if we had to pick our favorite of the two, we would have to go with the 2021 Kia Telluride. Its stronger engine, comfortable interior, and larger available cargo volume make it the winner of this battle. If you need an SUV that looks cool but will still fit everyone and everything you need, choose the three-row 2021 Kia Telluride.