Payne: Who needs luxury? GMC Acadia vs. Mazda CX-9

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The 2018 Mazda CX-9 seats seven for family trips to the soccer field. And with up to 250 horsepower and optional AWD, it can hustle through the winter months also.

I’m as weak as the next guy. Set me up with a shapely Audi A7 sedan. Or a cheetah-quick Porsche Boxster GTS. Or an explosively powerful, 707-horse Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. Ooooooh, I would rob a bank to get them in my garage.

But try to sell me a  three-row family luxury SUV and I’m more rational. Five-door utility and fundamental physics have made some mainstream vehicles as desirable as their premium peers.

Take the upwardly mobile $43,445 Mazda CX-9 and $43,145 GMC Acadia sport utilities I’ve been hanging out in.

These two mainstream brands have translated their (respectively) sports car and truck DNA into family haulers that are easy on the eyes, tech savvy and fun to drive. In so doing they have largely closed the gap with luxury brands costing $15,000 more (the price of a nice, used Mazda 3 for your 16-year-old).

I revisited the GMC and Mazda two years after they first wowed me in 2016. This time around, I found the all-wheel drive family haulers were a blast over the country roads of Michigan and Virginia. Not only did these 4,000-pounders carry my family in style, but they were fun to drive with taut chassis and peppy turbo-4s. You know, the stuff for which luxury vehicles are known.

I rented the Acadia out of Dulles Airport which returned me to the roads where I tested the GMC in May 2016. If you think GMC is just about trucks, this ute will surprise you.

Based on the same bones that support the nimble Cadillac XT5, the Acadia went on a 700-pound diet from the previous generation. It shows. In 2016, I chased an Audi A7 cheetah through Virginia’s twisted hills, the Acadia showing remarkable poise for a big rhino.

This time, country roads took me across the West Virginia line near the famed Summit Point racetrack. The Acadia possesses an excellent all-wheel drive system that includes a mode selector with 4x2, 4x4, Snow and Sport. Yes, Sport. Dial in, hold on to the door handles, dearies, and let’s go Audi hunting.

Mated to GM’s excellent 9-speed transmission, the 193-horse 4-cylinder is up to the task. The Mazda, even more so.

True to its ZOOM ZOOM lineage, inside every Mazda ute beats the heart of a Miata. The CX-9 takes ute athleticism to the next level.

Not that GMC should hang its head. Car and Driver measured identical G-load numbers for both SUVs in its skid-pad test. That's a remarkable stat for a ute with pickups as parents.

The Mazda simply manages its heft with more aplomb than the GMC. It also wins on style points. Indeed, CX-9 shames most premium vehicles with its fastback styling and runway-model fascia.

The new GMC Acadia saved a whopping 700 pounds from the previous generation, which makes it a joy to drive — not just to school and back, but on rolling country roads.

Though less butch than previous generations, the GMC could still use another appointment with the plastic surgeon. Look at younger brother GMC Terrain, one of the lookers of the compact class. A Terrain-like wardrobe for Acadia would match the SUV’s upscale, ballroom dance moves.

Inside, the GMC steps up its game.

While the Mazda struts its handsome European wardrobe of rotary dial, tablet screen and expansive dash, design alone won’t get you very far if you get lost in the West Virginia Outback.

Mazda continues to be tardy to the smartphone connectivity dance though it promises the popular feature ... um, soon. Just how useful this feature can be was demonstrated by my Acadia.

Like its GM brethren, Acadia was one of the first in segment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. They both work superbly in the GMC’s head unit. My experience is that only some luxury models — BMWs, Mercedes S-class, Acura RDX — have navigation systems that can compete with smartphones. And who wants to pay big bucks for the privilege?

My Acadia came with no nav. No problem.

Plug in your iPhone, and bingo! — the GMC’s infotainment system’s Google Maps routed us across the wildest of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. This is every smartphone-user’s dream — no need to upgrade to an (inferior) auto nav feature. No need to learn a new system. Just enter the destination on your phone before leaving the hotel/home/work. Plug. And play.

The GMC and the Mazda won’t win any awards for interior space, but these are big three-row utes. Space comes standard.

My six-foot-plus sons fit comfortably in the rear of the Acadia where they read books, played computer games, even rested thanks to the GMC’s thoughtful recliner (Mazda has a similar feature). The third row is accessible in both the Acadia and Mazda with easy, one step pull-and-slide second row seats (though the Acadia, for budget reasons, only accesses the third row on the curb side). I was cramped, but I’m a 6-foot-5 circus freak, for goodness sake.

Where the CX-9 shows off details like auto high beams and a head-up display, the Acadia responds with thoughtful items like a rear passenger safety check: Exit the car and the GMC reminds you if you have left something like your computer in the back seat. Or, heaven forbid, a child. Clever.

But then GMC takes clever too far. Determined to gain EPA’s favor, the GMC refuses owners the option of turning off its Stop/Start engine feature. Stop/Start is this decade’s equivalent of the 1970s’ automatic seat belt. Annoying.

This is the second Acadia rental I’ve had with the feature and it grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. It drives my wife crazy. The constant stall at stoplights. BRRRUMP. The constant shudder back to life. BRRUPUP. Sure, GM’s Stop-Start is smoother than most, but it’s not smooth enough.

Mercifully, CX-9 does not come equipped with Stop/Start. The minor fuel savings are not worth the expense. Like GMC’s decision to only equip the curbside second row with third-row access.

On such small details can buyers' purchase decisions hang. Maybe the GMC’s smartphone capability seals the deal for Acadia. Maybe the Mazda’s sexy styling flips your switch.

Either way, the details pale in comparison to that $15,000 it’ll cost you to buy a comparable luxury ute. Maybe that premium badge buys status — but as Acadia and CX-9 prove, it doesn’t buy you a better chariot.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

The 2018 GMC Acadia's interior offers good ergonomics and room for stashing small items. Most useful is smartphone app connectivity, which allowed auto critic Henry Payne navigate rural West Virginia despite not having an in-car nav system.

2018 GMC Acadia

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $29,995 base ($43,145 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 193 horsepower, 188 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing: 1,000 pounds

Weight: 3,956 pounds (FWD)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 21 city/25 highway/23 combined 

Report card

Highs: Lightweight, nimble chassis; Smartphone app connectivity

Lows: Can't turn off Stop-Start; anemic 1,000-pound towing

Overall: 3 stars

The 2018 Mazda CX-9 sports beautiful, Euro-style interior design — though it lags the GMC Acadia in console storage room and smartphone app connectivity.

2018 Mazda CX-9

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-and rear-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $33,125 base ($43,445 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power: 227-250 horsepower (87 or 93 octane gas), 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 7.5 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 3,500-pound towing

Weight: 4,361 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 20 city/26 highway/23 combined 

Report card

Highs: One good-lookin' ute; athletic ride

Lows: No full moon roof; smartphone app connectivity, please

Overall: 3 stars