What separates a mainstream car from a luxury one? It’s easy to find vehicles that blur the line.
For example, a premium brand might sell its own version of a less-expensive vehicle from a mainstream one. Or a mainstream brand might offer a stylish, classy and feature-laden model that essentially matches the luxury competition on substance, if not on reputation.
A pair of seven-passenger crossovers represents these respective approaches. Respectively, they’re the Infiniti QX60, recently updated for 2017, and the Mazda CX-9, which was last redesigned for 2016.
Just looking at it from the outside, and the Infiniti looks the part of luxury. Graceful, elegant curves have aged well since the QX60 first appeared as a 2013 model, then called the JX35. You’d never recognize the bones of the ordinary Nissan Pathfinder underneath. That’s good, given that the QX60’s base price of $44,095 represents a $13,000 price premium over the Nissan. (In fairness, Infiniti makes back an estimated $5,000 of that cost thanks to extra standard features, according to pricing site truedelta.com.)
Even inside, the Infiniti shares few parts with its Infiniti counterpart. Those that it does share – such as a cleverly designed system for accessing the third-row seat – are generally welcome. There’s also respectable seating comfort in all three rows by crossover standards, and decent cargo space.
But although the QX60 is decently finished and decked out with woodgrain trim, its interior shows its age. There are too many buttons scattered around, making it hard to identify one quickly. And it doesn’t reflect the minimalist design aesthetic that increasingly dominates the luxury segment.
The driving experience isn’t particularly luxurious either. The QX60 has a decently comfortable ride and respectable handling agility for such a big vehicle, but neither is outstanding. The suspension sometimes clomps awkwardly over a bump, and the steering feels unnaturally heavy at low speeds. A smooth, powerful V6 engine does help distinguish the Infiniti from luxury rivals that have switched to four-cylinder engines, and it’s rated for an excellent 22 mpg in mixed driving with the tested all-wheel-drive.
In many ways, the 2017 Mazda CX-9 looks and feels the part of luxury more than the Infiniti – despite a base price of $32,460 and just $4,500 worth of missing features according to TrueDelta. Though Mazda is a mainstream brand rooted in sporty but affordable vehicles, the company has been making a recent effort to improve its style, technology and interior quality as well.
The CX-9, the company’s largest and most expensive vehicle, boasts a sporty yet elegant exterior that conceals the vehicle’s seven-passenger bulk. The interior, meanwhile, demonstrates the Audi-esque minimalism that the aging Infiniti lacks: a low, slim dashboard topped with a free-floating screen, with some controls shifted to the console between the front seats. Granted, the Mazda doesn’t include the cutting-edge super-high-definition displays of today’s Audis, but neither does the Infiniti – and even the QX60 is a bargain compared to the competing Audi Q7.
Mazda managed to give the CX-9 an intimate, almost cozy feel in the front seats. It doesn’t feel cramped, but it doesn’t feel huge either. Some buyers will like the extra airiness of a Honda Pilot, but the Mazda feels less intimidating. There’s also acceptable passenger and cargo space, similar to the Infiniti though a bit less than the Honda.
On the road, the CX-9’s polished ride and handling aren’t quite sporty – it’s a little big for that – but it demonstrates an impressive level of composure for this class of crossover. Its turbocharged four-cylinder engine has plenty of power, but lacks the polished smoothness of the Infiniti’s V6. EPA ratings give the Mazda an advantage of just 1 mpg in mixed driving, though in recent weeklong tests, a CX-9 averaged 25.7 mpg compared to 23.0 in a QX60.
For all the Mazda’s style and driving dynamics, and despite its lengthy list of luxury features, the Infiniti has extra goodies that the CX-9 doesn’t offer. The Infiniti brand also comes with a network of luxury dealerships, which promises an extra perk during the buying and ownership experiences.
The QX60’s closest competitor is the Acura MDX, the luxury version of the Honda Pilot. Both lack the polish and all-out amazing luxury experience of the outstanding Audi Q7, but they both cost less and have roomier third-row seats. They also undercut the classy yet functional Volvo XC90.
Meanwhile, the CX-9 faces off against competitors like the Pilot that are slightly roomier and quieter – yet that feel bulkier and that aren’t as stylish.
Your priorities can help guide you to one of the many impressive vehicles in this class. Just don’t necessarily count out the CX-9 when shopping for a premium-grade family-friendly crossover, or even a functional mainstream one.