— With top crash-test and collision-avoidance scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, newer versions of the 2017 Mazda CX-9 earned IIHS' highest award, Top Safety Pick Plus, when equipped with premium crash-avoidance and headlight systems.
Those systems — adaptive headlights, automatic high beams and Mazda's Smart Brake Support automatic braking — come on the CX-9's Grand Touring and Signature trim levels, so you have to get one of them to realize the award; the CX-9's lower two trims (Sport and Touring) lack those features. Mazda isn't alone in this regard: Under tougher requirements for 2017, IIHS' top award requires adequate performance in auto brake and headlight evaluations, not just physical crash tests. To get those scores in a given car often requires higher trim levels and optional equipment.
Another caveat: Mazda altered the way the CX-9's side-curtain airbags deploy to improve protection in front and side-impact crashes starting in December 2016. Examples built before that have an old airbag deployment pattern, which IIHS hasn't tested. The month of manufacture is usually on a sticker in the driver's doorjamb, so be sure to check it at the dealership.
Smart Brake Support is the higher of two optional systems on the CX-9 that constitute forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and it earned top scores in IIHS' automatic braking tests. The SUV's Touring trim has a lesser system with low-speed automatic braking called Smart City Brake Support (italics ours). When IIHS tested SCBS on the 2016 CX-9 — the first year of the current generation — it earned middling scores. But IIHS spokesman Russ Rader told us Mazda altered the system for 2017, and it has yet to be tested.
The CX-9's headlights, meanwhile, earned an acceptable score (out of good, acceptable, marginal or poor) in IIHS' newish headlight evaluation. That's still better than many other SUVs, but those scores require adaptive headlights and automatic high beams, both features only on the Grand Touring and Signature. Sport and Touring versions, by contrast, have marginal-rated lights.
Still, the CX-9's overall scores are a big improvement over the prior generation, which had problematic results in many tests. Among 2017 model-year competitors, the CX-9 is competitive. Its scores versus the Honda Pilot are identical; the Hyundai Santa Fe also earned a Top Safety Pick Plus designation but slightly edged out the CX-9 with a good score for headlights, and the Ford Explorer failed to get a Top Safety Pick nod at all, scoring marginal in the small overlap front test, basic for front crash prevention and poor for headlights.