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The 2020 Mazda CX-9 on a camping trip at Bon Echo Provincial Park in Cloyne, Ont.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Three-row vehicles have been around for decades. Some station wagons in the 1950s had third rows that faced backward, while the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser of the 1960s and 70s offered both forward- and rear-facing third rows. The 1960s Mercedes-Benz S600 Pullman even offered separate doors, one on each side, for each of its three rows. All those cars were massively long and heavy.

These days, size and weight are much more of an issue given traffic congestion and fuel consumption concerns, but the third row is more popular than ever. It doesn’t just appeal because it can carry more people; for parents, the extra row separates feuding kids, so the drive to school or wherever can be more peaceful. Even carrying just three children becomes far less of a chore with that third row.

Almost all large SUVs now come standard with a third row of seats, while almost all compact and mid-size SUVs still have just two rows. It used to be that a third row was an option for many mid-size SUVs, but now only the Kia Sorento offers the choice of two or three rows in Canada.

The third row always folds flat, so if it’s not in use, you might not even realize it exists. However, it still takes up storage space, cutting into the available cargo capacity in the back and raising the height of the rear floor.

Elvis rode in the footwell behind the driver's seat.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

We discovered this recently while camping at Bon Echo Provincial Park, about 90 minutes north of Kingston, Ont., with Mazda’s largest vehicle, the CX-9. My wife and I folded the rearmost seats flat to load our gear, but there wasn’t enough space left over back there for our dog, a 35-kilogram spaniel named Elvis. It was too high for him to jump up and there wasn’t any room to spare anyway, once it was stuffed with sleeping bags and cooking stuff and the tent.

We ended up leaving the second row of seats upright so Elvis could ride in the footwell behind the driver. This was boring for him because he couldn’t look out any windows, but at least he was safe and secure. We could have folded the second row flat and still left space for him in the footwell, but the open seat gave him an enclosed place to rest his head. Down there on the floor, he didn’t need to be restrained to be protected.

The CX-9's front-row and second-row captain's chairs are quite comfortable.Courtesy of manufacturer

The front seats were very comfortable – a lot more comfortable than our camping chairs. It rained on both afternoons of our visit, and since our tent leaked and most of the indoor facilities at the park were closed because of COVID-19 restrictions, we took to sitting in the Mazda to wait out the storms. Elvis sat them out, too, in his footwell behind the driver.

The second-row seats were also comfortable. The tester vehicle was fitted with two captain’s chairs for the second row, well-padded and large. These are a $300 option on the two mid-range trims but come standard on the top-end Signature trim, along with a storage-console divider between them. They reduce the total seating from seven to six, but Mazda recognizes that for most people, it’s the extra row that’s most important, not the extra seat. If you really need to carry seven or eight people, get a minivan.

Of course, if you need more space, you need a larger vehicle. The point is that the extra length of the CX-9 and similar three-row vehicles does not mean a correspondingly larger capacity for cargo. Put all the seats down on the CX-9, and you get 2,017 litres of space; do the same on the mid-size CX-5, and you get 1,687 litres. The significantly longer (by 51.5 centimetres) and wider (by 12.7 cm) CX-9 is more spacious, but not by as much as you might think because it’s carrying around the equivalent of a small sofa back there.

The third-row bench seat offers extra space if you want to give the kids some more room.Courtesy of manufacturer

When all the seats are in place and in use, there’s just over 400 litres of cargo capacity for everyone’s luggage in the very back. That’s about the size of a sedan trunk, and it means piling the cargo on the roof. School books in bags on your kids' laps are fine or on empty seats beside them, but if you fill the vehicle with people, there won’t be much room left for baggage.

The third row can drop down to expand the cargo space.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The CX-9 also weighs a lot more than the CX-5, by more than 400 kilograms. This means at least an extra 1.5 litres per 100 kilometres in fuel consumption. We saw a real-world average consumption of 11.7 L/100 km, and that wasn’t from speeding – that was from setting the active cruise control and following the snake of vehicles ahead to Ontario’s cottage and camping country.

The mid-size and full-size Mazdas are fairly comparable in available features, especially in their top trims. The loaded CX-9, however, costs $7,500 more than the loaded CX-5 (and $5,900 more than the 2021 CX-5 100th-anniversary edition). Is it really worth it for carrying one or two more people and having an extra 330 litres of cargo room?

To put it more bluntly: Just how much do your kids hate each other that they need to sit in separate rows?

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

  • Base price/as tested: $39,900/$51,950 plus taxes and $1,950 freight and delivery
  • Engine: 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder Skyactiv
  • Transmission/drive: six-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km, claimed): 11.6 city, 9.1 highway
  • Alternatives: Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Honda Pilot, Buick Enclave, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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