The Mazda CX-9 is a midsize crossover utility vehicle. It combines the cargo capacity of an SUV with the fuel economy, ride quality, and handling of a car. It's a swift and stylish alternative to a mid-size SUV or a minivan.
The 2010 Mazda CX-9 gets some significant updates, including minor styling revisions: Exterior updates include the corporate five-pointed grille, side mirrors redesigned to be larger and more aerodynamic, taillights that feature a texture inspired by the Nagare concept car, an additional chrome trim piece above the license plate that echoes the chrome trim floating in the front grille, and two new wheel designs. The CX-9 was introduced as a 2007 model, so these changes represent mid-cycle updates to a proven product.
Inside, Mazda aimed for a more upscale look for the 2010 CX-9 by adding piano black insets on the steering wheel and radio display and chrome trim to the door handles, door trim, instrument panel and many controls. A double-lid center console design is also new, as is a 4.3-inch display screen on models without the larger navigation screen.
The Mazda CX-9 is a great people hauler. It can carry seven six-foot passengers, thanks to a third-row seat designed with adults in mind. It's easy for a 5-foot, 6-inch woman to climb into the CX-9 because there's no need to climb up into it. Yet the seating position is high enough that the driver looks over at, not up to, drivers in big SUVs. We found the cabin surroundings handsome.
The CX-9 is available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, providing a nice option for those who worry about snowy travel in hilly areas. Properly equipped, the CX-9 is rated to tow up to 3500 pounds.
What sets the CX-9 apart are its sporty looks and the road manners to back them up. The CX-9 responds quickly to driver input, feeling surprisingly enthusiastic about travel on a serpentine two-lane. Performance is provided by a 3.7-liter V6 engine delivering 273 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. This refined, 24-valve power plant was designed by Ford and is built in Ohio before being shipped to Japan where the CX-9 is assembled. It works with an impressive six-speed, Japanese-made automatic transmission that can be shifted manually if the driver is interested in some frisky motoring.
Electronic stability control, which helps the driver maintain control on slippery surfaces, comes standard on all models, along with roll stability control, and air curtains, which provide head protection in a side-impact crash. The CX-9 has received the U.S. government's highest possible ratings (five stars) in frontal and side impact crashes, and four-star ratings for rollover resistance. All Mazda vehicles come with a roadside assistance program, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, throughout the United States and Canada.
Mazda CX-9 Sport ($28,635); Touring ($30,555); Grand Touring ($32,645)
The Mazda CX-9 is presented as a substitute for a sport utility vehicle or a minivan, and Mazda has made sure it looks like neither.
The CX-9 is not a longer version of the five-seat CX-7, as one might speculate. The structures of the CX-7 and CX-9 are not related. And the mechanical underpinnings are different. They are entirely different vehicles.
The Mazda CX-9 shares its basic structure with the five-passenger Ford Edge, although the Mazda is longer, by 2 inches of wheelbase and 14 inches overall. In fact, the CX-9 is the largest Mazda ever. Its overall length of just over 200 inches makes it nearly a foot longer than the Toyota Highlander or Nissan Murano. What is perhaps most surprising about the CX-9 is that it doesn't look big from the outside.
The CX-9's new nose features a version of the five-point grille that is now used on most Mazdas. There is also an upper grille with a huge Mazda insignia. The face now has sharper, more dramatic lines that aren't really better looking. The windshield is sharply raked, leading to a roof that arches, crests and then slides back and down. One surprise is a pronounced bulge in the tailgate, like an old-fashioned bustle. It is a neat trick that adds a little extra storage capacity. Along the sides, the fenders feature prominent flares.
Safety researchers say the strength of the vehicle's body is also crucial in providing protection in a side-impact crash. Mazda took this into consideration, providing B-pillars that are extra wide and strong. (The B-pillar is the second roof pillar back from the windshield, which uses the A-pillar.)
For 2010, Mazda has made some minor interior changes to give it a more upscale appearance. Piano black insets have been added to the steering wheel, while chrome accents have been added to the instrument panel, A/C controls, automatic transmission lever knob, vent louver knobs, inner door handles, and door trim. Mazda also says the fabric and leather seating surfaces are now of a higher quality. The result is an attractive design that is nice but not entirely upscale. The CX-9's dashboard and door panels are, after all, mostly plastic with only a few soft-touch surfaces.
All the driving controls stay in the same positions, which is good because they are simple and easy to use. Storage includes a relatively small center bin, now with a split lid, a small cubby at the base of the center console, and relatively thin storage compartments on the front doors.
Buyers have a choice of black or beige upholstery, and the latter makes the interior seem brighter and roomier. The look is appealing, and nothing about it says boring family transportation.
The CX-9's step-in height makes entry easy for shorter drivers, yet the seating position is as high as in most SUVs, which provides a good look down the road. However, average to taller folks will have to duck out of the way of the front pillars when entering because the windshield is so sharply raked. There is plenty of head room, though.
The CX-9 has a surprising amount of room inside. Carrying seven people means two up front, three in the second row and two in the hind quarters. One tester, at 6-feet, 4-inches, could be comfortable in the driver's seat, then move back to the second row and still find enough legroom. That second row, incidentally, is split 60/40, and either side moves fore and aft almost five inches. That allows a nice amount of flexibility for carrying people and cargo of different sizes. Second-row legroom is good if the seat is set halfway through its range or farther back.
With the second row set halfway back, we climbed into the third row and found adequate legroom there, too. Head room is tight, though, as anyone over about 5-foot, 8-inches will rub their heads on the roof. To get to the third row one grabs a handle built into the top of the second-row seat and pulls. That releases the seat and slides it forward. The opening is smallish, in part because the wheel arch intrudes, but with a wiggle and a twist an adult can reach the third row without a severe loss of dignity.
Mazda says there is 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row upright. That's not much more than the trunk of a mid-size sedan, and to use it all would require piling luggage up to the roof, blocking the rearward view. Nevertheless 17.2 cubic feet gives the CX-9 a significant advantage over, say, the Toyota Highlander, which has 10.3 cubic feet behind its third row, and 2.5 inches less legroom in the third row. To carry more stuff and fewer people, the Mazda's third row (a 50/50 split) can be lowered by pulling a strap. Gravity does the work. With both sides down the result is 48.4 cubic feet of space. Getting the seat back up requires pulling the same strap, which isn't a problem because it's easy to reach.
The second row can also be folded down easily. However, it doesn't create a completely flat cargo area. There is a slight uphill slant. With both rear rows folded, though, there is a cavernous 100.7 cubic feet of space. You wouldn't know it looking at the CX-9 from the outside.
One thing the very tall person (6-foot 4-inch, in my case) will quickly learn is that the tailgate when open does not have a 6-foot 4-inch clearance. There is nothing like a good rap on the forehead to brighten the day.
Mazda's mantra is to provide sporty vehicles with “zoom-zoom,” as Mazda likes to say. That's easy to do with a two-seater like the MX-5 roadster, but it becomes a challenge with a seven-passenger vehicle that weighs over 4,500 pounds in its all-wheel-drive version. Still, it is a challenge that Mazda engineers have met quite nicely, based on the models we drove, with both front- and all-wheel drive.
The CX-9 comes with a 3.7-liter V6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. It's rated at 273 horsepower. The torque curve surges from 3000 to 6000 rpm and peaks with 270 pound-feet at 4500 rpm. Best of all, the CX-9 runs on 87-octane regular unleaded gas, despite a sporty compression ratio of 10.3:1. The 60-degree V6 is state-of-the-art throughout, featuring a die-cast aluminum block with cast-in iron cylinder liners and aluminum heads for minimal weight. The valvetrain includes chain-driven dual overhead camshafts operating four valves-per-cylinder through easily adjusted bucket tappets. Intake valve timing is variable. EPA fuel economy ratings are 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway with FWD, and 15/22 with AWD. Those numbers are much better than any truck-type SUV but not as good as some competitive crossovers.
We found the V6 to be well-matched to the vehicle. It provides willing power from a stop, with just the right responsiveness. It doesn't start with a jolt, but seems to react readily to throttle inputs. We'd call that linear response. Our only complaint has to do with the transmission, which is usually smooth and responsive. When attempting to pass on the highway, however, we thought the transmission was a bit too slow to downshift to provide the best power delivery.
When it comes to handling, the CX-9 is surprisingly fun to drive for a large vehicle with so much weight up front. That is no small accomplishment. It feels remarkably like a car, turning into corners with ease and staying impressively flat through turns.
The price for the responsive handling, however, is a relatively stiff ride on anything but a smooth surface. The passengers will just have to suffer quietly while Mom or Dad has fun at the wheel. Meanwhile, the CX-9 feels strong and tight on rough roads, refusing to quiver even when striking potholes.
For the driver who wants to be a bit more involved, on mountain roads, for example, the transmission shift lever can be moved to one side, which then allows the driver to manually shift gears by tapping the lever. It is a system that works well with the transmission-control computer doing a good job of blending the upshifts and downshifts to avoid any jerks or stumbles.
Fussy drivers might notice a difference in steering feel between the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models. The steering in our AWD test vehicle had a feel that could be called rubbery, weakening the connection between the vehicle and the driver. The steering on our FWD model was much better. The steering is tuned a bit differently on FWD and AWD chassis.
One downside of the front-drive model is torque steer: Push hard on the gas pedal, and the steering wheel tugs to one side as the front wheels scramble for traction. This requires the driver to make minor steering corrections to keep the CX-9 going straight. (This is with the gas pedal slammed down, so it may not even be noticeable in most situations.) Torque steer is eliminated in the all-wheel-drive models because some of the power is being sent to the rear, reducing the demand on the front tires.
The AWD model sends most of the power to the front wheels in normal driving. But under hard acceleration, or if the front wheels begin to slip, as much as 50 percent of that power can be sent to the rear wheels. It is an automatic system and does not require the driver to do anything.
The CX-9 has anti-lock brakes to help in an emergency. We found the brake pedal felt slightly soft but overall feedback was reassuring, and it was easy to trim a little or a lot of speed.
The Blind Spot Monitoring system monitors both rear corners of the CX-9 while underway and notifies the driver of vehicles in the detection areas by illuminating the BSM warning light located in the appropriate side mirror. Additionally, the light flashes and a beeper sounds if the driver signals a turn into the path of a detected vehicle. We found it works well, but it can sometimes beep when you know you've passed someone and you want to take their lane.
The Mazda CX-9 is an impressively well-rounded package offering practicality and a healthy list of standard safety equipment in an attractive package. It's enjoyable to drive, offering sporting road manners, though with a ride that some might consider stiff. The CX-9 and vehicles like it are much better choices for families than the truck-type larger SUVs that have become less popular in recent years.
Christopher Jensen filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from his home base in New England. Correspondent Kirk Bell contributed from Chicago.