How big is the biggest Mazda? With an overall length of almost 200 inches it is at least a foot longer than the Nissan Murano and Toyota Highlander or even the new five-passenger Ford Edge, with which it shares some components.
With a standard three rows of seats it can carry seven adults (think 6-footers) thanks to a third row designed with adults in mind.
The surroundings are handsome and while it was easy for a 5-foot 6-inch woman to climb into the CX-9, the seating position is high enough that one looks over at, not up to, drivers of SUVs.
The CX-9 is available in either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, providing a nice option for those who worry about snowy travel in hilly areas.
In addition, Mazda gets credit equipping even the least-expensive model with important safety equipment. This includes electronic stability control which help the driver maintain control, and air curtains, which provide head protection in a side-impact crash.
Power comes from a refined, new 263-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 designed by Ford and 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.
The CX-9 responds quickly to the driver's requests, feeling surprisingly enthusiastic about travel on a serpentine two-lane. But the price is a stiff ride on a rough surface.
So, if the CX-9 isn't an SUV and it is not a minivan, what is it? It is another example of what industry insiders often refer to as a crossover vehicle. This is one of the fastest growing segments in the industry because crossovers can provide better fuel economy, ride and handling than truck-based SUVs.
Mazda officials also stress that the CX-9 is not just a longer version of the CX-7, the two-row, five passenger crossover introduced last year. The mechanical underpinnings are different and the structures of the two are not related.
Who might like the CX-9? Anybody who needs the people-carrying capacity of a mid-size SUV or a minivan but wants something with a sporty look and the road manners to back it up. That description fits a lot of us.
Mazda CX-9 Sport ($29,035); Touring ($31,135); Grand Touring ($32,675)
Auto industry executives have a tendency toward exaggeration when talking about new vehicles but chief designer Hideki Suzuki has a point when he says the CX-7 has a distinctive presence.
The CX-9's nose features a huge Mazda insignia with prominent and flared fenders that start a line that heads back and slightly upward just below the windows. The roof arches, crests and then slides back and down. One surprise is that it continues to give a pronounced bulge to the tailgate, looking like an old-fashioned bustle. It is a neat trick that adds a little extra storage capacity.
What is perhaps most surprising about the CX-9 is that it doesn't look big from the outside, although it is about a foot longer than the Nissan Murano and Toyota Highlander, which are not small vehicles.
Safety researchers say the strength of the vehicle's body is also crucial in providing protection in a side-impact crash. Mazda officials say that was taken to consideration including making the B-pillar extra wide and strong. (The B-pillar is the second roof pillar back from the windshield, which uses the A-pillar.)
Carrying seven people means two up front, three in the second row and two in the hind quarters.
At 6 feet 4 inches, I could be comfortable in the driver's seat, then move back to the second row and find enough legroom. That second row, incidentally, is a 60/40 split and either side moves fore and aft almost five inches. That allows a nice amount of flexibility in carrying people and cargo of different sizes. When I was testing it I put the seat in a mid-position.
Then, without moving the position of the second row I climbed into the third row and found adequate head and legroom.
To get to the third row one grabs a handle built into the top of the second-row seats 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.
Buyers have a choice of black or beige interiors and the latter made the interior seem brighter and roomier. The look is upscale and nothing about it says boring, family transportation.
Up front all the basic driving controls are simple and easy to use. There is a small storage bin between the front seats and relatively thin storage compartments on the front doors.
Mazda says there is 17 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row upright. That is about as much as the trunk of a mid-size sedan, although it would require piling luggage up to the roof, blocking the rearward view. Nevertheless 17 cubic feet gives the CX-9 a significant advantage over competitors such as the Toyota Highlander, which has 10.5 cubic feet behind its third row and about two inches less legroom. To carry more stuff and fewer people the 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 cubic feet of space. Getting the seat back up requires pulling the same strap, something my 5-foot 6-inch wife found easy to do.
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.
One thing the freakishly tall (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.
It is a challenge that the Mazda engineers met quite nicely, based on the Touring models I drove, one with front-wheel drive and the other with all-wheel drive.
One thing fussy drivers might notice is a difference in the steering between the front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive model had a feel that could be called rubbery, that weakened the connection between the vehicle and the driver. The steering on the front-wheel-drive model was much better. The CX-9's chief engineer acknowledged the steering is tuned a bit different on the all-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive versions.
The CX-9 is surprisingly fun to drive for a large vehicle with so much weight up front. That is no small accomplishment for such a large, practical package. 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 felt strong and tight on rough roads, refusing to quiver even when striking potholes.
Moving that kind of weight along is the job of the 263-hp 3.5-liter V6, which works with a six-speed automatic. Having six gears and a relatively large V6 engine results in decent acceleration in almost any driving situation.
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 computer doing a good job of blending the upshifts and downshifts to avoid any jerks or stumbles.
One nice feature is that Mazda says the 3.5 liter V6 needs only 87-octane fuel.
The all-wheel-drive model sends most of the power to the front wheels in normal driving. But Mazda says 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.
One annoying downside for the front-wheel-drive model is what is called torque steer. Triggered by pushing hard on the gas pedal this is a tugging at the front wheels as they scramble for traction. This requires the driver to make minor steering corrections to keep the CX-9 going straight. Torque steer not a danger but it is a disappointment. Torque steer is not a problem in the all-wheel drive model because some of the power is being sent to the rear tires reducing the demand on the front tires.
The CX-9 has anti-lock brakes to help in an emergency. The brake pedal felt slightly soft initially but overall was reassuring and it was easy to trim a little or a lot of speed.
It is tough for one vehicle to be everything to everybody. It just isn't going to happen. But the Mazda CX-9 is an impressively well-rounded package offering practicality, good standard safety equipment, style and sporting road manners, at the price of a stiff ride.
Christopher Jensen filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from his home base in New England.