The CX-9 can carry seven six-foot people, thanks to a third-row seat 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 the driver looks straight over at drivers of traditional SUVs. 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, it can tow 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 the driver's requests, feeling surprisingly enthusiastic about travel on a serpentine two-lane. Its sporty looks are supported by its sprightly driving dynamics.
Introduced as a 2007 model, performance has been improved for 2008, courtesy of an enlarged V6 engine delivering 10 more horsepower and 21 additional pound-feet of torque. It now boasts 273 hp and 270 pound-feet of torque. This refined, 24-valve V6 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, which can be shifted manually if the driver is interested in some frisky motoring.
Safety is enhanced by electronic stability control, which helps the driver maintain control on slippery surfaces, roll stability control, and curtain airbags, which provide head protection in a side-impact crash. The CX-9 has received five-star ratings from the U.S. government tests in frontal and side impact crashes, and four-star ratings for rollover resistance.
New for 2008, is an optional Blind Spot Monitoring system, which alerts the driver to other vehicles lurking in those hard-to-see, over-the-shoulder locations. All 2008 Mazdas come with a roadside assistance program, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, throughout the United States and Canada.
The one down-side of the CX-9 is a stiff ride on rough surfaces, the price of its sporty handling. Still, if you don't need the heavy-duty ruggedness a truck-based SUV, and if a minivan just doesn't suit your style, then maybe the CX-9 is for you.
Mazda CX-9 Sport ($29,400); Touring ($31,615); Grand Touring ($33,355)
The CX-9 is not a longer version of the five-seat CX-7. The mechanical underpinnings are different and the structures of the two vehicles are not related. The CX-9 shares some components 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 almost 200 inches makes it nearly a foot longer than the 2008 Toyota Highlander or the 2009 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 nose features a huge Mazda insignia and prominent, flared fenders that lead a character line heading back and slightly upward just below the windows. The roof 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.
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.)
Carrying seven people means two up front, three in the second row and two in the third row.
We found a 6-foot, 4-inch driver could be comfortable in the driver's seat, then move back to the second row and still find enough legroom; that's with the adjustable second-row seat in the middle position. The second row is split 60/40, 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.
Then, without moving the second-row seat, we climbed into the third row and found adequate head and legroom for that same 6-foot, 4-inch driver there, too. To get to the third row, grab the handle built into the top of the second-row seat and pull. 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 upholstery, 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.
A small storage bin between the front seats and relatively thin storage compartments on the front doors provide some cubby storage.
Mazda says there is 17.2 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row upright. There'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 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 we 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.
The tailgate when open does not have a 6-foot, 4-inch clearance, we discovered, and there is nothing like a good rap on the forehead to brighten the day.
Last year's 263-hp, 3.5-liter V6 worked well with the standard six-speed automatic transmission to deliver decent acceleration in almost any driving situation. For 2008, Mazda has increased the cylinder bore to 3.7 liters, for 273 horsepower, while maintaining the same short, 86.7-mm stroke for free-revving response. The torque curve surges from 3000 to 6000 rpm and peaks with 270 pound-feet at 4500. Best of all, the CX-9 still runs on 87-octane regular unleaded, despite a healthy 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 valve train includes chain-driven dual overhead camshafts operating four valves-per-cylinder through easily adjusted bucket tappets. Intake valve timing is variable.
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.
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.
We noticed a difference in steering feel between the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models. The steering in our AWD test vehicle had a more rubbery feel, 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, according to Mazda.
On the other hand, an annoying downside of the FWD model is what is called 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. Torque steer is not a danger but it is a disappointment. It isn't a problem in the AWD model because some of the power is being sent to the rear, reducing the demand on the front tires.
The AWD model does send 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. The brake pedal felt slightly soft initially but overall feedback was reassuring, and it was easy to trim a little or a lot of speed.
The new Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) system watches both rear corners of the CX-9 when vehicle speed is 20 mph or greater. The system 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.
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 reported to NewCarTestDrive.com from New England, with John Katz in Pennsylvania.