The Mazda CX-9 is a swift and stylish alternative to a mid-size SUV or a minivan. It's called a crossover vehicle, meaning it combines the cargo capacity of an SUV with the fuel economy, ride quality, and handling of a car.
The CX-9 can carry seven six-footers, thanks to a third-row seat designed with adults in mind. The surroundings are handsome. We found it's easy for a 5-foot, 6-inch woman to climb into the CX-9. Yet the seating position is high enough that the driver looks over at, not up to, drivers in big 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. 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.
Safety has not been forgotten, either; in fact, kudos to Mazda for equipping even the least-expensive CX-9 model with electronic stability control (which help the driver maintain control on slippery surfaces), 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.
The Mazda CX-9 was introduced as a 2007 model. For 2009, the Blind Spot Monitoring system, which alerts the driver to vehicles lurking in those hard-to-see, over-the-shoulder locations, comes standard on CX-9 Grand Touring models. All 2009 models come with a trip computer and Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free cell phone operation.
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.
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.
It's worth noting 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 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 almost 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 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.)
One finds a series of surprises upon first entering the Mazda CX-9. The first is that it is so easy to climb into the front seats. The second is that one sits as high as in most SUVs, enjoying a good look down the road. The third is the 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 in carrying people and cargo of different sizes. The comments above regarding legroom apply with the seat set halfway through its range.
Then, without moving the second-row seat, we climbed into the third row and found adequate head and legroom there, too. 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.
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 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 17.2 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, 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 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 place within the Ford Motor Company family is to provide the sporty vehicles, those with the 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 Touring models we drove, one with front-wheel drive and the other with 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 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.
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 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. (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.
The Mazda CX-9 is an impressively well-rounded package offering practicality, good standard safety equipment, and style. It's enjoyable to drive, offering sporting road manners, though with a stiffer ride.
Christopher Jensen filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from his home base in New England.