Mazda CX-9 is a midsize crossover utility vehicle with big cargo capacity and the ride and handling of a large sedan. It’s a swift and stylish alternative to a minivan.
The Mazda CX-9 is a great people hauler. It can carry seven adult passengers, thanks to a third-row seat designed with adults in mind. It’s easy for an older driver to get 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 though not luxurious.
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 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 inputs, feeling surprisingly enthusiastic about travel on a serpentine two-lane road. A 3.7-liter V6 engine delivering 273 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque provides plenty of power. 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 well with a six-speed, Japanese-made automatic transmission that can be shifted manually if the driver is interested in some frisky motoring.
First introduced for the 2007 model year, the CX-9 is aging. It has received updates through the years, but has not benefitted from a complete redesign. While it received the U.S. government’s highest possible ratings (five stars) in frontal and side impact crashes upon its release, the front crash standard has become stricter and today the CX-9 gets only three stars in that test.
Changes for 2015 are minimal. The only change of note is the addition of a Recreational Accessory package that adds roof rails with cross bars, a cargo net, and a stainless steel rear bumper guard.
The Mazda CX-9 shares its basic structure with the five-passenger Ford Edge, although the Mazda is longer, by two inches of wheelbase and 14 inches overall. In fact, at just over 200 inches long, the CX-9 is the largest Mazda ever. 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 version of the five-point grille that is used on most of today’s Mazdas. It’s clean and simple, and far better looking than earlier versions of the CX-9’s nose. 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.) It works because the CX-9 gets a five-star rating in the government’s side impact safety test.
The CX-9’s cabin is attractive but not entirely upscale. The armrests are nicely padded, but the dashboard and door panels are mostly plastic with only a few soft-touch surfaces.
The basic controls are simple and easy to use. The infotainment system, however, isn’t up to today’s standards. It features a small 5.8-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, a TomTom navigation system with real-time traffic information, and, when connected to a smartphone, text-to-speech delivery of text messages and Pandora internet radio. The text-to-speech and Pandora capability are nice features, but most of today’s infotainment systems offer far more features with larger central screens.
Storage includes a relatively small center bin 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 truck-type 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. Once inside, 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 rear. 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 both sides move fore and aft up to 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 about the size of a trunk of a midsize sedan, and to use it all would require piling luggage up to the roof, blocking the rearward view. 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 48.3 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, 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, for one of our testers) will quickly learn is that the open tailgate 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 build sporty vehicles. 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. EPA fuel economy ratings are 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway with FWD, and 16/22 with AWD. Those numbers are much better than any truck-type SUV but only average for a crossover.
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 and reacts 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 sedan, 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 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 computer doing a good job of blending the upshifts and downshifts to avoid any jerks or stumbles.
There is a slight difference in steering feel between the front- 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 for FWD and AWD models.
One downside of front drive 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 AWD models because some of the power is being sent to the rear, reducing the demand on the front tires.
AWD models 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.
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 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. However, its aging design means it doesn’t perform well in the latest safety tests and the infotainment system is behind the times. The CX-9 is worth a look, but you might want to opt for a one of its newer competitors, like the Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Traverse, or Toyota Highlander.
Christopher Jensen filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from his home base in New England. Correspondent Kirk Bell contributed from Chicago.