Review: You Can Like The Mazda CX-9 Even If You Don’t Have Kids

Driving thrills and practical boxes don’t typically go hand-in-hand, so it’s OK to approach the new Mazda CX-9 with a degree of skepticism.

The maker of the MX-5 Miata sports car and the company that, before telling us that “Driving Matters”, gave us that “Zoom-Zoom” kid would probably not build a large three-row SUV were it not trying to steal eyes away from more mainstream rivals. Ford, Honda, Toyota and others don’t have quite the same reputation to uphold.

The Mazda CX-9 may be the least familial three-row SUV I’ve driven this year. That’s good news for Mazda’s integrity, but it isn’t bad news for those who actually are in the market for a nice and big SUV.

Curved corners

Mazda doesn’t do boxes anymore, and that could be a problem when designing a big SUV intended to carry seven people. Yet the CX-9 pulls off being a rather elegant large car.

The exterior design cues are largely reminiscent of what’s been on all Mazdas since the first-generation CX-5 compact SUV bowed in 2012, although they’re inflated to 125 percent on the CX-9. Greater attention to detail on the top Signature model brings nicer finishes for the grille and wheels than on other recent Mazdas, which is also welcome.

But importantly, the CX-9 is pretty successful at not looking like every other big SUV on the market, which is a trick many three-row crossovers fail to do.

People versus things

The thinking that makes the exterior as seductive as possible, however, doesn’t make for the most practical interior in what’s a very practical class.

Headroom, especially in the third row, is more compromised in competitors. You get seven seats only, not six or eight. But I don’t know exactly who these seven humans are. While the second-row 60-40 split bench is wide and acceptable for three adults across, no one who’s unfamiliar with the entire current Disney Channel lineup will want to spend much time in the rearmost quarters.

Not only is the headroom tight, but so is the access point when you slide the second-row seat forward. Other crossovers make it easier to get back there.

Things are noticeably more Mazda and comfortable up in the driver’s seat. The CX-9 has a relatively low dash but a reasonably high seating position, so all of the controls nicely surround you. The driving position isn’t as good for sprawling out and getting comfortable, but rather it has a cosseting feel that one might expect from a sports sedan, rather than a big SUV.

The attempts to class up the materials, a major talking point from Mazda since this generation CX-9 was first shown, is only partly successful. The feel is similar to that of the current 6 and CX-5, but there are nicer new details, such as a full color screen in one of the instrument panel gauges and more generous helpings of silver trim and quality leather. But the infotainment system still operates in a recalcitrant way and its graphics look more dated than ever. The hyped rosewood trim on the center console doesn’t look that authentic and it fails to brighten the interior much.

More frustrating is a lack of storage options. The center console opens to reveal a somewhat shallow bin that won’t fit much other than keys, and you end up using the cupholders for phones and things that aren’t cups. Parents who travel with a lot of stuff will find that folding at least half of the third-row seat down is a must for most large bags.

None of this will matter, however, when it’s just the driver sitting up front and conforming to the CX-9. It’s from this perch where the Mazda stands out among its peers.

Youth and energy

From the first turn, it’s clear the CX-9 wants you to think it’s just a sports sedan that happens to be enormous. And for the most part, it does a convincing job.

Mazda’s cars of late have done a great job of feeling light and athletic and able to put a smile on the face of a driver in unexpected situations. That sounds like an impossible feat in a vehicle of the CX-9’s size. Yet, somehow, it happens.

A lot of it has to do with the way the controls work. In pretty much every one of the CX-9’s mainstream rivals, the pedals and wheel feel as though they were given a shot of novocaine and all of the responses are extremely dull. The Mazda isn’t nearly as affected by this, driving a lot like a large sedan. There’s actual steering feel, too, which is a surprise in any SUV apart from the most sporting of them.

The downside to Mazda’s cars, however, has traditionally been noise. Losing weight often means losing insulation to keep the engine and road sounds out of the cabin. More effort was made in the CX-9 than in the company’s more recent models, but it isn’t exactly luxury car quiet. Some of the problem stems from this top Signature model’s 20-inch wheels – which look attractive but amplify road imperfections. At least the ride good, although it will come off as firm to those who are used to the traditional float felt in a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander.

But the most controversial aspect about the CX-9 is the engine and whether the 2.5-liter turbocharged four is up to the job of motivating a nearly 4,500-pound SUV. And it mostly is. Power comes on without much (if any) noticeable lag and there’s torque everywhere, which is what you want for passing. There’s a faint whistle too, which is fun.

But there were some passing maneuvers at highway speeds where the CX-9 felt flat-footed. While the six-speed automatic was smooth-shifting enough, an extra gear or two might help tap into the turbo a little more. The CX-9 feels about as powerful as the last Nissan Pathfinder or Kia Sorento I drove, but it’s not exactly energetic. And that was without a carload of passengers or cargo.

Fuel economy was nothing to brag about, either, with a 23 mpg average in mixed driving – and barely cracking 19 in city driving. The Pilot’s V6 has 30 more horsepower and, while using a lumpy nine-speed automatic, got slightly better mileage.

But then the Pilot feels every bit its size in the corners and the Pathfinder has the overall aura of a Wal-Mart. The CX-9 makes sure the driver still has a pulse.

Men, women and children

In short, the CX-9 drives smaller than it is, has a somewhat eccentric powertrain that may not be perfectly suited to the car, but stands out from a pack of look-alikes.

At $44,915, the CX-9 sounds like a lot of car for the money, and it certainly is. However, skipping the Signature trim for a Grand Touring model saves some money and gives up little in terms of features, and makes the Mazda a bit of a bargain in the class.

But those looking for the last word in practicality will be let down, perhaps even frustrated, by the CX-9’s lack of interior cleverness. In exchange, it offers something many rivals don’t – the ability to briefly forget you’re piloting a people mover.

Therefore, the CX-9 offers a little something for the whole family, or for those who want a big SUV but may not have a large family or a family at all. It’s a nice, large SUV for everyone, not just for those consumed by parental duties.

Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops

Photo Gallery

  • Althea Later

    I have seen less than a dozen of these on the road since they came out. I think people shopping this segment want room room before zoom zoom.

  • Matthijs

    It’s not the most spacious or practical in its class but it just looks so damn good. That interior is just amazing. Let’s hope the next generation Mazda3 and Mazda6 look a bit like that. Although we mostly see the top range version

    • MrSomeoneElse

      The interior on every new Mazda is on a par with entry level luxury vehicles. I’ve driven some 2016s myself and I’ve been impressed with them. Huge power? No, but then again who buys a family vehicle and wants to lay rubber at every stoplight they come up to? Apparently the author.

      • Bash

        and me..

  • Six Thousand Times

    Good to know. I still dislike all cars of this ilk.

  • BlackPegasus

    $45K for a big SUV with a 4 cylinder engine? Um no thanks.

    • pcurve

      Yeah it’s an odd choice. Also, cx-7 had blown turbo issues. I don’t think those customers would buy another mazda suv with turbo charger.

    • Althea Later

      And power seats with not as much adjustments as they should have at this price. If you read enough reviews, you’ll see complaints about not being able to tilt the driver’s seat cushion or raise the height of the passenger seat. Totally unacceptable for anything near this price range.

  • SteersUright

    Went with a friend to go see the new Miata and the CX9 was in the showroom. Was floored with how beautiful the interior is. Outdoes everything in its own class and challenges many premium brands. However, the author is spot on with the infotainment system being both too small for 2017 and too low res. Cutting edge is expected from all-new vehicles. Also, the third row is too tight for this class and Mazda should’ve invested more in clever way to find more room back there. Lastly, road noise is not unique to Mazda but it is a serious problem in most Mazdas. My buddy says its becoming a deal breaker on his CX5, as is the sluggish acceleration for him. Otherwise he loves the CX5 but says he wont get another if those two things aren’t fixed. But I’ve found road noise to be a major issue on nearly all Hondas, BMW’s, and many others so can’t just call out Mazda alone here. Anyhow, the CX9 seems to suffer from the same which is unacceptable for an all-new crossover in a popular segment that desperately needs to steal some market share. Shame, because it surely is the most beautiful inside and out and as an enthusiast and fan of Mazda since the last great RX-7, I want to see this little Japanese company thrive.

    • Tekz

      Infotainment resolution may not be hi-res as other brands’ but functionality and intuitiveness still matters more…as for road noise it’s actually one of the quietest in its class now that Mazda has added 50plus lbs of sound deadening mat’ls despite the 20inch rims. Stealing market share? Yes this model has impressed us so we traded in our Volvo SUV for a 2017 CX9 in Signature trim…the ride, comfort and driving dynamics was better than our previous SUV! We weren’t looking much for practicality but more on the drive, features, amenities and luxurious feel of the vehicle. If practicality was our priority then the Pilot or Highlander would be our choice. Mazda therefore targets a slightly diff demographic vs its competitors.

  • An Existing Person

    Even though it may not be the most practical in its class, it has an exterior and interior that tops anything in its segment, amd even challenges offerings from premium brands.

    • MrSomeoneElse

      The fact is, most big SUV drivers never have them filled to capacity, so it’s a moot point in all practicality.

  • MrSomeoneElse

    Quality of the author’s opinion is questionable when he says it’s bad on space because it doesn’t have 6 or 8 seats. Seriously?

    • It’s not as good at utilizing space as some rivals. It has seven seats, but I’ve had a better time in the third row of a Pilot or Durango than this. Any other questions?

      • MrSomeoneElse

        Then that should have been explained in the article. Listing 7 seats as a negative simply by virtue of the fact it doesn’t have 6 or 8 is a combination of bad editing and lazy writing.

  • Bo Hanan

    This SUV has a “sharknose.” If Mazda can do it then why can’t BMW?

  • Auf Wiedersehen

    The new Edsel.