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.
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.
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.
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