My youngest child, of three, turns eight next month. A few years ago, when it became clear that regularly working until 3 AM and then dealing with the children in the morning was not good for anyone’s sanity, we added an au pair. So there are six people in the house. Anyone with sense would have gotten a three-row something-or-other at least eight years ago. And probably when the first child was still in utero. Fool that I am, a decade on I’m still waiting for one to sweep me off my feet. I tend to have a thing for Mazdas. Mazda makes the three-row CX-9. So, why not the CX-9? In test drives back in 2007 and 2008, we didn’t quite hit it off. Perhaps we just needed more time together? Ever hopeful, I spent a week with the 2010.
Let’s face it: in automotive love, looks matter. Mazda had the right idea with the CX-9, giving it the lithe curves of a sporty car rather than the chunkiness of an SUV. But the execution doesn’t quite work, for two reasons. Wide black plastic wheel arch moldings, a stray SUV trope, make already overly large wheel openings (leaving room for something larger than the Grand Touring’s dubs?) appear even larger. Though this automotive equivalent of too much eyeliner likely provides much-needed rust protection, trimmer moldings would have achieved the same.
Second, taking a car-like front end with horizontally-oriented graphics and simply raising it a few inches visually accentuates the front overhang while giving the designers more lower fascia than they can handle. With the 2007-2009 CX-9 the designers essentially ignored the problem, leaving the vehicle with a weak chin. For the 2010 they butched it up, super-sizing and enchroming the smiley lower grille and foglamp surrounds. Then someone decided that the new lower grille was way too large, so they added a chrome strip (braces?) in a failed attempt to visually divide it. An improvement over the 2007-2009, but not enough of one.
Not that everyone agrees with my evaluation. The CX-9 certainly has its admirers. My family found it attractive, especially when clothed in “copper red mica.” Also, the CX-9’s curves and proportions successfully disguise its size (200 x 76 x 68 inches) and mass (4,550 lbs.). My wife has rejected SUVs as small as the Hyundai Tucson as “too big.” The CX-9 provoked no such objection. The styling might not be perfect, but it does successfully sell the CX-9 as the three-row vehicle for people who don’t really want one, but need one.
Inside the designers have been more successful, with a distinctively mod interior that’s both sharper and sportier than you’ll find in competitors. The downward sweeping “I can’t believe it’s not wood” trim that frames the center stack in the Grand Touring is mirrored in the door panels. Both this and the similarly mirrored horizontal bands of silver plastic trim (starting to look dated) work best in the black interior. The light gray interior in the tested car isn’t as striking, and would be harder to keep clean, but feels airier. In either interior the precisely tailored armrests lend a comfortable touch of class. The Mazda3-class switchgear: not so much. And what’s up with the manual height adjustment for the xenons? The previous tester (or perhaps the one before him?) left them in their lowest position, where in an unladen vehicle they essentially serve as really strong fog lights.
Between a steeply raked but not overly distant windshield and an unusually tall center console, the CX-9’s driving position is easily the most car-like among three-row people haulers. The downside: the CX-9’s cabin feels narrower and considerably less roomy than that of a Lambda, Flex, or large minivan. Both the second and third rows are mounted low to the floor and provide less legroom than you’ll find in the aforementioned competitors (if more than in the all-but-dead Hyundai Veracruz and Subaru Tribeca). Ditto the cargo area with the third row up; it wouldn’t have been enough for our road trip last summer.
Only putting kids in the back? Then no problem…except the only rear air vents are on the aft face of the center console. There are none in the rear walls or ceiling. Almost as bad: the controls for the rear HVAC are similarly located—only on/off can be performed from the driver’s seat. After tipping-and-sliding the second row to provide access to the third row, sometimes it returned to its previous position, other times it acquired amnesia. Back up front, various bits of the IP reflect in the windshield. Mazda offered the MPV for years before developing the CX-9, so why the rookie mistakes? One thing done right: large mirrors and an optional blind-spot warning system make for worry-free lane changes.
Rear seating is sometimes a place for love, but rarely an object of love. What I’ve been waiting for all these years, physics bedamned: a three-row vehicle that’s fun to drive. Ford didn’t lend its EcoBoost to the cause, yet the 273-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 (shared with the Lincoln MKS and MKT) would be gutsy enough if the Aisin six-speed automatic transmission were not so keen to lug it and so slow to respond to requests for more revs. Fuel economy is not a strength: 16.6 MPG in mildly aggressive driving, and 8.7 in full hoon mode. The much more powerful and heavier Ford Flex EcoBoost did a bit better. The 3.7 does at least sound better here than in Lincoln applications.
And the handling? The CX-9’s moderately firm but indecisive steering requires frequent small corrections. Feedback is minimal; the head learns that there’s plenty of grip in sweeping curves, never mind the body roll, but the fingertips and seat of the pants haven’t a clue. Typical of the class, tight curves are a recipe for understeer. It’s easier to form a close connection with a Lambda—and GM isn’t normally the master of such things.
A strength that’s part of the problem: the CX-9 often feels like it’s moving much more slowly than it actually is. The body roll seems excessive partly because the minimal sensation of speed encourages taking curves more aggressively than one would in a minivan. Not that the ride is always smooth and quiet. The Grand Touring’s 245/50R20 treads aren’t a good match for the not-quite-sporty suspension tuning, and can get thumpy, especially over expansion joints.
If I’ve been overly critical of the CX-9, it’s because I so much want to love it, and instead merely like it, and not nearly all of it. The styling and driving position lay the groundwork for a driving experience that’s more sport sedan than minivan. And, objectively, the CX-9 performs and handles better than anything else in its class. But the subjective experience, while laudably car-like, is otherwise lacking. The Mazda CX-9 drives better than most, perhaps even all, competitors, but not by a large enough margin to inspire devotion and earn forgiveness for its shortcomings.
Mazda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.