By on October 12, 2017

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I suffered a nearly fatal narcissistic injury to the journosaur gland when I arrived at the Oakland airport last Friday night, only to find out that my press-loaner 2018 Mazda CX-9 was the Grand Touring model instead of the Signature.

Why does this matter? Well, as any self-respecting Mazda fanboy knows, the Signature has a center console made from rosewood provided by Fujigen, the famous Japanese guitar maker behind Pat Metheny’s infamous Roland GR-808, the bulk of Fender Japan production across the Eighties, and several different models of Electra six-strings. I happen to be an avid collector of Japanese guitars, with over one hundred and five Electras, Westones, and Grecos in my basement. I’m also semi-obsessed with Metheny’s Roland GR-808 sound, to the point that I’ve assembled some remarkably expensive hardware in order to precisely duplicate the tone found on tracks like “Are You Going With Me?”.

In other words, if ever there was a crossover capable of capturing my heart, it would be the CX-9 Signature. Oh well. I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. In the meantime, let’s take a look at how Mazda’s newly-refreshed version of its still-youthful three-row CUV handles a brief trip to California’s central coast.


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Pricing for the CX-9 ranges from $32,130 for a FWD Sport all the way to $44,315 for the AWD Signature, with this AWD Grand Touring slotting in just beneath the top at $42,470 plus $595 for the Soul Red Crystal paint.

This particular finish is complicated enough to require some specialized equipment; when the new CX-5 was released in Malaysia last week the company noted they had to invest several million dollars in an upgrade to the paint shop just to offer Soul Red on locally-produced variants. Of course, the home-market plant that builds the CX-9 has been capable of doing Soul Red for a few years now. It’s the only color I’d personally consider for this car, mostly because it does a better-than-average job of showing off the slim but noticeable hiplines and fender creases that differentiate the big Mazda from the slab-sided and flame-surfaced competition.

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For 2018, Mazda has made considerable efforts to make the CX-9 more comfortable in its forty-grand competitive set. There’s increased sound insulation, a heated steering wheel, and a suite of sensor-based safety features including low-speed auto-braking and blind-spot sensing. There’s also G-Vectoring, which sounds like it should be the name of a rapper from Compton but in actuality does the following, according to Mazda: “GVC uses the engine in conjunction with steering and throttle inputs to minutely reduce engine torque, putting more weight on the front wheels and making the steering feel more linear and direct. As a result, the driver is able to gain more confidence and control behind the wheel.”

I think that means the engine will adjust turbo pressure and output torque to keep you from inadvertently pushing wide in a corner.

Speaking of turbo pressure… Remember the old Mazda CX-7? Remember how it made 244 hp from a turbo 2.3-liter four-cylinder? Remember how everybody said that was crazy and how only a V6 would make the grade in that segment? I actually have fond memories of the CX-7, because brother Bark had one for about half a decade during my first marriage. It was a good car — eager in the corners and clearly aimed at the enthusiastic driver, but let down a little bit by the unfortunate realities of pushing a big crossover with a tiny turbo four.

Well, it turns out that the CX-7 was that proverbial unevenly-distributed future, because now everybody expects a puffed-up four-banger to motivate two-ton vehicles. Mazda is no exception to this recent rubric. The 250-hp 2.5-liter turbocharged Skyactiv inline-four motivates the CX-9 in willing but not particularly eager fashion, G-Vectoring or no. I have no problem stating my preference for a V6 in this kind of car, such as the 3.7-liter Duratec that powered the old CX-9 in its final years. This new model feels most lively at light-to-middle throttle pressure, letting the torque push you along and delivering steady but unspectacular mileage figures in the very low twenties. Floor the gas pedal and you’re likely to be disappointed; like most of its compatriots from BMW to Benz to Chevrolet, this pressurized engine runs out of steam remarkably early in the rev range.

It’s a shame, really, because the CX-9 really does have a playful, buttoned-down approach to coastal-road antics. The steering is light and relatively communicative, while the brakes are easy to modulate and unaffected by repeated hard use. There’s a remarkable amount of intelligence in the six-speed automatic, which is good because there are no shift paddles on the wheel. It’s a good, honest chassis, ready and willing to cash whatever modest checks the powertrain is able to write.

The lower trim levels of the CX-9 represent solid, characterful alternatives to the Equinox/Terrain crowd for not too much more money, but the Grand Touring and Signature butt right up against the cheapest variants of the Lexus RX350.

So why pick the Mazda? Well, the equipment load is better, and there’s a third row available, but for me it’s probably a matter of interior design and execution. The CX-9 offers a sleek and starkly futuristic cockpit that equals or betters what Audi and Mercedes-Benz offer in the mid-crossover segment. You touch a lot of actual metal when you drive this car, and you operate a lot of expensive-feeling switches as well. The seats are brilliant in the first two rows and kinda-sorta livable all the way in the back. It’s a sporting, tasteful choice and it’s cheaper than the barest-bones Acura MDX.

At its heart, however, the CX-9 exists primarily as a place for Miata owners and Mazda 3 loyalists to go once they have to haul a few kids around. In that respect it’s similar to that swoopy second-generation Mazda 929 that graced these shores twenty-odd years ago. Like that car, the CX-9 is handsome and satisfying without being unreasonably pricey or excessively complicated. If you’ve ever owned one of the good Japanese guitars, like a Westone Spectrum FX, you know pretty much what the CX-9 is like, from the painstaking build quality to the slightly odd ways in which some of the secondary controls operate. It’s recommended for anybody who wants a Japanese-built three-row crossover with a little bit of style baked into the mix.

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[Images: © 2017 Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars]

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72 Comments on “2018 Mazda CX-9 Review – Japanese Rock Star, With All That Entails...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    What kind of fuel economy did you get, driving like Jack Baruth drives? ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      The fuel economy should be super as it is so light duty like the Ridgeline going off road, it over heats and can’t complete basic AWD obstacles.

      https://youtu.be/AhacSO7uMys

      • 0 avatar
        zamoti

        Well I just wasted an hour watching SUVs go up that loading dock ramp.

        I’m not sorry.

        • 0 avatar
          NormSV650

          Zanoti, it is interesting to see how each manufacturer defines AWD.

          Did you see TFL youtube where the Ridgeline poop out and overheated, where the three others kept soldering?

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            I won’t defend these weak AWD systems. It’s shameful that they resort to them instead of three proper differentials. But I can’t blame the manufacturers. Their market overwhelmingly prefers that the electronic nannies hinder any off-road and winter road performance anyway, just to be sure that any idiot can drive it in a straight line under any conditions without any car control knowledge. This is the cheapest way to fully serve the needs of their customers.

            Besides, it’s not like this systematic neutering of potential vehicular capability is limited to AWD vehicles. Very few 2WD vehicles include a limited slip differential either.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            At least Nissan has included a center lock on their FWD biased systems even on a pachyderm like the Pathfinder.

            I’m very happy to have a system that splits torque 50/50 by default and not a “FWD until $hit happens” system.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            Still, during winter road conditions I’d gladly drive one of these systems over FWD, for the acceleration alone.

            But given the extra cost, weight, complexity, and electronic limitation of car control, they don’t do much to interest me.

          • 0 avatar
            NormSV650

            Until it is wet out and you need to get out of a tight spot this is when an AWD system that sends more than 50% to the rears like Acura RDX fail.

            http://www.gminsidenews.com/articles/47218-2/

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      About 20.4 when all was said and done, running at 80mph down the 101 and doing a fair amount of poking around Monterey at low speed.

  • avatar

    My parents were looking for a CUV a couple months ago. They were looking for something better at getting into and hauling stuff then their 2014 Mazda6. They drove a Santa Fe, Explorer, Durango, Pathfinder, and a CX-9. I gather nothing really appealed to them about the Santa Fe and the Explorer. They liked the pathfinder but were turned off by the dealer. They were disappointed in the power and space in the CX-9 and the price for the options they wanted (moon roof leather etc). There favorite was actually the Durango but the price loaded up was a bit high and my mother wasn’t sure she wanted something that big. In the end it was none of the above and they got a CX-5 grand touring. Funny thing about a week after getting the Mazda they got a call from the Dodge dealer saying he was willing to deal down to their price level on a GT Durango with leather and sunroof but alas a bit to late.

    • 0 avatar
      ATLOffroad

      I had my 2014 CX-9 in for service at the dealership a few months ago. While there I looked at a 2017 Touring model, drove it, and spoke to a salesmen. They must not be selling well since the sticker price was 41k and after saying “Too much.” many times the salesmen came down to 30k out the door. I passed but was pretty amazed how low he went.

      • 0 avatar
        LeMansteve

        $41k? You need to start with the AWD Touring and add nearly every option and accessory to reach that MSRP.

        Either way, $30k for even a “base” Touring is pretty good.

  • avatar
    kefkafloyd

    “Well, as any self-respecting Mazda fanboy knows, the Signature has a center console made from rosewood provided by Fujigen, the famous Japanese guitar maker behind Pat Metheny’s infamous Roland GR-808, the bulk of Fender Japan production across the Eighties, and several different models of Electra six-strings.”

    Production is reserved for the Speedwagon foundation and members of the Joestar family, of course.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    Unless you really need a third row, the V6 RDX is the choice in the $40k SUV segment, mark my words.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      The RDX is long in the tooth. Even Michael Karesh doesn’t recommend it anymore. Supposedly a new 2.0T with match transmission is in the works.

      • 0 avatar
        S2k Chris

        Don’t care. It’s one of the few vehicles in the segment that offers a V6, which makes it a winner in my book.

      • 0 avatar
        cimarron typeR

        We looked into RDX , the MDX, CX9. Honestly , I’d rather have a Touring CRV over the RDX interior. I think the CX9 competes well with MDX , RX350.
        A work assoc was replacing his 160k mile old RX, and also cross shopped these, ultimately his wife (it was her daily ) liked the service at their Lexus dealer so that’s what they bought despite both not liking the way it looks. The Nissan dealer wasn’t willing to deal on a loaded Murano , which I found amusing.

        • 0 avatar
          NormSV650

          cimmaron, cars.com and Motorweek just did a multiple car comparison and the CR-V finished 2nd because they said the drivetrain was pokey. Any idea what they mean, CVT? The CX-5 finished 3rd.

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      RDX is a nice driving machine but in-cabin electronics are huge disappointment. and it really feels cheap inside.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I say QX50, but I agree with your sentiment.

  • avatar
    arach

    My wife insists no one over the age of 30 can drive a Mazda. Other than her perception that mazda is for little kids, the CX-9 is the perfect car for her. I finally convinced her to go with me to look at one

    Does the CX-9 pass the “You can be an adult and not feel like a child” test?

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      I am way over 30 and still find Mazda… almost, the only car I can buy these days. My wife is also thinks of Mazda very positively. Always wants to drive my ‘3.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      Nobody over the age of 30?

      The CX-9 is almost identical inside to my 6. In my opinion, it is one of the more clean and “mature” interior designs in the segment. Your wife needs to change her perception.

      • 0 avatar
        arach

        LeMansteve-

        That was precisely my question… is the CX-9 going to change her perception?

        She had a mazda 3 back when they had the altezza-style taillights…

        • 0 avatar
          LeMansteve

          IMO, the new modern Mazdas make the Mazdas of 2000-2010 look like toys. Design-wise, Mazda has done a lot of things right in recent years.

          If she sits in a new CX-9 (especially the Signature trim) and still thinks they are for 20-somethings, I don’t know what to tell you.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I had this exact car down to exterior and interior colors as a rental last month in San Jose, CA. “Sporting”?? ROFL Ponderous at best, like all of these things. Interior was nice, but I found it cramped. Outward visibility was atrocious. I liked the HUD a lot.

    For PrincipalDan I can report that even with my extra mild when in a strange place driving style, it got low-20s mpg over the course of the week. I’m sure the typical suburban Soccer Mom could achieve mid-teens. I agree with Jack that it has no enthusiasm for acceleration, but found it adequately powered.

    A lousy substitute for the minivan it’s owners actually need, but refuse to be seen in.

    • 0 avatar
      Chocolatedeath

      Ponderous….really? Ok…so what in this class would you consider sporty?

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        I think the original poster here has a 3-series wagon, which is obviously going to slay the CX-9 on a fast road. Compared to an Equinox or a Lexus RX? That’s a different story.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          You need to take Khrodes’ comments within the context of Euro-snobbery :p

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            @gtemmykh

            The Europeans don’t do this sort of thing any better. Because the whole genre is stupid. The only thing this does better than a minivan is make the spoiled princess driving it (poorly, while talking on the phone) to soccer practice feel slightly less like the mother of three that she actually is.

        • 0 avatar
          NormSV650

          That’s one thing I give the Japanese manufacturers is that they are always changing and updating things.

          CX-5 received some weifht for 2018 and is one full second off the 2018 Equinox and 2018 Terrain in Motor Trend’ figure eight times. The CX-9 has a similar time as does the D2xx twins. So Jack might have to drive the latest to get an update.

          The Lexus RX Fsport is actually faster than all of the cars already mentioned here, believe it or not!

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          The fastest most maneuverable pig is still a pig.

          The CX9 would be nice if they sliced about a foot out of the bottom half of it, making it 500lbs lighter, and made the windows 50% bigger. But then it would be a Mazda6 wagon with a decent greenhouse, and we can’t have that now can we?

          And yes, I am a bit spoiled having the infamous 328! wagon in Maine and a GTI Sport in FL. But I would say my old stickshift Disco I is more engaging to drive than this jr. pachyderm.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Absolutely nothing. Going down a size, the various smaller European CUVs are OK on a windy road, but you pay for it with a ride like a buckboard wagon. Nothing this tall can ride AND handle decently. TANSTAAFL.

  • avatar
    JimWalewander

    I clicked for rosewood console pics!

    Where are the rosewood console pics?!?!?!

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    >>”Floor the gas pedal and you’re likely to be disappointed; like most of its compatriots from BMW to Benz to Chevrolet, this pressurized engine runs out of steam remarkably early in the rev range.”

    That’s the same feeling I get with the second gen MINI N14/N18 turbocharged engines. A nice low-mid torque bump, but a sense of falling power once you spin the tach past 5k RPM.

    The first gen MINI R53 with the supercharger delivered more ‘n’ more power as you went to redline. It *feels faster and is a lot more fun to drive. Addicting! Very linear power delivery once you get out of the hole.

    *but really isn’t compared to the newer models

  • avatar
    TMA1

    No shift paddles, but it must have had some way to control the transmission, right? Like sliding the shifter over to the +/- position? I think that’s a better set up anyway, since most paddles can only be used when hands are at 9 and 3 (and I’m a 10 and 2 kind of guy).

  • avatar
    slavuta

    “…my press-loaner 2018 Mazda CX-9 was the Grand Touring model instead of the Signature”

    I would go straight for the base Sport. It has everything one needs.

  • avatar
    Driver8

    So if the CX3 is a lifted ‘2’, the CX5 is a lifted ‘3’, the CX9 must be a lifted ‘6’.

    ‘Meh’, says I, as one of the 9 people in North America that would have paid real money for a 6 Wagon (gas, not brown).

  • avatar
    zamoti

    I don’t see the point of the 3-row CUV no matter how nice it is. Once you fold that third row up, you have very little cargo room. If you leave it folded down all the time, what’s the point of buying a 3-row CUV? I mean, maybe there are some folks out there that have occasional 3rd row passengers, but when I had one, we used the 3rd row all the time. Most of the time, we had one seat up, one down and the poor kid in the back had to sit with the cargo next to him.
    They’re also pretty rotten for little kids since you can’t realistically put a little kid seat or a baby carrier back there because of the difficulty in getting to the third row. They have to be a self-buckler before you can use that 3rd row and even then, our kids at 4-5 had a hard time unlatching and sliding the seat forward to get into the 3rd row. Heck, I had to teach them to stand on the spokes of the wheel just to reach the door handles!
    We dumped ours after it got flaky and aside from a brief affair with an S55 AMG, we got a Navigator L and have not had any regrets. I don’t care much for minivans, but for young families CUVs are pretty worthless. Maybe the GMs are a little better since they have a 2nd row pass through, but that 3rd row is MIGHTY tight as a result.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      The 3rd row can be useful from time to time, but mostly I think it’s the perception of being able to get “more” for your money. 7 seats > 5 seats. Nice to have, and if you don’t need them they fold away. I cannot imagine dealing with car seats in the 3rd row.

      My retired parents have an MDX with the 3rd row. The 3rd row is useful for the occasional short trips around town. I think they stay folded for about 360 days out of the year.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      “I don’t see the point of the 3-row CUV”

      The point is for 2-kid families to have an occasional place to stash the car pool, but are going to fold the rear seats and carry cargo most days.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      “Once you fold that third row up, you have very little cargo room.”

      I’ve had my old MPV packed tighter than a sardine can before with 7 people plus beach/camping gear, that thing had a trifiling 11 cu ft behind the third row, but that is still a good amount of room, and can handle quite a few packed down backpacks, duffelbags, etc. My newly acquired ’03 Pilot trades some third row comfort (the MPV’s third row was pretty decent actually), for 16 cu ft of cargo room with the third row in place. That’s good midsize sedan cargo room. Not the huge space you get in a true van or an extended fullsize SUV, but it’s still very usable space that can fit a number of suit cases, bags, what-have-you.

      I agree that for folks that actually plan to consistently use the third row, a van is the way to go. But for having very good storage with the 3rd row folded (40-45 cu ft) and having the flexibility of carrying 7 or 8 in a pinch.

      So in terms of ultimate packed-to-the-gills utility, yeah the midsize three row CUV is miles behind vans and LWB fullsize SUVs. But in terms of everyday utility and how many people use their vehicles and family sizes, the three row CUV is a sweet spot for many people.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Most people drive most of the time alone. Even those who drive around in 3 row CUVs. For driving around alone, and stopping for groceries, the small luggage space is honestly preferable to the long, everything rolls everywhere expanses of the same cars with the rear seats down.

  • avatar
    legacygt

    Funny because I see the same thing in this review that I saw in an Edmunds Long Term Review about the same car earlier today. What I’m seeing is that automotive review rarity: a comparison made outside the class. Edmunds brought up the MDX and Q7 in it’s CX-9 review and Baruth brings up the MDX, Mercedes and BMW. These reviews are helpful although they probably annoy marketers and potentially confuse casual readers. Still, I like to see this kind of thing. If I get out of a Q7, exactly what would I miss if I get into a CX-9? What would be comparable? What would be better. This is good stuff.

    • 0 avatar
      silentsod

      This has been an intentional move on Mazda’s part. There have been a number of direct quotes about attempting to go upscale with Mazda and eat into the bottom end of the luxury segment.

      They pack almost as much tech, have very nice materials, and come in at 1/2-2/3 the cost of a BMW or Audi? A ploy that might work, except that Mazda barely registers on people’s radar in the first place.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      Mazda, like Subaru, do not have an upscale tier like Honda/Acura, Toyota/ Lexus, Nissan/Infiniti… so they tend to spread a larger buying area.

      But both of them are missing more power engines.

    • 0 avatar
      cimarron typeR

      one thing missing with cx9 when we looked at this segment, was power folding mirrors. For our garage, its a must to avoid self inflicted ding wounds.

  • avatar
    chiefmonkey

    Mazda is on a roll.

    One point of disagreement: I think the soul red is the worst color for any new Mazda, and don’t get the fuss over it…

  • avatar
    The Ryan

    The 2016 CX-9 is what got me into a Mazda dealership. I test drove the car and loved it, but it was too big and out of our price range. We ended up getting a 2016.5 CX-5 recently (lots of rebates and 0% financing sealed the deal).

    Funny enough, that same CX-9 I test drove is still on the dealer’s lot. They’re trying to sell it for $1k off MSRP and seem allergic to negotiating.

  • avatar
    John

    Another Fujigen fan here. Have a Fujigen Fender ’52 Reissue Telecaster, and an extremely rare Naoko Yamano Signature Model.

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    First one to mention rust on Mazdas!

    This is a nice car on my very short time sitting in one. My sister has a first gen GMC Acadia, and despite the CX-9 being much “nicer” to be in, from a usefulness standpoint, the GMC kills the CX-9. Simply more space, more cargo space, etc.

    No idea about the 2nd gen Acadia. Seems GMC (for some reason) went smaller.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    If you didn’t need the 3rd row, would you get this or the RX for a long term ownership?

  • avatar
    Justin Kerr

    Jack,

    You’re making me really miss the Tokai ’57 P-Bass knockoff I purchased for $150 in an old declining guitar shop in a seedy part of town. At least I was able to flip it for more than double that when I was young and always needed money to fund other projects. A P-bass is missing from my stable in a time where I shouldn’t be expanding. I’ve still got giant amps I need to get rid of…

    That being said, I’ve always had an eye on the CX-9 and my wife loves her 2016 CX-5 GT. If my Subaru needs one more major repair (torque converter, exhaust manifold so far in 80k miles), the CX-9 is on my short list.

  • avatar
    Weskyvet

    Ok… soooo why not just build a freaking station wagon again??? seriously just build a freaking wagon. 3 rows and cargo room from an extended SUV, ground clearance of a mini van, and interior more akin to a sedan. You can still put AWD on one and all those fancy doo dads but still see out of it and get decent mileage plus it’s not a mini van!


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