Mazda CX-9 Review
I’ve spent countless hours rolling down serpentine highways through the deserts and mountains of the West’s big sky country. Hundreds of times my knuckles have whitened, pupils dilated and pulse quickened as I got up my gumption to pass a velocity-challenged vehicle. In my younger years, this TED (Time Exposed to Danger) was delivered courtesy of a wheezing four-banger struggling to crank out double-digit horse power. This week I put Mazda’s modern incarnation of the family hauler, the CX-9 Grand Touring AWD, to the test. Yup, it’s déjà vu all over again.
“If the bland, cookie-cutter styling of other Crossover SUVs doesn’t suit your taste, feast your eyes on the Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring.” Contrary to Mazda’s marketing misegos, there’s a new cookie-cutter shape in town. Viewed in profile, only a learned pistonhead could distinguish the CX-9 from the host of other “sporty” CUVs; what with their pointy proboscises, apostrophe-shaped headlight clusters, steeply raked windshields, blackened B and C-pillars, oversized bling-bling wheels and fastback-styled sloping rear hatch. If the CX-9 didn’t have a dinner plate-sized boot badge, you'd easily mistake it for any number of transplanted cute-utes.
Of course, it IS a lot edgier than the Ford Edge, its sister-under-the-skin. And there’s a reason all CUVs look alike; the buyer has spoken.
Once ensconced, the CX-9 coddles today's blended families with three rows of comfortable, supportive seating. Second row legroom eclipses the Enclave’s, and the CX-9’s third row is both accessible and roomy enough for junior team members. As for larger folks, the rearmost leg and head room is, in MythBusters parlance, plausible. As a two-plus-three seater carting recidivist members of LPA (Light Packers Anonymous), skid-addling with 3500 lbs. of Ski-Doology, the CX-9’s a peach.
Aside from the too-far-forward door-mounted window switches, the CX-9’s controls are an ergonomic Zen garden. Normally, we’re amused– and not in a good way– by cowled gauges in anything other than an old Alfa or new Miata. But the CX-9’s designers carefully blended sports car cues with oversized, Volvo-esque minimalism, creating a handsome, tasteful atmos. Details have been sweated, from sensible buttonology to indirect blue lighting.
Mazda’s mavens left no stone unturned in the family pleasing techno-bauble department. But you gotta pay to play. The CX-9’s obligatory iPod-ready rear seat DVD system– complete with 11-speaker surround sound, videogame hook-ups and wireless headphones– will set you back $2560. And that’s not all. You’ve got to cough up another $2500 for the nav system and power hatch. Ouch.
For 2008, the CX-9 gets a 3.7-liter engine. The all-new six-cylinder mill puts out 273hp and stumps-up 270 ft.-lbs. of torque. In front wheel-drive configuration, Mazda’s full-sized CUV now jogs from zero to sixty in an entirely acceptable eight-ish seconds. While the sound blatting-out the CX-9’s twin pipes under hard acceleration is nowhere near as addictive as the Infiniti FX' moaning motor, the Mazda's mechanical mellifluousness is appropriately zoomy.
Yes, well, our tester's all wheel-drive system added heft (up to 4633 lbs.) and subtracted speed. I’d be surprised if a Colorado-compliant CX-9 made it from rest to sixty in less than ten seconds. Torque, schmorque; two-lane passing maneuvers still elicit sufficient butt puckering to press coal into diamonds. The CX-9’s intelligent six-speed transmission doesn’t help matters; it’s either a very slow learner or fundamentally dim-witted. But the steering does; it’s perfectly weighted and centers nicely.
According to the Mazda website, “the CX-9 delivers a driving experience like no other SUV.” Anyone who’s attempted to fling one of these lumbering behemoths down a country road knows the copywriters set the handling bar limbo low. Relatively speaking, the CX-9 is competent corner carver; the big rig stays flat. Lean and pitch motions are well controlled. But gravity (inertia?) sucks. A two-and-a-quarter ton trucklette that’s 16’8” long, 5’8” tall and 6’4” wide ain’t gonna rewrite the rules of physics (just ask Porsche).
On the positive side, ignore the advertising come-on, cool your jets and all’s well that ends well. The CX-9’s dynamics strike a satisfying compromise between perky and plush, delivering a well-refined driving experience. And accelerative challenged kiddie schleppers can cool their jets safe in the knowledge that Mazda’s deployed their safety knowledge throughout, including a full complement of Nannies, airbags aplenty and the government’s highest side and frontal impact ratings.
Although SUV refugees can get into a CX-9 for around $30k, the mpg “savings” involved are marginal (FWD EPA 16/22). And it’s easy enough to option-up to 40 large. For a Mazda? Considering the fact that sliding behind the wheel of a minivan emasculates the domesticated North American Homo sapiens male faster than a ranch hand de-testicularizing a calf, the CX-9 has got to be the pistonhead’s sprog hauler alternative of choice. As long as you’re willing to wait your turn on the turnpike, you’re good to go.
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